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Acres for heartache

The Land Acquisition Act is an outdated law that makes development & people enemies, writes Medha Patkar.

india Updated: Jan 28, 2007 23:45 IST

The Prime Minister, in his January 9 speech at the Ficci annual general meeting, declared that the UPA government is keen to bring out a National Rehabilitation Policy within the next three months. Did he choose the Ficci forum deliberately? It certainly can’t be an inadvertent choice with Special Economic Zones (SEZs) creating a furore across the country. Did the PM, through his announcement, warn  corporates against displacement without rehabilitation? Or was the statement an act of consoling industrialists who are troubled about preventions and obstructions in the process of fast-track acquisitions of land? It seems to be the latter more than the former.

Gone are the days when the Indian State would at least represent the masses in its dealing with investors. So it is more likely that with popular struggles against ad hoc displacement intensifying, the Centre, as well as some state governments, are concerned about the impact of its ‘development’. If the PM and the state governments would now like to bring out a rehabilitation policy as a certification for unlimited displacement, it is necessary to debate the issues of development, displacement and rehabilitation.

In 1987, the Narmada Bachao Andolan brought out the first draft of a national policy, which was finalised  after much discussion and the careful inculcation of a legislative framework. Our campaign to convince the ministers was only partly successful as the support came from only a section of agencies within the establishment. Whether the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, can be amended or needs to be abolished and a new legislation drafted was disputed. In 1998, after the Ministry of Rural Development  consulted a good number of senior activists, a unanimous draft of a National Rehabilitation Policy emerged. But the ministries could not agree with each other and they  shelved the draft policy.

In 2003, the NDA government passed a National Rehabilitation Policy with almost no fanfare and we wondered why the government was not keen to take the credit. The reason: despite some good principles and a preamble, the policy was not a result of consultations and consensus. In 2005, the whole process was restarted with the UPA government. Pulling out drafts and knowledge gathered over decades, we put forth a fairly exhaustive policy draft, presented it before the members of the National Advisory Council chaired by Sonia Gandhi, and with some corrections, got it approved.

The PM’s recent statement hides the fact that the 2005 draft is once again being suppressed while a new 2006 draft is being favoured. Since a hurriedly called meeting at the Ministry of Rural Development on December 27, 2006, we have been waiting for a response to our following proposal: bring back the 2005 draft to the board, translate it in all languages and circulate it as widely as possible (especially in the areas where we are witnessing displacement-related conflicts); hold five regional consultations, inviting organisations of the farmers, fish-workers, adivasis, Dalits, women and the project-affected along with selected social scientists, academicians and activists to seek their views, which can be finalised by a core group.

Will those engaged in a people’s agitation to protect their rights and livelihood respond to such a joint resolution? The PM’s statement gives us hope. And yet, the experience of   non-compliance and inconsistencies in policies and laws raises a doubt. Take the National Rehabilitation Policy 2003, an official statutory guideline applicable to all sectoral plans and projects, public and private. The principles of monitoring in the policy is, however, not followed at all.

The very first principle in the 2003 policy is “to minimise displacement and to identify non-displacing or least displacing alternatives”. With no attempt towards such an ‘options assessment’, the projects are taken out of a big basket and hurled at people  which results in large scales of displacement. If only there is a careful comparative assessment of options, acquiring the best agricultural land would not be the preferred solution.

If displacement due to any giant project such as the Tatas plant at Kalinganagar is proved to be ‘unmanageable’ in terms of displacement, the affected area could be reviewed and the plan modified. But this methodology is not even thought of, as limiting displacement, mitigating the negative social and environmental impacts, are not seen as matters of concern. Any new policy will have to change the priorities.

Displacement has been invariably without rehabilitation. The Land Acquisition Act, 1894, a law made during British rule, is still being used in a shameless manner for acquiring not only properties but also the livelihoods of people in exchange of meagre amounts of cash. Providing housing plots and a few civic amenities is automatically seen as ‘resettlement’. The fact that this doesn’t address serious economic deprivations and, on many occasions, does not even consider the impracticality of providing new sites too far from the source of livelihood — thereby inviting these new sites to be unused or misused — is brushed aside.

Rehabilitation with provisions for alternative livelihood, envisaged in some state-level laws (such as the one in Maharashtra), in certain inter- state project-related policies (such as the Sardar Sarovar-Narmada Dam) or in packages approved by statutory agencies like the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) is rarely seeing the light of day. With no agricultural land said to be available, rehabilitation of affected farmers who cannot be absorbed in non-agricultural occupations remains a serious problem, especially after the cash compensation runs out.

Thus, a new policy and Act must be brought in — not by merely amending the Land Acquisition Act, but by replacing it with a law that brings the process and parameters of ‘development planning, minimum displacement and just rehabilitation’ all in one fold. A new Act, the draft of which is ready and approved by the Advisory Council, should be exactly such a holistic law.

The community should be the foremost unit of planning and should have the first right to the natural resources within its boundaries. These people should be granted the right to plan with the area’s resources. This ‘micro-plan’ can be incorporated with consent while finalising a larger unit plan. This large unit can comprise not only a ‘Panchakroshi’ (group of villages) but also a larger group encompassing a few villages.

The concepts of ‘public purpose’ and the ‘principle of eminent domain’ should be reviewed. The principle of eminent domain is not only outdated but has to be buried if democracy is to make any sense. We will have to define development not merely in material terms but by including criteria pertaining to democracy, sustainability and equity. The Samata vs Government of Andhra Pradesh judgment of 1998 preventing every ‘non-tribal’, including the State, from occupying adivasis’ land must be extended to others who are  equally disadvantaged. The mere purchase of land in lieu of forcible acquisition also can’t be the ultimate solution. The Act must provide protective measures and checks and balances to attain goals of equity.

All that is required is a vision and a value framework, provided in the Constitution. With an honest application of equity, justice and sustainability as criteria and goals, everything can click into place. No one would oppose the use of natural resources. But such use should ensure that there is no pauperisation of our own people. We appeal to the Prime Minister to seek such a samajwadi alternative in keeping with the Directive Principles in our Constitution. If he does, India will not only grow and shine but it will also underline the sovereignty of the nation as well as that of its people.

Medha Patkar is a spokesperson of the Narmada Bachao Andolan