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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 40, September 19, 2009

On Opposition to the Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill

Monday 21 September 2009, by Vasudha Dhagamwar

Rejoinder

D. Bandyopadhyay has written a short but hard-hitting piece entitled ‘Why We Must Oppose the Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill of 2009’. (Mainstream, August 14, 2009) First of all the Bill is still dated 2007. But that is a small matter, of interest only to those who might try to locate it in 2009 and might not find it. What is of interest is Mr Bandyopadhyay’s reasons for opposing the Bill. His main reasons seem to be with regard to the provisions to ‘Company’.

A) The amendment says that a Company can purchase land for any general public use. Mr Bandyopadhyay interprets this phrase to mean that public use will not be opposed to public purpose. The state alone may acquire land and may acquire it only for public purpose. At the same time, if we wish to encourage private sector rather than burden the government with running the entire economy, then the purpose for which the company may purchase land with government support has to be specified. That is the general public use. Mr Bandyopadhyay gives no examples or instances in which public use will be inimical to public purpose. I am prepared to rethink my view if he gives me instances to support his interpretation.

B) The amendment says that a company may purchase or negotiate to purchase 70 per cent of the land it requires and government will then acquire the remainder 30 per cent. He has interpreted this provision to mean and I quote:

...the corporate sector has been given a free hand in acquiring whatever land they like, a part of which will be through negotiations but the more difficult part will be through state intervention.

I then read the relevant provisions.

Section 5 (f) v)of the Bill says that the expression public purpose includes

The provision of land for.. purpose useful to the general public, for which land has been purchased by a person under lawful contract to the extent of seventy per cent but the remaining thirty per cent of the total area of land required for the project as yet to be required.

The last ‘required’ means ‘obtained’. So the purpose has to be useful to general public; the person which includes company must be under lawful contract This would exclude unfair means being used by the purchaser. The company must have purchased 70 per cent land on the market. Then and only then the government can acquire the remaining 30 per cent

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Mr Bandyopadhyay seems to think that this provision will ‘stampede’ the government into acquiring the remaining 30 per cent and most difficult land. More difficult certainly, because the farmers have refused to sell. But where does the law says that the government must acquire? And will any government be stampeded into doing anything? What it should do is to protect farmers from being forced by musclemen to sell at low prices. They should be free to enter into lawful contracts, that is, contracts made of their own free will, without force or fraud. But we know that governments and political parties themselves hire musclemen! From Narmada onwards till today we have seen the lower bureaucracy throwing their weight around and threatening poor villagers to leave. Buying land is an open, time-consuming process, not a secret one. No company can suddenly declare that it has bought 70 per cent land and can we have the remaining 30 per cent immediately. Please bear in mind that under the amended Act of 1984 the government could acquire the entire land required by a company for it. This facility has been restricted by the Bill.

I rather think that Mr Bandyopadhyay is mistaken when he says that all other inclusive clauses of public purpose have been deleted by the amendment to public purpose. First of all, the definition is still inclusive. Secondly, I think it has been streamlined. Town or rural development is surely part of infrastructure. So is the provision of residential land for the poor, the landless, those affected by natural or man-made calamities. It can certainly be argued that way. However, I am willing to be corrected. If he is right, most certainly a fight should be put up publicly. At some point one hopes the Joint Parliamentary Committee will seek public opinion. This point can be put to them.

Mr Bandyopadhyay wants the Act to provide livelihood to the landless. With due respect, this is a disastrous suggestion. Because when we tied R and R to land acquisition, only the better-off farmers have been benefited. The census, and later Mr Nilkeni’s identity cards should be used to prove the existence of a person in a particular area, and his or her occupation. Whatever we might say, our thinking still remains rooted in land ownership. This is just as true of activists. Just as we pay lip-service to gender we make a few references to the landless and the CPR. Separate R and R from tenancy or ownership, I beg you; otherwise we will not move forward.

Scheduled tribes are a hard case. What Mr Bandyopadhyay wants is a provision to say that tribal rights to lands and forests shall not be touched. Given that these very lands contain minerals, it is difficult to see how it can be done in its entirety. However, at a meeting with Coal India some of us had suggested that the mine-heads, as far as possible, should be far from tribal lands, the tunnels should be shored up and when the ore or coal had been removed they should be sandbagged. In case of open mines, when they are exhausted, they should be filled with pulverised over burden, and the land should be returned to the inhabitants. Many of these ideas are not an excess of imagination. They are practised elsewhere in the world. Essentially what we need is non-hydel, non-thermal power. But we do not want nuclear energy. We also need alternatives to metal and wood products. That is not done in a day. I am not sure we are even looking in that direction. So what is to be done? These are wider far reaching issues. His suggestion that the Land Acquisition Act should contain provisions to ameliorate the situation in Naxal areas leaves me wondering. Why not also include a ban on child marriage, as child brides get no share in their father’s land? We need a separate policy, separate legislation, not a compendium!

Mr Bandyopadhyay hits the nail on the head when he says that unused land must be returned to its owners. This must also apply to the government and PSUs. But his examples are slightly misplaced. The Tatas were forced to abandon Singur and are now willing to give up their claim if they are reimbursed. But why was the protest movement delayed till they worked on the land, pouring cement and concrete on it? The land has become untillable by now. And the farmers who gave willingly are ruined as well. When the protest is made in the initial stages, it is possible that the land can be returned in the early stages of the project. This will cause least damage to all parties.

Mr Bandyopadhyay is again right when he points out that the minimising acquisition finds no place in the Bill, and he is not happy with the scrutiny committee’s powers to take a view. If he, a distinguished civil servant, cannot have trust in the government, what can one say? But minimisation is an administrative act and however we do it, discretion will be exercised by the powers that be. The idea of applying land ceiling to industry has to be worked out. Should land ceiling apply to industry? Not many companies can produce on 30 acres of land. What we can insist upon is certain rules. No acquisition for colonies. Make your own arrangements with local people, improve their infrastructure, share your schools and hospitals with them.

The real crux, however, is this. Can we keep 75 per cent population on the land? Are we keeping it there? Is it at least self-supporting? Is it contributing to the larger economy? Why are agrarian states facing most outmigration? Small and marginal farmers are the most at risk from the vagaries of weather, and the mercy of moneylenders and banks. At the same time their sons and daughters migrate to far way, uncaring cities to earn and send back money. Another question is: do we want to industrialise or don’t we? While we oppose land acquisition, we are also asking to create more training and job opportunities. Where will we locate the institutions and where will the young people work? Let us face the larger picture and take hard decisions. Why don’t we, just for once, ask the young people what kind of a world they want?

Here is my suggestion: let companies buy all the land they need on the open market. The government must not acquire any land on their behalf. Let the highest price agreed upon be paid to all sellers. This will minimise transfer of land like nothing else.

Dr Dhagamwar has been writing extensively on development induced displacement for nearly thirty years. She has experience in dam and industrial displacement.

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