Over the years, land acquisition has become a dirty term in India. In the coming days, it will only become more controversial unless the Centre and the states learn the art of persuasion and honestly work out deals acceptable to both the land losers and the land acquirers.
Simply by using the archaic principle of 'eminent domain' to forcibly acquire land will only exacerbate the already tense situation that many parts of the country are witnessing today.
It will also lead to the hardening of stances as is happening in Orissa where people, children included, are physically blocking the land meant for the Rs 54,000-crore integrated steel plant and captive port by South Korea's Pohang Steel Company (Posco).
The Posco case is a classic example of how land acquisition should not be done and could be a guide for investors planning to set up projects on fertile farmlands that provide livelihood options to thousands.
The Posco project has been controversial from the start with many economists and environmentalists questioning the deal. It was only recently that the project got conditional approvals from the central ministry of environment and forests, even though three members of a committee set up by the ministry found irregularities in the manner in which approvals were granted, thereby recommending a withdrawal of approvals.
Evidently, there's truth in accusations made by the protesters. But instead of negotiating and trying to sell them the idea, the Orissa government has taken a belligerent stance. While it said that it did not want to use force for acquiring the land, the state deployed armed police, threatening the protesters with bullets, tear gas and lathi-charges.
In a democratic set- up, such intimidation - however beneficial the project may be for the country or even the protesting people - cannot be a tool to push ideas being opposed overwhelmingly by the affected people. Nandigram in West Bengal was not an anomaly.
But the Posco story is not only about the Orissa government's high-handedness. It is also about politics. Months after giving conditional approvals to the project, environment minister Jairam Ramesh is now lecturing Naveen Patnaik's BJD government against "forcible acquisition of land".
You can't get more confusing than this. It was his ministry that set the ball rolling by giving the clearances. Surely, the minister didn't think that the state would be doing nothing after getting the green signal?
Unfortunately, this kind of confusion - and petty politicking - has become the leitmotif of India's land acquisition process. Minus a law that sets the ground rules for engagement between a buyer and a seller, every protest becomes a hostage to negative politics.