A ‘good deal’ for land is a matter of perspective. Sometimes it is a study in contrasts — what makes for a ‘good deal’ in Singur in West Bengal is only one-tenth of the going rate for land in, for instance, certain parts of Gurgaon. Besides, striking a ‘good deal’ is also a function of how big or small the landowner is, who is the buyer for the land — the state or a private company — and the power of the owner to negotiate a better price.
To fully comprehend the stories of compensation, and understand what happens after people have been compensated for their lands — even those who’ve got a ‘good deal’ — it is necessary to begin with the complex story of the acquisition of land by the state. The sheer differential in the price of land across the country (especially in and around urban areas, as opposed to tribal land, or even rural land for that matter) makes the story of gains different from state to state. Sometimes there are differences even within one state, or one region. Then, each state has specific laws that determine and regulate the sale and purchase of land. Even the kind of land that is being bought (fertile or not fertile), and more significantly, the disparities of power between the owner and the buyer, have an impact on who is able to make how much off their land, and what kind of life they end up with. The sale of land, and the ways of coping with life after it, is a composite reality; one that has brought a windfall for some and has left others struggling to make ends meet. To put it simply, as Sanjoy Chakravorty, author of The Price of Land: Acquisition, Conflict, Consequence, says, "There’s no one ‘Indian farmer’. There are small farmers with smaller landholdings; there are histories of farmers in this country who have been paid next to nothing for their land, and the Dalits, who have never had any land to begin with. There are also the big farmers who have had a windfall due to an increase in the prices of land."
As debates over the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Amendment) Bill, 2015, got a fresh impetus after the agitation at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, and the NDA government plans to go ahead with the legislation, conflict over land acquisition has come to the fore. While there’s opposition over some of the clauses, particularly the one related to the removal of consent of landowners in certain cases, for many land owners, at the heart of this conflict is the issue of the terms of sale and what they stand to get in return. There are cases of big farmers in certain areas, for whom the sale has brought prosperity and a shift in material progress (along with some discontent as well), and on the other, there are smaller farmers, and even adivasis, who are left struggling to cope with the loss of traditional occupations, uncertainty about their futures, and a feeling of having been cheated of what was rightfully their due. THE LIFE AFTER
According to Chakravorty, land prices in India are at an all-time high, especially when the land is close to urban areas. "Prices have increased by several folds, and land is now a commodity in short supply. There are big farmers who have made significant profits, one that they could not have made by practising agriculture," he says. But even for those who have made these significant gains, life after the sale of their lands has brought either discontentment, uncertainty and in some cases, poverty too. Take, for instance, the case of Gurgaon’s Satbir Sehrawat and his family who are ruing the mismatch between the "market price" and what was paid to them as their due for the land. In Gurgaon, land prices have risen astronomically in the past decade or so, and those such as Satbir Sehrawat who got about ` 5.5 crore for their nine acre plot are left feeling shortchanged "because the market price in the area is no less than a couple of crores per acre". "Market value is always hard to ascertain," says Professor Ram Singh of the Delhi School of Economics. Singh, who has done extensive work on the subject, explains that "market rate" is decided on the basis of "circle rates" (the registry rate or the stamp duty rate is the minimum rate decided by the government for valuation of land for determining the tax imposed at the time of registration of sale-deed of a property), or "sale deeds" of a similar property, whichever is higher. "But people often under quote prices in the sale deeds to avoid paying a high tax. As a result, the government only pays a certain amount as compensation, which is well below the market price of the property."
So even as the windfall brought with it some promise of a better life — children’s education, other plots of land that were bought — it also brought with it the necessity to hire expensive lawyers to fight cases of inadequate compensation in the courts. "I still had the foresight to invest in other plots of land. But for many in the area, the money received as compensation was either spent on excessive alcohol, a daughter’s marriage, buying a bigger house, a bigger TV set, or even fake gold bars! Those who were not educated and lived in the villages, didn’t know what to do with so much money that suddenly came their way!" says Sehrawat. His son Tejinder adds, "Those who spent the money on big cars today don’t even have enough money to buy petrol." For other farmers such as Hari Om Singh and Ombir Singh in Gurgaon, who had smaller land holdings, the money was divided amongst family members, spent on weddings and on building a house. Stories of the money having been frittered away in buying expensive cars can be heard beyond Gurgaon too. In Chhattisgarh, locals rue the rise in road accidents after some land owners bought expensive cars when "they didn’t even know how to drive."
A WAY FORWARD
Many argue that a flat compensation for land, even though it might be a substantial sum, is a bad idea. The Sehrawats feel that farmers should be given a stake in the project and a comprehensive package that includes a good plot of land and a stable job. "If we are contributors to development, then shouldn’t the government also ensure that we develop well too?" they ask. For policy makers, the question of what makes a "fair deal" is a complex one. The issue cannot be entirely solved by having a better law. Perhaps, the answer lies in ensuring that landowners, big and small, have more negotiating power and are allowed to have a say in the country’s development process.
‘THE DEAL WAS UNFAIR, WE DESERVED MORE’
Tejinder Sehrawat and father Satbir Singh Sehrawat. (Photo: Sanjeev Verma)
Satbir Singh Sehrawat, 65, says he’s spent about four decades in "fighting against land acquisition". It all began in the 1970s when the village of Nangaldevat was acquired to make way for the expansion of the Indira Gandhi International Airport. For this, Sehrawat says he received "about ` 3,000-4,000" as land prices were not that high then. He used that money and some savings to shift to Gurgaon, and invested in land in other areas. His wife Indravati says she "stitched clothes" to make ends meet, and "worked hard" to ensure that the kids got a proper education. But compensation, and life after, is a touchy issue for the Sehrawats. "Two of the other plots of land that I bought were also acquired: one in Gurgaon, and another near the Dwarka Expressway in 2007. We got less than the market price," he says. For the Gurgaon land, the money was about `13-14 lakhs per acre, and for the Expressway land, they received `60 lakhs per acre, for which the family moved court alleging inadequate compensation. "The trouble is that the land is acquired at the rate of agricultural land, but is developed and resold at commercial rates. Why can’t they give us a stake in that profit as well?" asks Sehrawat, who believes compensation needs to give long-term returns and not just short-term gains.
(Ombir Singh works as a driver with a private firm in Gurgaon.)
‘WE KNOW HOW TO DEAL WITH LAND, NOT CASH’
It is not easy to handle money; it has wings," said Chinmoy Ghosh, who runs a sweetshop at Beraberi bazaar in Singur. He knows. Most of those from Singur who parted with land for the abandoned Nano plant for an "acceptable compensation" are now left with less than half of their money. "They spent it in expanding their houses, buying fashionable two-wheelers, mobiles and LCD TVs," said Biswajit Ghosh, his neighbour. The two young men, in their early 30s, said they invested in chit funds expecting the money to double in five years or at least at an interest rate of 15% per year. While the former has seven lakh rupees stuck in two different chit funds, the latter invested `50,000. Their schemes matured in August 2013 but there is no hope of getting that money yet. Tarak Manna, 50, of Joymollah village lives on the interest he receives for his saving of about Rs 10 lakhs. It seems like an easier life but it has its discontents. Manna doesn’t know how to pass time. "We know how to deal with land, but not cash," he said. For those who parted with their land unwillingly, life is full of uncertainty over whether the present government would be able to win the case in the Supreme Court and return their land to them. (Conributed by Snigdhendu Bhattacharya)
‘BOTH LAND AND MONEY ARE GONE’
When a neighbour’s child is enjoying an ice-cream, it’s hard to deny one to your own kid. That’s how Gorakhnath Patil, 38, explains how his family ran through `10 lakh in compensation in a few months, leaving him without land, money or a means to earn a living. Patil of Vashi village in Maharashtra’s Raigad district sold his one-acre paddy farm in 2006 to make way for the Reliance Industries Special Economic Zone. The money was first divided between members of the joint family. What remained was spent in paying for a stomach operation for his mother, a new sofa set and almirah for his two-room house, and a brand-new motorcycle — bought because that’s what all his neighbours were doing."We had never seen so much money in our lives," he says. "With the money, our expenditure rose several times. We were now paying for cellphone calls, petrol and restaurant meals. When we had less, we spent less." In eight months, the money was all gone. Patil now supports his family on the salary he earns as a driver. He, his parents, wife and 14-year-old son sometimes struggle to pay for groceries. "We are totally at the mercy of my job, and that is extremely stressful," Patil says. To make matters worse, the promise of employment has evaporated too, sincethe development of the special zone has come to a standstill amid legal tangles. (Contributed by Riddhi Doshi)
‘LIVES HAVE CHANGED FOR THE BETTER’
Kaka Singh, 57, wearing a traditional kurta-pyjama and turban, can be easily mistaken for a farmer in Punjab trying to make ends meet. But Singh owns 44 acres of agricultural land, a showroom, a shop, a 150 sq yard house built with all modern facilities and an ancestral house. In 2008, his life changed for the better when he was compensated with `7.89 crores for his five acre plot of land. The Punjab government acquired it for the construction of the Chandigarh international airport.
On acquiring 306 acres of land in the area, the government paid `1.5 crore per acre to around 150 farmers in Jeorheri village in SAS Nagar district. Singh says that now his only wish is to see his grandson speaking fluent English and getting a good education. "I could have never gotten such a price. My wife and I are very proud that we got a chance to create enough wealth for our children". From the money that he received, Singh bought 40 acres of agricultural land worth ` 2 crores in Fathegarh Sahib and Patiala. He now makes around `22 lakhs a year as lease money. "The kind of lifestyle we have now would not have been possible had this acquisition not happened," says Singh, adding that the money helped him to get his son and daughter married. "Money increases stature and after I got the compensation, there was no dearth of proposals, especially for my daughter. But we chose a house where she will be really happy and where that family was not after our money," he says. (Contributed by Jyotsna Jalali)