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No soft landing

india Updated: Jul 30, 2009 02:55 IST
KumKum Dasgupta
KumKum Dasgupta
Hindustan Times
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When a party is in power for too long, you know what happens. And 32 years is a long, long time,” says 40-year-old Jaladhar Majhi. This is his short, crisp explanation of the Left Front’s political rout in Nandigram and Singur and its subsequent drubbing in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls.

Sitting under an enormous banyan tree, one summer afternoon, in Purulia’s Joradih village, Raghunathpur block, Majhi told me, “I can assure you that the 2011 Assembly elections will be decisive. However, it would be wrong to say that all farmers in Bengal are against land acquisition. The price has to be fair.”

Three hundred and fifty kilometres from Joradih is Writers’ Buildings, a 18th century red edifice with a Corthinian façade, the seat of the West Bengal government. In the cavernous corridors of this British-era building, Majhi’s views on the possible fate of the Left Front in 2011 cannot be brushed aside easily. After the twin losses, the battle-scarred Left Front government has been dithering on further land acquisitions.

Chief Secretary Ardhendu Sen is as candid as Majhi, “The government will not go ahead with any land acquisition thanks to the political setback [losses in Lok Sabha elections].” So it’s wait and watch till 2011? I ask. “Looks like it.”

Next day, I meet a young industrialist in Calcutta. “There’s not much hope for industrialisation here anymore. The good work has been undone,” he said gloomily. That was in May. On July 16, Bengal’s Finance Minister confirmed that his government will not acquire land for industrial use and will encourage industry to go for direct purchase of land according to its needs.

Land acquisition in India is a multi-cornered and multi-layered battle and the new flag-bearer is Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee. Riding high on her Lok Sabha electoral success, Banerjee (whose politics could be mistaken as the ‘new Left’) has managed to stall the much-awaited Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill (LAA) and the Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill.

By stalling the LAA Bill, which amends the archaic Land Acquisition Act of 1894, she has ensured that we are back to square one — the legal status quo as far as land laws are concerned stays. So even if farmers like Majhi are open to selling their land, they would have to continue with their unviable patches of land.

Considering that the LAA Bill would have brought some improvement and the rehab Bill would be an improvement on the non-binding policy we have as of now, one wonders which would have been better: an improved law, though definitely not the perfect one, or an old one which is without doubt Draconian. Take your pick.

Banerjee, however, is not the only one to have expressed displeasure over the contents of the LAA Bill. Activists led by Medha Patkar have also opposed it. While Banerjee doesn’t want any State role in land acquisition, Patkar and other activists say that the new amendment couches “private interest in public interest”.

Patkar says the amendment includes a “specious” provision according to which the State shall acquire 30 per cent of land for a private concern if the company acquires 70 per cent of land. “This indicates that the area marked for a project becomes a fait accompli,” she says.

Instead of LAA, she demands that a new act on development planning be brought about in which there would be some place for land acquisition, strictly for public purpose and with all provisions for full and prior rehabilitation.

How the government will wriggle out of this chicken-and-egg situation, incorporate all concerns and how and when India will get a ‘fair’ law remains to be seen.

In this cacophony of debates and counter-debates, two main issues have barely been mentioned: the necessity to have a land-use policy and updating of land records. We urgently need a land use policy that clearly demarcates the rules of land use. Some states, including Bengal, are working on their state-specific ones.

“The policy should clearly say that land of a certain area (e.g. coastal, riverine, near forests, protected areas, sensitive zones) should not be allowed to be used/ acquired for non-essential purposes. Similarly land of small and marginal farmers and agricultural areas should also have restrictions in terms of acquisitions,” says Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People.

Such a policy becomes imperative because the land-man ratio is adverse in India and the fight for land between agriculturists and industrial houses will only increase in the future. The policy, says Aseem Shrivastava, an independent writer, has to be a collaborative decision.

And the second issue is of updating land records. “Old land records makes the task of land acquisition doubly difficult. The current users of land are often not its legal owners. The computerisation of such records will go a long way in reducing conflicts,” says Hari Mohan Mathur Visiting Professor, Council for Social Development, Delhi.

As I wound up the interview with Majhi that summer afternoon, he said something that probably has a message for politicians, activists and journalists: “Everyone says farmers are against industrialisation. Nothing is further from the truth.”