In India, from the Kurukshetra war perhaps, nothing presages a large-scale conflict more infallibly than a land dispute. And conflict, not just differences of opinion, being the mother of Indian democracy, the growing confrontation between rival political parties over acquisition of land for “public purpose” has replaced, as the fulcrum of politics, the issues of the past two decades, such as the contesting claims of political groups based on religious and caste identities (unless the 1992 demolition of the Babri structure is seen as yet another land dispute).
Currently, the Congress is electrified by the success of Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal in transforming local movements against the then Left Front government’s land acquisition moves at Singur and Nandigram into an electoral tornado that could sweep the Left out of government after being in its charge for 34 years. The challenge that Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi has thrown to Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati faithfully follows Banerjee’s battleplan against the CPI(M). Interestingly, Mayawati too seems to follow the CPI(M) in doggedly believing that in acquiring land the state’s eminent domain supersedes the rights of every other stakeholder.
If there is a difference in the two scenarios, at Singur and the one now unfolding at Bhatta-Parsaul village in Greater Noida, it is in the fact that the CPI(M)’s popular support had crumbled when Banerjee took it on, its previous two assembly poll victories (in 2001 and 2006) being largely due to the “inertia of rest” in power, and rampant electoral malpractices that were overlooked by the previous Election Commission. But Mayawati in 2012 may not indeed be a spent force like Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee after the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.
The crux of the problem, the Land Acquisition Act of 1894, is coming up for amendment in the monsoon session of Parliament. In addition, the government intends to bring up for enactment a Relief and Rehabilitation Bill to further benefit the land-losers. But the National Advisory Council (NAC), supposedly UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi’s most audible inner voice, is not happy. Further, it is not unanimous even in its displeasure. The Working Group of three NAC members, though united in the resolve that there should be a single National Development, Acquisition, Displacement and Rehabilitation Act, however, is splintered on a more vital issue.
A section of the working group is by and large in agreement with the government Bills as long as they discourage displacement and minimise acquisition in accordance with the Rehabilitation and Relief Policy of 2007. But the other section, small and articulate, contests the government’s definition of Section 3(1) of the Land Acquisition Act that defines the “public purpose” for which land can be acquired. In 1894, the Raj was in the frenzy of a ‘railway mania’ and was, therefore, land hungry. Still, it framed Sec 3(1) with caution only to list as “public purpose” such projects as would benefit the community. Except the railway companies, there was no room for private firms to acquire land using the State’s ‘eminent domain’. But the UPA, in its amendment, seeks to include in the list “any project of general use”, undertaken by a person (“person” means inter alia a company), provided such “person” has negotiated to purchase 70% of the land directly from the owners, leaving the remaining 30% to be acquired by the state (Banerjee wants it to be raised to 90%).
However, minority opinion in the NAC working group insists that the State must not act as private companies’ buying agent and these companies must work within the market. That leaves unaddressed the risk of speculators buying strategically located plots in a large stretch up for acquisition, and then jacking up the price of their little acre. Such blackmails may become a large cost burden affecting competitiveness of projects. But the extremist view in the working group is that private firms be left to their own devices. On May 25, the Working Group’s note is coming up for discussion at the NAC. It is to be seen who prevails, the 70% group or the 100%.
But are rural people really attached so deeply to land, or are politicians playing on their sentiments to reap electoral dividends? It is common knowledge that agriculture can’t be the occupation of 52% of the people if it accounts for only 14.6% of GDP. Besides, two-thirds of the people still live in villages, with virtually no growth in the share of urban people. Though the full report of the 2011 Census is not yet published, provisional headcounts of urbanised states or Union Territories like Delhi and Chandigarh show they are growing at less than half the rate in the previous decade. The 11th plan document noted that “the degree of urbanisation in India is one of the lowest in the world”. It said that rapid growth of urban population was a “key” to 9-10% economic growth.
In a conventional development paradigm, rural-urban migration and progress go hand in hand. It worked in the West because the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century brought with it an urban culture that made the cities livable, bankable and inclusive for the poor. On the contrary, the emerging demographic trend of 2001-11 shows our cities as inhospitable to the rural immigrant. The overall skill deficit disqualifies him from most jobs in the modern sector. Slum clearance programmes in the cities have led to a steep rise in jhuggi rentals.
While the city lights have lost their charm, State-funded support like rural job plans are making the village home as dear to the rural people as their little backyard plot. And those who want to stay put may not distinguish between government and private projects. It will slow down not only future private industrial investment but the government’s grandiose plan to spend US $1.3 trillion on infrastructure in the next five years.
( Sumit Mitra is a Kolkata-based writer )
The views expressed by the author are personal