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A house for Mr. Vishwas

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You may trust the government, but the ordinance on land acquisition could divest you of your hard-earned property. Since independence, a whopping 60 million people have been displaced in such a manner [/h2]

By Sabiha Farhat


While we, the janta were busy quibbling over “ramzaade and haramzaade”, “ghar wapsi”, anti-conversion law, good governance day and PK, the winter session of parliament got over. And no one noticed that the ordinance to amend the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (RFCTLARR) Act, 2013, had been cleared on December 29, 2014.

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Nandigram in West Bengal erupted after the CPM government tried to acquire land for an SEZ in 2007

Few even know the nitty-gritty of this ordinance. If you are told to sell the house that you so labouredly built after years of saving, will you willingly move out for “public good”? Most probably not.

Once the government notifies a property, the owners will have to sell it. The compensation offered by the government is twice the market rate. But considering that the government decides this rate too, the owner ends up as the loser.

UNFAIR ORDINANCE

But people will soon realize that their consent no more matters, as once the government notifies their property, they will have to sell it. Worse, no one is liable to give you an answer because it is the government that is acquiring your house and selling it to someone who wants to set up a factory or a hospital or a road. Pushed into a corner, you will be right in assuming that at least you need to be adequately compensated. But that too might be a pipe-dream as the government has al-ready decided that too—it is going to pay you twice the market rate.

That sounds good, but wait. It is the government itself which decides the current market rate by looking up “official transaction” records of houses that have been sold recently. But then, records never mention the actual market rate as most property transactions are held in black or are cash transactions. So while you end up the loser, the ent-repreneur who got your land cheap will soon be laughing all the way to the bank. This is what has been actually happening to farmers for years and this is what the RFCTLARR ordinance seeks to do.

In one stroke, the government is proposing to take us back to the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 laid down by the British. This ar-chaic law continued for a good 120 years. However, protests across the country against land grabbing by various governments forced the UPA government to repeal the 1894 Act. It went on to propose, draft, discuss, debate and redraft a new bill in 2013. But even before a year could pass, the new act has been divested of provisions that empowered the common man.

Protests against the inequi-table land acquisition act have been carrying on for long. In Bhatta Parsaul, the UP government acquired about 6,000 acres from farmers under the pretext of “planned industrial development” at a rate of Rs. 350-880 per square meter. Later, this land was handed over to the Jaypee Group to build a luxury township and sports facilities around the Yamuna Expressway. The Jaypee Group bought this land at Rs. 1,220 per square meter from the government and sold it upwards of Rs. 18,000 per square meter to residential buyers.

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Bhatta Parsaul village was also embroiled in land acquisition row

 

MASSIVE DISPLACEMENT

Bhatta Parsaul was just the tip of the iceberg. Jagatsinghpur, Jaita-pur, Raigarh, Bastar, Singrur, Nandigram, Bellary, Kalpavalli, Jhamar Kotra, Polavaram, Kalinganagar, Niyamgiri…the list of forcible land acquisition and people’s struggles is long. An estimated 60 million people have been displaced between 1947 and 2000 due to land acquisitions.

More than 250 bloody conflicts have taken place over this issue between 2013 and 2014 in 165 of India’s 664 districts, according to a mapping exercise carried out by the Washington-based Rights and Resources Initiative, along with Delhi-based Society for Promotion of Wasteland Development.

A look at their case studies reveals that large areas of land have been set aside for mining and power projects and more will be made available in future (see Table). Future sectoral projections are even more sobering and show that an estimated 114,475,59 square kilometres of land is required over the next 10 years.

More than 250 bloody conflicts took place over land acquisition between 2013 and 2014 in 165 districts of India, according to Rights and Resources Initiative, along with Society for Promotion of Wasteland Development.

But who gets this land? A large part of it gets transferred to private industry as the share of government in development and industrialization projects is fast decreasing. For instance in the power sector, private companies are expected to produce 60 percent of the total power capacity in the 12th Five Year Plan from 2012 to 2017. Similarly, in the case of coal blocks, 74 out of 131 allocations went to private firms between 2006 and 2011. This is nothing but a net transfer of land and minerals to corporate firms. For equitable economic growth, shouldn’t people who own the land or those whose livelihoods depend on it have a share in the profits? Should industrialization happen at the cost of equitable growth?

An alternative was shown by residents of Tamnar in Raigarh, who had launched a “community mining” campaign. They were willing to pay the government 10 times the royalty that mining companies paid.
It could be an alternative mechanism for growth, but our government is not listening and instead, is forcing them to sell their land.

BALANCED ACT

Thus, it is crucial to have laws that are participatory, democratic and in favor of the ordinary citizen. To uphold a balance between industrialists and landowners, the RFCTLARR Act included some provisions. It made SIA (social impact assessment)—consent of 70 percent of the affected people in case of public-private partnerships and 80 percent in case of private projects—mandatory for all “public purpose” projects. It also restricted the government from acquiring arable land (except under exceptional circumstances and linear projects) while allowing private developers to purchase it directly from landowners. In its definition of “affected persons”, it included landholders as well as those whose livelihoods depended on that land. Another important clause was that notified land be returned to land owners if the companies could not take physical possession of land or had not paid compensation for five years.

However, the ordinance on RFCTLARR has added new provisions which will affect many. It adds “public purpose” as “activities such as defense, rural infrastructure, electrification, affordable housing and housing for poor, industrial corridor, infrastructure and social infrastructure projects including projects under public private partnership….” It includes private hospitals and private educational institutions too. The ordinance “empowers appropriate government to take steps for exemption from SIA and special provisions for safeguarding food security and with consent as well”. It has also done away with the provision restricting government from acquiring irrigated, multicrop land.

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An agitation for higher compensation for land acquired for the Yamuna Expressway project

 

If the land-acquirer fails to take possession of the land or pay compensation within five years, it exempts “…any period during which proceedings were held up on account of any stay or injunction”, thus substantially reducing the negotiating power of land-losers. Embedded in the fine print of the ordinance are many other factors that tilt the balance in favor of the land-acquirer.
The ordinance also indirectly aids defaulting civil servants as they can only be prosecuted after sanction from the appropriate government.

Sadly, the ordinance defeats the purpose of participative democracy. A “pro-development” government should not forget that development is the right of all citizens. The laws it passes are for its citizens in accordance with the constitution that envisages justice for all.

 

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