All of a sudden, the issue of land acquisition has begun to grab center stage, with Opposition parties and the government jockeying to reflect a farmer-friendly image. Not without reason.
While the high profile conflict in Singur, which put the issue of land acquisition in the limelight, the run-up to the crucial elections in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, have ensured a sense of urgency in the political battle. It is not just the electoral stakes that are up for grabs. Unlike in the case of land acquisition to help build the Tehri and Narmada dam, Singur showed that public protests can no longer be ignored. Experts believe that it is much more.
"The agitations we are now witnessing are only the tip of the iceberg. Land and water conflicts will be our most serious internal security problems. Land is a diminishing resource for agriculture, and so it will be prudent to conserve prime farm land for farmers," said eminent agriculture scientist Dr MS Swaminathan.
At the core of the dispute is the 113-year old Land Acquisition Act drafted by the British government. While, it did specify compensation, the Colonial law failed to allow for rehabilitation.
"The Act should be amended so that the rich do not benefit. It is borrowed from the imperial forces. The amendments should specify the class that would be entitled to the compensation. This should be part of any acquisition package for large land acquisition projects. In the case of the Narmada and Tehri dams, it has failed," says constitutional lawyer Rajeev Dhawan.
Ironically, the only initiatives to amend the century old Act has been moved by private members. Both efforts – in 1998 and 2000 – met with no success. Both bills, introduced in the Lok Sabha, lapsed as per legislative practice after the Parliament session concluded without taking them up for discussion.
Given the political stakes up for grabs, not surprisingly, all parties now want the the antiquated Act amended. The ruling United Party Alliance has promised, within three months, a central law to override State's writ on land acquisition. The new policy on rehabilitation that will soon go for Cabinet approval and will include a revamp of the land acquisition policy as well.
A rural development ministry official said, "We are considering making the land acquisition process effective, transparent and participatory." He added, "The government will intervene only in the interest of the people. Currently like in Singur, the government is seen as intervening on behalf of the Tatas."
Signals from all political parties have an increasingly pro-farmer thread running across them, with land as the binding all-India issue. Even the BJP, though it framed the original rules for SEZs in line with its pro-trader thrust, has now begun to root for farmers and the rural poor.
"Have SEZs by all means, but not by acquiring fertile land," said senior BJP leader and deputy leader of the party in Parliament Sushma Swaraj. "Only fallow land must be used for SEZs," she said.
Even the Left leadership, which found itself with its cadres in Singur and Nandigram, has begun chanting slogans against the "indiscriminate" proliferation of SEZs.
"Such schemes were meant to provide employment and develop industry, but instead they have turned into real-estate activity for a few," said CPM's Nilotpal Basu. The CPM leadership has now agreed that there are a "lot of problems since most states do not have a relief and rehabilitation policy." The West Bengal Government is also planning to step back from its role in land acquisition to be only a facilitator helping private investors purchase land for projects directly.
The charged situation has already put the ruling UPA on the defensive. It has put on hold a scheduled meeting of the Board of Approval for SEZs, for the second time in a row. The fate of SEZ projects that have already been approved but are yet to get off the ground was also to be decided at this meeting. It will now be held only after the empowered group of ministers meets on 22 January to review the government line on SEZs.
Meanwhile, joining the debate, Union Commerce Minister Kamal Nath, said in Bangalore on Tuesday, that state governments must have "fair and transparent" policies on land acquisition. "There has to be some sense of equity. Some state governments have not given fair market price and in some cases the people have been displaced," Nath confessed on Wednesday. He did not name the states.
It is apparent that Singur and Nandigram are not a flash in the pan. Instead, they seem to reflect a phenomenon that will go beyond the electoral battles between the ruling UPA and the Opposition parties.
(inputs from Monica Gupta, Sanchita Das, K Raghu)