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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 10, February 23, 2013

Will the Land Acquisition Bill lead to More Violent Conflicts?

Tuesday 26 February 2013, by Ambrose Pinto

There have been violent conflicts on land acquisition across the country especially when the land of the poor has been taken away without proper compensation by the state for public and private ventures. In all stories of acquisition it is the land mafia that has come to play a crucial role in pauperising the ordinary villagers and farmers and evicting them from their land with meagre compensation. In the major cities of India there are “estate agents” with gangs who threaten and intimidate small landowners to sell their lands for paltry sums and making large profits out of them by selling them to transnational and multinational corporations. Even when the state needs lands, it is this group of people in the cities that buy land for a cheap price from individuals and sell it to the state at an exorbitant rate. Stories of murder of rival agents, gangs and community leaders who resist the sale of their land are more and more heard and recorded in the daily newspapers.

One may have to examine India’s land acquisition bill in this context of the violence that is already at play in cities, villages and towns. The very purpose of the present Land Acquisition Bill is to speed up growth in keeping with the neo-liberal economic policies the government has aggressively decided to go ahead with. These policies have hardly any democratic content and they are violently implemented by state action. What do we mean by state action? A state action is an action by the government in power against the will of the people. To implement that action the state has to take the help of the police, armed forces and the state machinery. Much of the acquisition of land today is by force without the consent of the people. In fact, in many of the acquisition people have been killed, threatened and intimidated. That is why the Bill that has to be passed in the coming Parliament session on land acquisition has raised a number of fears.

The Bill says to acquire land the developers have to get the consent of 80 per cent of the people. What would then be the fate of the 20 per cent if they decide not to part with the land? In a authentic democracy every person matters. That is why Dr Ambedkar had said “one person, one value and one vote”. Because 80 per cent agree to give up their land, that 20 per cent can be compelled to hand over theirs is highly dictatorial. Even if one person has to resist, in a democracy the government will have to respect the right of that individual to retain his/her land. The problem of majority and minority should have no relevance. Democracy is not mobocracy. It is not at all about numbers. Democracy is all about respect for individual liberties and freedom. To ask 20 per cent of the ordinary people to sacrifice their livelihoods for the greed of 80 per cent of corporations, industrialists and zamindars is unjust and unfair.

It is sad to note that a third of the Indian population at present is impacted by land and forest takeovers and every State in India is embroiled in land rights disputes. These disputes play out in courts and on the streets, in the form of hunger strikes, mass demonstrations and violent uprisings. There are killings, murders, fights and quarrels on land never witnessed before. Though the Government of India estimates that 10,000 armed fighters and 40,000 supporters are involved in violent struggles in rural India over land rights, the numbers are likely to be at least three times that estimate.

Government Responsible for Violence

A recent research has blamed the Government of India for being responsible for a growing spate of violent clashes in the forest and tribal areas of the country. The government is no less responsible for land conflicts in other places as well. The country is witnessing a massive transfer of resources from the rural poor to investors leading to resistance and conflicts.

According to the “Rights and Resource Initiative”, a US based organisation, and the “Promotion of Wasteland Development”, an NGO, India can expect rising civil unrest in response to major projects planned for the next 15 years. Most of these projects are transnational and multinational. The country requires over 11 million hectares of land affecting the livelihoods of thousands of people. About 130 districts out of a total of 610 districts are already facing land conflicts since 2011 over the loss of ‘common land’ to various development projects. Brazen takeovers of community-owned lands have become a burning issue.

Not that land conflicts are limited to forest areas or confined to mining and infrastructure projects. Land is acquired for multiple kinds of projects. The common lands have become the prime target. People are displaced. Politicians have started in a big way to grab land. They do not mind ousting the poor from the land to satisfy their greed to help out foreign capital. With no place to go they become refugees in their own country and a section easily moves into extremist groups to fight the state. Instead of helping the poor of the land, to acquire land for their life and survival what the government is doing is helping the rich to become richer and throwing the poor to fend for themselves. This policy is sure to create more conflicts and violence.

Common Land

The study predicts that agri-business like jatropha, soya and palm, and renewable energy projects like wind power, besides mega projects and infrastructure, are likely to fuel massive conflicts over the acquisition of common land. Grazing lands, water bodies, forests and villages come under common resources that the communities share. The report estimates that in the next 15 to 20 years, agri-business will require over 64 lakh hectares; infrastructure projects will require over 70 lakh hectares and mining or extraction activities will require over 23 lakh hectares of land. Most of this land constitutes ‘common land’. Ignoring the rights of the community over land may lead to very serious conflicts. The government data shows that common lands are declining at a rate of about two per cent a year.

There are three different ways the government adopts to acquire common and forest lands against all norms. The first mechanism is simply criminal breach of law, as observed in Bellary. The second involves using forest laws to expropriate common lands. The third mechanism is misuse of revenue laws under which State governments have general power to control classification of land that permits them to get around provisions either through loopholes or by ignoring them. There is no large project in the country today that has not involved some takeover of common lands. The other consequences of land acquisition that go beyond obvious impacts of clearing forests are pollution, damage to water table, additional resources taken from the surrounding areas, changes in the ecosystem and loss of livelihoods because of destroyed lands.

Directive from the PMO

According to reliable sources, the PMO has now asked the Environment and Tribal Affairs Ministry to severely dilute the need for consent from tribals under the Forest Rights Act for diverting forests to projects. The decision effecti-vely rolls back the UPA’s flagship programme for tribals—the Forest Rights Act—and also runs contrary to the position taken by the government before the Supreme Court recently in the high-profile Vedanta case. In the case, the government had said tribal forests cannot be diverted for projects at all. At the moment, forest areas cannot be handed over to industry without the rights of tribals being settled in the impacted area and an explicit consent being secured from the affected gram sabha (village councils) after that. Though this requirement has not been followed strictly, the industry as well as infrastructure Ministries have been up in arms against it, repeatedly asking for doing away with the regulations.

Now, the PMO has asked the Environment Ministry, which gives forest clearances, and the Tribal Affairs Ministry, the nodal point for the FRA, to dilute the regulations. It has said that in cases where public consultations have occurred for other clearances, the consent of tribals should be done away with. This would make the affected tribals’ consent irrelevant in most cases because public hearings are mandatory for almost all projects that undergo environment clearances. But the government does not review tribal rights under the FRA while assessing cases for environment clear-ances. In the case of linear projects, the PMO has said just a certificate from the State Government stating that processes under the FRA have been completed would be adequate. This runs contrary to the position the UPA had taken in the Vedanta mining case in Odisha, a case that it is now being contested in the Supreme Court. The PMO has said that in cases where there is significant impact on lives and livelihoods—the phrase left undefined—the gram sabha should be required to recommend the project. This again would remain contingent on whether public hearings have been held for environmental clearance or not. In any other case, the PMO has asked the ministries to do away with the need for consent of the impacted tribals.

The PMO had given a December 31 deadline to the Ministries to enact the changes. The Ministries are yet to respond to the call. Sources said the Forest Rights Act was the UPA’s flagship scheme in its first tenure with Congress scion Rahul Gandhi even riding on it to create a pro-tribal image when Vedanta’s bauxite mining project was cancelled. In the Vedanta case particularly, the Environment Ministry had noted violations of the FRA and rights of tribals besides other violations to stop the project. It had refused to accept mere assurances from the Odisha Government that the FRA had been followed in the impacted area. But the PMO has now asked that the Central Government do a turnaround and ask the State governments to provide assurances in some cases but to do away with even that in many.

We have Legislation

India has legislation and laws designed to protect the forest dwelling and tribal people from illegal takeovers. Two key examples are the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act of 2006, which is designed to protect forest dwelling and tribal people from illegal takeovers, but is being routinely violated; and the 1996 Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (the PESA Act), which gives village councils, known as gram sabhas, powers to manage and protect their lands. State laws that provide for community and collective rights and manage-ment powers are also ignored and violated across the country. Right now, one part of the government or another is in violation of the provisions of these Acts. And it is unfortunate there are no penalties on the state for violating legislation already on the statute books.

The only option people have is to resist. There once were the brave Dongria Kondh tribals living in the Niyamgiri hills of Odisha, who took on and ousted a powerful corporate giant, Vedanta. Then came the unassuming Yanadi tribals in Nellore district of Andhra Pradesh who found the courage to wrest land that was rightfully theirs from the dominant land mafia. But success stories of tribals and forest dwellers getting what they rightfully deserve are few to come by. In the situation, the country may have to recognise and record rights, penalise the violators of rights, and finally ensure democratic control over decision-making on land takeover if we desire to remain a democracy without violence. The country may require a system of “collective forest tenure reform under village democracy”.

China’s economic progress is fundamentally based on agrarian reforms of the late 1970s and forest tenure reforms in the early 21st century—both of them recognising the rights of the people over their resources. It was a step towards completion of rural land reform. The reform increased the forestation area by eight per cent in the country. Can the country move into that direction instead of an Act to further the policies of neo-liberalism?

Conclusion

This exposes the true face of ‘democracy’ which listens to the moneybags, throwing crumbs before the people and expecting them to be fooled. A recent study done by RRI-SPWD shows that this crass and barbaric policy of ignoring people’s ‘informed’ opinion does not make economic sense at all.

The argument given by Vedanta, POSCO etc. is that now that we have invested the money, it will go down the drain; so speed up the permissions to us. Who asked them to invest in the first place? Everyone knows that money has changed hands in order to push these brazen anti-people acts down the throats of the hapless tribals. The advice given to the Prime Minister is like that given to King Canute. You are the lord and master of the universe, you can command the sea to go back!! The RRI-SPWD shows that in 2011-2012 alone, there have been conflicts in 130 districts of the country as a result of ‘land grab’. With a conservative estimate made by the study that 11.5 million hectares of land being aquired over the next 15 years (excluding the damage that will be done to the neighbouring land), such conflicts can only increase.

The basis for this increase is that this economic development does not bring with it employment. Why then the Food Security Act? The employment generated should have created the wherwithal to buy food as the Indian population moves into the industraial age. Another study shows that even if we assume that people are absorbed in industry (which is not the case), it will take over 230 years to complete the task. An article by S.P. Shukla on this matter shows that over 17 million hectares of agricultural land have been usurped since the new economic policies were launched and brought in place.

Dr Ambrose Pinto S.J. is with the St. Joseph’s College Institutions, Bangalore.

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