31/03/2015 8:01 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

"Kisaan Virodhi, Narendra Modi": Of Land Acquisition And Loss Of Ground

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
NEW DELHI, INDIA - MARCH 18: Farmers gathered under the banner of various farmer unions affiliated to India Coordination Committee of Farmers Movement to protest against the Land Acquisition bill at Jantar Mantar on March 18, 2015 in New Delhi, India. Farmers organisations, including BKU demanded that Centre must take assent of 100 per cent farmers before land acquisition and the same should be done only for publicpurposes. (Photo by Subrata Biswas/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Political slogans were effective tools for the BJP during the 2014 general election campaign led by now-PM Narendra Modi. But where he was once hailed as the harbinger of acchhe din (good times), today he faces the tag of being a kisaan virodhi or anti-farmer.

This is due to India's controversial, contentious and sensitive Land Bill. India's lawmakers have come full circle with it. The forward transition had taken 66 years, since India's Independence, while the process of undoing it did not even take a single calendar year.

The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (RFCTLARR) Act, 2013 replaced the 120-year-old British Land Acquisition Act of 1894, in the fag-end of the last government, duly supported by the BJP then. Indiscriminate use of the colonial Act had resulted in many blatant land grabs.

Last December, immediately after the chaotic winter session of Parliament, an ordinance was issued by the newly elected government to change the 2013 Act. Industry groups in India - which implicitly lent their support to the BJP in the general election--were unanimously not happy with it as it stood.

India's diverse interests in land acquisition rise from the aspirations of different key segments of its populace. The marginal farmer who owns the land and fears for his survival stands at odds with those who are looking for the generation of wealth and economic growth through the easy multiplier-effect that land in India offers. The different segments of India's 1.25 billion-strong population are at a divide on what an appropriate land acquisition policy in the 21st century should be.

"The different segments of India's 1.25 billion-strong population are at a divide on what an appropriate land acquisition policy in the 21st century should be. "

To muddy the waters, the ruling BJP-led NDA government lacks majority in the Upper House of the bicameral Indian Parliament, although it has comfortable majority in the Lower House. The Lok Sabha passed the proposed amendments on March 10, but the amended Bill now faces an uncertain future in the Rajya Sabha. The budget session of the Parliament has already gone in to a recess until April 19. Popular sentiments on the Land Bill, in spite of Modi's poorly timed radio programme Mann ki Baat (from the heart), seem largely negative.

The government and various industry federations claim that the changes made are minor in nature; however, interpretations vary. A critical change has been made by adding five categories of exceptions for land acquisitions. These exceptions essentially nullify safeguards and offer a carte blanche for acquisitions. It also does away completely with the consent clause from the land owners for these exceptions, where the earlier provision was 70% and 80%, depending on the nature of public-private partnership projects and fully private projects, respectively.

The right to justice clause has been changed too -- seeking judicial intervention by affected parties will become more difficult. The ordinance also does away with any socio-impact study of the end-purpose project.

Forceful land acquisitions in India have resulted in innumerable protests - many of them violent --during the last decade. Examples that stand out include the Nandigram, Singur and POSCO (biggest FDI in India so far) protests. This also delayed the process of land acquisition for genuine investors, which India badly needs. The State's compensation mechanism, based on the colonial Act, was often found to be unattractive and inefficient.

According to government statistics, India is a nation with 2.2% of the world's land and 17.3% of the world's population. Around 60% of this land is arable, out of which 35% is covered under irrigation, qualifying as multi-crop land. The proposed changes make acquisition of multi-crop land easier, removing existing safeguards. Another 23% of the total land comes under forest coverage, lower than the global average (26%). The ruling government has already made clear its intentions of diluting standards of environmental protection, and favouring mining or industrial projects in forest land, in spite of pollution levels in major Indian cities already being higher than that of China.

"Past acquisitions have often fallen short on promises, be it in proportionate industrialisation or infrastructure development or employment generation."

On top of low per capita availability of land, an estimated 70% of India's population depends on land for livelihood. Also, though the contribution of agriculture in the overall economy has reduced from more than 40% during the 1970s to less than 15% now, the reduction of dependence on agriculture for livelihood has been much less drastic. This scenario also portrays a failure so far in creation of new jobs, away from agriculture. Persistently high food inflation indicates negligence of the overall farming sector, by successive governments.

Past promises made -- from job creation to exports-- during land acquisitions for Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in the last decade remain largely unfulfilled. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) revealed that SEZs failed to deliver 66% to 97% of their employment projections, whereas export shortfalls ranged from 47% to 94%. Large tracts of land acquired in the past for industrialisation or infrastructure remain unutilised years later, in the case of private industries as well as state industrial corporations. Globally, India's Ultra High Net Worth Individuals (UHNWI) rank highest in percentile investments of their net worth in land-related properties.

The current attempt to dilute the protections to marginal farmers that the 2013 Act provided raises obvious questions. Past acquisitions have often fallen short on promises, be it in proportionate industrialisation or infrastructure development or employment generation. Modi's government should have given the 2013 Land Act a chance before jumping in to making critical changes in it, more so when all the proposed changes indicate marginal farmers' interests being compromised.

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