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Finding the right balance

The basic principle of every acquisition must be that people who lose their lands, homes and livelihoods to a project must become better off than before the acquisition, writes Harsh Mander.

india Updated: Apr 02, 2009 14:48 IST

The bitter stand-off that took place at Singur — between the Tatas and a range of political and social formations that represented farmers who were losing land to the company’s small car project — was not a one-off case. There are similar protests happening in other parts of the country too. In dispute is not just a model of progress that equates development with economic growth spurred by private investment. In the combat zone are pitted also the terms on which large corporations are enticed to invest: incredible tax holidays (the burden of which the ordinary citizen bears); eroded labour protection, enabling industry to hire and fire almost at will; and, most importantly, cheap land expeditiously acquired from mostly unwilling farmers.

Embattled people seem less and less convinced by the argument that some people — invariably with little power — must pay the price for development, through dispossession from their lands, livelihoods and habitat, so that the ‘country’ can prosper, with private corporations creating wealth, jobs and profits. The country is more than its upper and middle classes. But the plea for economics ‘as if people matter’, is a lost voice in the wilderness.

Governments still use an outdated colonial law that authorises the State to compulsorily acquire land from landowners for what it declares to be a ‘public purpose’. The State does not have to explain what this public purpose behind forcefully taking away people’s land is, and people have no right to challenge it. There was a time when public purpose was understood to be hospitals, roads, schools and dams. Today, governments are using the same law widely to acquire land cheap for industry. This is land for private profit, not for any public purpose. If our destinies are to be determined by the market, there is no reason why corporations should not negotiate directly with landowners and pay them market prices. State regulation would still be required to protect farmers from exploitation and to ensure that landless farm workers are also justly compensated.

Landowners are now being paid prices for their land as reflected in registered sale deeds, which are notoriously under-valued. What is worse, the land is valued at the time when the government declares its intention to acquire it, not at its enhanced price after industry is established. Therefore, when the dispossessed landowner tries to buy new land for cultivation or even to build a home, these are prohibitively expensive. Most are, therefore, rendered landless, unemployed and homeless, and often migrate helplessly to city slums, or encroach on forests.

To make matters worse, compensation is in cash. Residents of a relatively non-monetised economy, particularly tribals in forest interiors, have little experience in dealing with cash. Typically, therefore, they lose their money to the government or moneylenders — who lay claim to the money for old dues — or to pointless conspicuous consumption. The situation is worse for landless farm workers and tenants, who do not even receive the cash compensation. Their pauperisation is even more precipitous.

Governments make matters worse by the brutality with which they usually evacuate the acquired sites. Hapless people are driven out of their ancestral land and home amid police batons and bullets. In large dams, they are usually pushed out by the rising reservoir water during monsoon. There are usually no alternative sites to move to. The
government sometimes builds resettlement colonies, but these have rudimentary public facilities, and are so removed from the economic hub as to provide no opportunities for livelihood.

As India rushes to its chosen ‘shining’ destiny, is it inevitable that we should witness more hopelessly embattled people displaced by grand projects of government and private corporations? These farmers, tribal forest dwellers, artisans and farm workers seem dispensable and irrelevant to a resurgent modern India.

There are alternative blueprints of a more humane trajectory for displaced people that, sadly, successive governments have consistently rejected. Governments, first, should be required to explain the public purpose of each acquisition, and that no less-displacing or non-displacing alternatives are available for achieving the same objective. People should have the legal right to launch an informed challenge to these claims. Acquisition should be a last resort, and the state should be barred from compulsorily acquiring land for the needs of industry, which should negotiate a price in the market, with governments protecting landowners and farm workers.

The basic principle of every acquisition must be that people who lose their lands, homes and livelihoods to a project must become better off than before the acquisition. Rather than cash, their land and homes should be replaced in accordance with their aspirations. This is not an unfeasible aspiration, and would cost a small fraction of the total investment in any large project.

Most countries in modern history have built their wealth on the foundations of the oppression of powerless people. India is taking giant economic strides within a functioning democracy. We still have the time to resolve that we will not build our prosperity on the sufferings of ordinary people.

(Harsh Mander is Convener, Aman Biradari)