Monday, September 12, 2011

A colonial relic past its time…

A colonial relic past its time…

The tyrannical face of land acquisition needs to undergo a makeover, soon.

He looks vulnerable with his boyish, innocent smile. He has turned out to be a David to the Goliath that the Government represents. This diminutive, wealthless man, Anna Hazare has made the impossible possible with his dogged stance, that people across the country have backed. And in the new tide of confidence that we saw from him, he has raised the bar with his demand [among other things] for reforms in regulations for land acquisition and reparation. What did he really mean by this? What has been the scenario on ‘taking away’ of people’s lands from the mute, helpless lot of farmers in the country?

If you go back in history to 1894, you will see the British brought this law, the Land Acquisition Act, to enable the colonial administration to quickly ‘take’ lands when the State needed them for public purposes like creating the network of railways, or for logging for timber in the sub Himalayan region, for irrigation projects and such. Therefore they made it a strong procedural law claiming that there was an eminent domain of the state in the business of ‘takeover’ of such properties of people.

The act continued because it was convenient for the government. Further, it was a procedural Act that the state governments had no work to do with it. To this day, 60+ years after Independence, you won’t find many state-level rules for land acquisition. When it was a colonial power it was alright to call it ‘land acquisition’. The very idea of acquisition is unconstitutional in the context of the tyranny of such land grabbing that has been the norm in the last decade.

So what would you do? In place of acquisition you actually need that land from that person who is the right holder as of now. And you need to recognize the rights these people hold. If an organization—be it a mining company or a large power project—wants a landowner to relinquish his rights for its business activity, the holder has to be requested to relinquish his property or resources. And for the hardship, loss of livelihood, displacement from the land and the community that he belonged to, there has to be a price that the organization or the Government agrees to pay as ‘reparation’.

Well, this is a function that will be better served if the tyranny of a hundred-year-old Act is restructured to allow for various state government to make rules and regulations that will reflect such equity in the making. What applies in Rajasthan does not apply in Himachal Pradesh. Even by the current Bill, the resettlement and rehabilitation provisions can be only invoked if 100 acres are acquired together. But then 100 acres in any mountainous terrain of the hill states, of Western or Eastern Ghats, or the sub-Himalayas, is very huge.

Depending upon where the land is, settlements of communities that are sometimes centuries-old disappear forever. The State administration is better positioned to understand the sensitivities of such land acquisition—at least the local administration will recognize local conditions better than it can be done in the corridors of New Delhi.

The Central Act is far too procedural to serve the purpose any more in an economy that is growing as rapidly as now. Coal extraction alone is rising from the current level of 300 million to 2 billion tonnes by 2030! Then there is iron ore, bauxite, gas exploration and other such projects that are necessary, that need to be handled with a human face put to the process of acquiring such lands.

So what are the lessons that the rest of the world offers us today? The UN has sought ‘free, prior and informed consent’ from such landowners. This means a transparent process of partnering such requisition of land [not acquisition]. The Government or an organization cannot go into acquisition for a project saying, “I want so much land.” They need to say, “I want this land for a project.” And then explain the consequences. “It will destroy so much of the forest, draw so much water from some other area, displace people, throw up dust and such.” People need to understand what the Government or such organizations are going into. What are the risks before the community and their traditional lands and the forests around?

How do you size the need of land for a project? When the Hajira-Bijaipur-Jagdishpur pipeline project was taken up two decades ago, there were 7 fertilizer plants. They were all 1,350-tonne per day plants, with more or less the same Italian technology. In the chain of HBJ plants, IFFCO operates the same-scale plant at 376 acres. Indo Gulf Fertilisers has 672 acres. NFL has got about 700 acres. The Tatas have as much as 2100 acres.

Look at the new Mining Bill. It says any single lease has to have a cap of 100 square kilometers, or 10,000 ha. Companies end up having one pocket of deposit here, another tract of land in another region, leading to destruction of larger ecosystems around two different micro-regions. While the law was intended to avoid abuse of sensitive ecosystems, and to bring restraint in the Government’s own and of an organisation’s need for acquiring lands, that intent is not served well thanks to the lack of latitude and autonomy in decision-making at the local administration level.

These are complex issues, of course. And for every suggestion that is made for such structural changes in a system as old as acquisition, there will be a dozen potential risks that experts will identify. The question, as Anna Hazare is asking, is: What is fair to the farmer? How do we strip the government and administration of that hideous face of tyranny and corruption that is hurting the vulnerable, silent thousands across India?

Sreedhar Ramamurthi

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