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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 24, June 4, 2011

Land Acquisition: Government as a Facilitator is the Best Option

Thursday 9 June 2011, by Diptendra Raychaudhuri


When it was almost certain that the governments of the country were to take their hands off from total acquisition of land for a private project, the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council has started thinking otherwise. The thought went out for hundred per cent acquisition by the government.

Had this come at the germinal stage of discussion about changes in the colonial Act, it could have resulted in Mamata Banerjee’s face glowering, for she had turned against acquisition by the government since the Nandigram-Singur days. And it was due to her movement that the issue of changing the law came to the fore. So, any change, after Nandigram-Singur, without her consent would have been grossly improper. As there was no agreement between the ‘govern-ment’ and Mamata Banerjee, the proposed changes are still hanging fire.

But now that the heat and dust of those days have settled, one may look at the issues again without temper running high.

The Backdrop of Mamata’s Obstinacy

FOR six decades, a colonial Act, that included establishing profit-driven private companies in the orbit of ‘public purpose’, ran amuck in this country, and caused havoc with the life of the poorer people. The Rightists, the Leftists and the Centrists, all have used this instrument of exploitation and discrimination to deprive hundreds of thousand of people. Land was acquired not only for real public purposes like laying rail tracks or making way for irrigation canals, but also to hand it to those who will make huge profit by establishing industrial units or developing multi-storied buildings. Protests against forcible acquisition were widespread, but the insensitive governments of the country never paid any heed to those.

Then, everything reached a flashpoint because of Mamata Banerjee’s movement in Nandigram, where the peasants of about ten thousand acres (as planned originally) were otherwise destined to lose their land and livelihood, thanks to a Left Government’s unilateral decision. When people resisted the effort, the government and the ‘party’ unleashed terror and tyranny, and use of a few arms by the locals gave them the opportunity to fabricate stories of Maoist involvement in a big way. But people of Nandigram fought bravely, and in the recent Assembly elections the Left Front has been wiped out of—not only Nandigram and its adjacent areas—but the whole district of East Midnapore. This historic fight of the people of Nandigram inspired people of the whole country to resist attempts at forcible eviction, and ultimately compelled the Union Government to think about amending the colonial law that is used to acquire land even in this age of individual freedom and human rights.

As the Nandigram movement—initially started by some rebel CPI-M workers—was ultimately led to victory under the aegis of Trinamul Congress, we have this unlikely heroine of the anti-acquisition movement: Mamata Banerjee. She was never known as a socialist even within the Congress. But, situation moulds a person. Mamata Banerjee evolved a new ideological position for her party, and it stemmed out of both political necessity and an urge to protect the weaker sections.

But, without any grooming of a socialist, Mamata Banerjee went to the extreme end and demanded withdrawal of the state from the acquisition process. However, three points are to be noted. One, her movement was essentially against forcible acquisition. At Singur, she fought for returning the land to ‘unwilling’ peasants, and as the CM has now announced four hundred out of 997 acres will be returned to the unwilling people. Secondly, the question that came to the forefront due to her movement was that of subsidy to the industrialists on land. In other words, the question is: why should the state ‘buy’ the land at a higher price and give it to the people driven by profit motive for a song? Thirdly, what about the compensation of the people who lived off the land, but were not owners?

In fact, many people (not excluding this writer) initially confused the issues and echoed the question: why should the state acquire land for the industrialists? In fact what all these people wanted to ask was: why should the state pay for the land that the industrialist will use for profit motive?

At the initial stage, the heavyweights of the Union Government in principle accepted the line of thinking. Political prudence demanded that Banerjee’s demands should be acceded to. The Union Government did exactly that. The Centre came out with a draft that said seventy per cent of the land has to be bought by the industrialists and then, if needed, the rest thirty per cent land can be acquired by the state. As more than seventy per cent people accepted cheques for compensation at Singur, Mamata Banerjee was not ready to accept the 70:30 proportion and demanded it be made 90:10. Due to such difference of opinion the proposed changes could not be translated into a law. So, the Union Government recently came out with the solution that how much would be acquired should be left to the State governments.

Just at this juncture the NAC started thinking about turning the table upside down. Why?

The Rationale of the NAC

AS the Leftists, who unleashed terror and tyranny in Nandigram were always vocal for acquisition of land by the government, it hardened the attitude of anti-CPI-M intellectuals. So, the positive logic of the state acquiring land got lost.

But the point has some merit, if (i) the cost of acquisition is paid by the industrialist, and (ii) the question of willingness of the farmers to give up their land and proper compensation for the livelihood of all the people who own and who live off the land are taken into account.

The NAC feels, in case of the seventy-thirty formula of the government or even the ninety-ten proposed by Mamata Banerjee, those persons whose land will be acquired by the state should benefit. That implies they feel those who will sell the land directly to the industrialist will get less than what the state will give as a compensation package. Surely we do not want that.

That is why the NAC has proposed a role for the government. What they have put forth in the realm of the public is a package of compensation for both sections of the dwellers, the owners and those who live off the land. For the owners, they have proposed that compensation should be six times the market price. And for the others (like share-croppers, landless labour, artisans, fishermen, forest-gatherers and so on), they have proposed ten days’ minimum wage in a month for thirtythree years. The other significant issues they have proposed are: (i) consultation with all affected families and consent of at least seventy-five per cent of them to be mandatory before acquisition, (ii) to ensure by law that acquisition of barren or less fertile land should be tried first for industrial purpose, (iii) if not used for five years after acquisition the land should go back to the original owners, and (iv) the option to seek the whole or part of compensation in annuities and so on.

So, the NAC has gone to the root of the problem. However, we should keep in mind that the NAC has not finalised their recommendations and there is still scope for improvement. The NAC should revise certain things.

Why the NAC Recommendations have to be Revised

THE main point to be kept in mind is that any acquisition means imposition of other’s will on a group of people. In other words, acquisition means a number of people living a sort of life, good or bad, is all on a sudden told that they will have to vacate their possession for a vague concept of greater good.

Now, the most important point to be noted is that the victim of such imposition of other’s will is always the weaker people. Can any government ever dare to decide that one thousand acres of land will be acquired in the posh areas of Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai or Mumbai? No, because these are the places where the elite live. So, the government will spend thousands of crores for adding further comfort for the people living in these areas. But as soon as the focus shifts to rural areas or slums, the government is ever ready with bulldozers and police or para-military forces. This shows that under the façade of democracy this country is ruled by an insensitive elite. That is why the present draft of the government Bill can say that compensation will be a little more than the highest price of the land (the market price of top 50 per cent of land transactions during previous three years, plus 60 per cent additional solatium). The ruling elite knows industry means profit for them, and so they are up for grabbing the weaker people’s land. Their representatives, the legislators and the executive, cannot be sensitive enough to understand that acquisition is not simple buying of land but loss of living for a large number of people.

So, what has to be compensated is this ‘loss of living’.

The NAC suggests six times of the market price for the owners and ten days minimum wages every month for thirtythree years for the non-owners. But this is not acceptable. Let us see this point by point:

i) Two plots of land in two different areas may give same amount of yield to the farmer while the market price of the two areas may vary widely. So, instead of going for the market price, what has to determined is the earning from the land.

ii) Suppose one unit of land earns ten thousand rupees per year for a family. The compensation should be a mechanism for paying ten thousand rupees to a family per year for all time to come. If not acquired, that land would have been with the family and its descendants forever.

iii) Now, this ten thousand rupees should also be linked to the inflation index.

iv) Again, the highest yield of a unit from the whole plot should be the yardstick for compensation. This is for the simple reason that one family may earn ten thousand from the unit as they are the richest in the area while the others earn less as they can provide less input. But, someday the others may also be able to put the same amount of input and earn ten thousand like the richest one.

v) There should be some mechanism so that a family can take loan at low interest against this guarantee of earning (as they will not be able to sell a part of their land any more to pay for urgent needs).

vi) The same yardstick should be used for non-owners of the land who live within the area.

vii) Additional compensation should be given to all those who are losing their homes to build an alternative place of dwelling.

viii) The question of giving back the land to the original owners should not arise. The quality of the land lying barren for five years will be diminished. Once acquired, it should be used by the government.

Now one may argue that the man who loses his livelihood will soon find some sort of alter-native. Keeping that in mind the compensation may be lowered a little and kept at seventyfive per cent of the lost earning.

The other points made by the NAC are on the right track. Consent of seventyfive per cent of the population must be mandatory. Again, the objections of those unwilling to depart from the land should also be investigated and appropriate action should be taken to redress those. Finally, the whole cost of compensation should be borne by the industrialist. If the state feels that the industry will add sizable revenue to its exchequer in the future, it may give certain concessions. However, laws should be enacted to make this transparent.

For non-profit use, the same criteria of compensation should be used. It does not matter to the family losing its livelihood or home whether the land should be used for making Nano car or a hospital or railway track.

From one’s personal experience, one firmly believes that even Mamata Banerjee will not object to the new proposition of the NAC if it is amended suitably and explained properly. However, a wider discussion with the rural people who are to face such problems may add up to our knowledge, and this should be tried before enacting the legislation.

Diptendra Raychaudhuri is a journalist and author of the novel A Naxal Story.

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