Among the 32 new bills that will be introduced in the Monsoon session of Parliament that begins today, there is one that will change the landscape of India and give a new impetus to a more humane economic development - the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill (LARRB), 2011 that was placed in public domain by minister of rural development Jairam Ramesh last week (you can download it here: http://tinyurl.com/43c9a5q). While the Tata-Singur fiasco in West Bengal, Posco in Orissa or the recent farmers agitation in Noida have been the flashpoints where the political economy faced the people around land, the issue is bigger.
It has taken all of 117 years to re-examine this piece of legislation that has been used as well as abused by successive governments to wrest land, sometimes for "public good" and often for private gains. Under the initial Land Acquisition Act, 1894 - and 18 other state and central laws - the people of India have yielded more than 150,000 sq km between 1951 and 1990. That's bigger than the size of 143 countries, including Bangladesh, Nepal and Greece. More than half of this, notes an Asian Development Bank Report, is estimated to be private property. Specifically, 5% of Orissa's and Andhra Pradesh's land mass, 3.5% of Goa's and 3% of Kerala's has been acquired, according to studies by various scholars.
On the human front, the total number of people displaced has been estimated at 50 million by the World Commission on Dams. That's little less than the population of France. Within them, three out of four people have lost their land to water resources schemes. The problem is not merely that land has been acquired; the problem is that these people have not been given what they were promised and have legitimate reason to feel betrayed and sidelined by the state in the name of economic development - dams, roads, power plants, security. When they ask "development for whom", they get no response.
With numbers so large, and issues so wide, land acquisition will become the most important tool for change. Simply put, what we need to debate is how to ensure that returns from displacement are just. In other words, measure the impact of acquisition not only in terms of commerce or contribution to GDP but equally in terms of humanness, fairness, justice.
Returning to acquisition, what we need to debate aggressively is the definition of "public purpose". The LARRB includes "infrastructure development, industrialisation and urbanisation" as public purpose. While the first two will sail through easily, it is the real estate part of "urbanisation" that will create trouble, as is the case in Noida. This trouble will multiply over the next two decades- by 2030, more than 40% of Indians will be living in urban areas compared to less than 30% today. They'll need housing and unless the issue is resolved today, farmers will be under pressure and allegations of a builder-politician mafia will see a resurgence.
Finally, we need to ensure that disruptive politics doesn't get in the way of developmental politics. Beyond this legislation lie innovative solutions that those acquiring the land need to offer - equity partnerships, annuities, jobs. Once LARRB is signed into law, it will be over to the private sector to devise long-term incentives and bridge the last gap between those who own land and those who want to turn it productive. The keyword there: partnerships -not avarice.