The 1000 acres of land meant for the Tata-Singur project had to come from 2000 owners – illustrating the extent of fragmentation of holdings in India and the necessity of state intervention.
In the US, that much land would have come from just two.
Singur project was abandoned following violent protests. But the new land acquisition law, passed by the lower house of parliament on Thursday, may not make projects such as Singur any easier – it makes the same land nine times costlier. The effective price per acre of that land, after the new law, will be Rs 78 lakhs- which would make any project unviable. The process of acquisition is not simple either.
“The government is trying to significantly overpay landowners. Price of land is the highest in India already and this may mean the end of India’s industrialization dreams,” says Sanjoy Chakravorty, professor of geography and urban studies at Temple University and author of the recent book ‘The Price of Land – Acquisition, Conflict, Consequence.’
It is indeed true that land acquisitions in India have been unfair to owners all this while. Scholars estimate that between 20 and 60 million people have been displaced for projects since 1947. They were paid pittance, if at all. And those thrown out were the poorest and the powerless, tribals constituting a good proportion.
They were rarely given alternate land or livelihood. Suddenly in the last decade, the state lost this arbitrary power to dispossess people, largely due to the increasingly competitive nature of Indian politics and media explosion.
The new land bill turns the situation on its head. It empowers landowners, and even dependents on the land. In the process, the policymakers lost the larger perspective. How?
Manufacturing contributes a mere 18% of Indian economy and 65% of the population still depends on agriculture. A massive shift of population away from agriculture - particularly to manufacturing - and from rural to urban centres is what India requires. India hopes to – and needs to- create 100 million jobs in manufacturing in the next decade to employ its expanding workforce.
For that to happen, the share of manufacturing must go up to 25% of GDP by 2025. Land is the most essential component for this.
Moreover, land clustering must be easier and affordable for populations to concentrate, which in turn is necessary to ensure easier access to social and physical infrastructure.
Many fear the land bill will severely limit India’s ability to achieve these goals. India’s advantage in terms of workforce may be offset by its disadvantage in land availability.
The parliamentary debate – particularly rural development minister Jairam Ramesh’s reply – should have done more to allay these fears.