National Highway 2, a smooth six-lane ribbon of tar, winds into the horizon past green fields of paddy.
It connects two Bengals — the Bengal of Singur, where furious farmers refused to give up their land for a factory that would build the world’s cheapest car, and the Bengal of Raghunathpur, 200 kilometres away, where they have agreed to give up land for a steel plant.
Somewhere between them is the great faultline, between the new India that is expanding towards the countryside, hungry for land to build industries and infrastructure projects, and the India of the impoverished farmer who wants a better future — but clings to his land because it is all he has.
In Raghunathpur’s Durmut village in Purulia district, farmer Biswanath Kalibroto (43) sold his land to Kolkata-based Jai Balaji Industries in the hope of a better future.
“Farming is not easy here because the soil quality is bad. So I thought that it was better to sell my land,” said Kalibroto, father of two girls.
He got Rs 6 lakh and invested in fixed deposit schemes and the stock market.
Kalibroto’s school friend Kamakhya Majhi, a homeopathic doctor, is not convinced he did the right thing.
“There’s not much we can do if the government wants to acquire land. We are not against development,” he says, “but we should get jobs and fair compensation.”
Even as tensions over land acquisition escalate across the country, the government is guided by a 115-year-old colonial law, the Land Acquisition Act of 1894, in trying to build the India of the future.
The law is loaded against the landowners, who were once British subjects. Many activists and experts feel little has changed in the way the government looks at them today.
Two new Acts are in the offing — the Land Acquisition Amendment Bill, 2007 and the Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, 2007. Both look into how private companies can acquire land, the State’s role, and rehabilitation and compensation parameters. But political squabbling has prevented it from being passed in Parliament.
So here’s what we propose: Make referendums compulsory in all land acquisition deals involving 100 or more families. This would enable the people affected to organise themselves to demand details of the deal, the compensation on offer and then make an informed decision on whether they wish to give up their land.
It would also prevent individual farmers from being misled or pressurised.
And it would give each landowner the fundamental right to have his voice heard in a matter directly concerning him. Every urban building redevelopment project follows these rules — a majority of the families in the building have to agree. It’s only fair that the same right be accorded to farmers who have not just their home but their livelihoods to lose as well.
A referendum would also give the government a chance to step back and act as mediator, rather than being seen as facilitator. It’s main responsibility then would be in helping the villagers keep abreast of issues and land rates while working to get both sides to reach a mutually beneficial — and acceptable — agreement.
“A formal vote would actually put in place a process and would be a useful device in largescale acquisitions,” says Partha Mukhopadhya, a senior research fellow with thinktank Centre for Policy Research.
“But,” he adds, “the referendum process must also be used as a price discovery mechanism and not just about whether the project should go ahead.”
As Step 2 of the process to ease India’s great battle over land — and do it in a way that causes the least collateral damage — the Centre should also create a ministry of land. Currently, the Land Resources Department of the Rural Development Ministry is the nodal body for land acquisition and resettlement and rehabilitation matters. A new ministry could take a holistic view of acquisition and resettlement issues.
“The Ministry of Rural Development does not perform the oversight function, partly because the powers under the existing Act are to be exercised by state governments,” says Hari Mohan Mathur, visiting Professor with Council for Social Development, New Delhi. “It is a good idea to have a full-fledged ministry to deal with these important issues.”
Social activist Medha Patkar agrees. “But even if there’s distinct ministry,” she says, “the elected representatives and bureaucrats should be accountable to the people and the Constitution.”
Finally, the government must bring in a new central land use policy that will outline the don’ts and how’s of land use and transfer.
As of now, states follow a de facto land use policy — land is a state subject — and take all decisions themselves. There is no uniform code at the national level.
All three measures might have helped avoid the acrimony in Rajasthan’s Barmer district, between farmers who sacrificed their heads in the early part of the 20th century in a bloody campaign against feudal lords, only to be told they had to now hand over that land to a power plant planned by a massive Indian conglomerate.
As villager united in protest, posters appeared on the walls of every home, asking government officials to keep out.
The company offered to lease the land, rather than acquire it.
“Now, the company has backtracked and the state is forcibly acquiring land on its behalf,” says Ram Singh Bothiya, president of the local farmers’ association. “The rates being offered are much lower than what had been discussed… there is no talk of a lease.”
It is exactly this perception — of the government as one colluding with industrial houses, rather than remaining neutral — that makes the issue such a volatile one, says K.C. Siva Rama Krishnan, a former IAS officer now with Centre for Policy Research.
A referendum would help heal this mistrust and ensure that farmers are seen as stakeholders, not casualties.
It sounds good to Bothiya.
“We had a public meeting… not one person said yes to the project,” he says. “The pollution control board issued the NOC anyway. If we had a vote, we could not be ignored. And that would be something.”
Land is becoming the next great battlefield for India, as industry marches forward and lonely farmers cling to the only asset they have. Land is currently a state subject, making the acquisition process random and arbitrary. The result: Violent protests that force corporate houses to retreat, or a generation of farmers left with no livelihood and only fast-dwindling cash as compensation.
(With inputs from Anamika Dutt)