For three days in March, thousands of farmers from across the country, and owing allegiance to Bharti Kisan Union, stayed put at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. With distress written large on their faces, they hoped that the government they voted for would at least have the courtesy to listen to them. Their anger was over an unjust law that they fear will forcibly evict them from their meager land holdings, and also they came hoping to seek some assurance from the powers that be for ending the continuing agrarian distress that they are living with.
A fortnight earlier, nearly 5,000 tribals under the banner of Ekta Parishad had also marched to New Delhi to join the two-day protest by Anna Hazare and others against the land acquisition bill. But with indifferent State machinery, and with an equally indifferent middle class, they found they had no sympathetic ears to allow them to even share their sufferings. Not even the national media, barring a few exceptions, took notice.
The disconnect between the middle class in the cities and the poor and marginalized in the rural areas, including 600 million farmers and the landless farm workers, is now becoming loud and distinct. For all practical purposes, the divide between India and Bharat that has been talked about for long is now clearly visible.
What Is The Land Acquisition Bill?
With the government calling the Bill pro-farmer and pro-development and most of opposition parties and social activists opposing it as anti-farmer, it is useful to sieve through the noise and look at the changes proposed and what existed earlier.
The 1894 Land Acquisition Act and cost of development-induced displacement
Until now all land acquisitions in India were being done under the colonial Land Acquisition Act of 1894. That Act allowed the governments to acquire huge lands for so called ‘public purpose’ and industrialization, but did not give any say to the farmers in the process. Therefore rapid growth of industries and infrastructure in the past several decades saw forcible evictions of farmers and tribals from their lands and forests. Working Group on Human Rights in India and the UN (WGHR) reported in 2012 that since independence 60-65 million people are estimated to have been displaced by development projects. Majority of these are farmers, including tribals, dalits and other rural poor. Although the industrial and infrastructure projects contributed to India’s economic growth, the farmers and others previously dependent on land and later uprooted were never consulted or made participants in the development process.
The 2013 Land Acquisition Act: A partial step towards democratic process
The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Resettlement and Rehabilitation (Amendment) Act brought in by the UPA government in 2013 was an imperfect attempt to resolve the conflicts. However it was a significant step that gave a negotiating right to the farmer in the process of his/her land being acquired for private companies or public-private-partnership (PPP) projects. The 2013 Act mandated that consent of 80% of affected land losers in case of private projects and 70% in case of PPP projects is required. It also required that Social Impact Assessment (SIA) is to be carried out by the government before acquisition. SIA included assessment of impacts on potential land losers, the landless, and the environment. The 2013 Act also increased the rates of compensation to four times the market rate for rural land and twice for urban land. In order not to disrupt food security the Act prescribed that agricultural land be acquired within certain limit and multi-crop land be avoided as far as possible.
However there were several major gaps in the 2013 Act. For example, 13 of the 16 Acts under which forcible land acquisition is possible were still not covered under the new compensation, resettlement and rehabilitation measures prescribed in it, and government projects still did not require consent and SIA.
Amendments made by NDA to the 2013 Act: Undoing of democratic process
The Ordinance for amending the 2013 Act introduced by the NDA government in December 2014 (re-promulgated in April 2015), and presented as a Bill in February 2015 with some amendments made in March 2015, has undone almost all positive achievements of 2013 Act for the sake of easing up procedures for private industry and facilitating ‘make in India’ campaign.
The conditions of 70% (or 80%) consent and SIA have been exempted for five areas – industrial corridors, PPP projects (excluding private hospitals and colleges), rural infrastructure, defence and defence production, and affordable housing. It must be noted that practically any major project of private sector can be included in one of these areas. In addition, the prescription to limit use of agricultural land and to avoid multi-crop land has been removed. This is bound to compromise India’s food security. Furthermore, if an offence is committed by a government official or the head of a department, no citizen can file FIR or go to court for the official’s prosecution without prior sanction of the government.
The only positive aspect of the 2015 Bill is that it has retained the higher compensation levels of the 2013 Act and made them applicable also for the remaining 13 Acts. However by depriving farmers from having any say in the process of land acquisition, the core principles of latest Bill have become similar to the colonial Act.
For several years now, since the time economists/planners began telling us that land is an economic asset and it is unfortunately in hands of people who are inefficient, there has been literally a scramble by business and industry (driven by real estate) to procure as much as possible. The World Bank is backing this strategy, and if you have read the World Development Report 2008, you would know what I mean. It calls for land rentals, and setting up a network of training centres to train the displaced farmers to become industrial labour.
No wonder, the UPA government has made budgetary provisions for setting up 1,000 Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs). Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself had called for a population shift, moving out 70 per cent of the farming community into urban centres. This is what the World Bank had wanted India to do way back in 1996. It had wanted India to move 400 million people – twice the combined population of UK, France and Germany – to be moved out of the villages in the next 20 years, by 2015.
It’s all therefore part of a global design. All over the world pitched battles are being fought across nations by the poor and deprived, who fear further marginalisation when their land is literally grabbed by the government on behalf of the industry. It first begins by deliberately turning agriculture into a losing proposition as a result of which farmers, in most places, are keen to move out provided they get a better price for their land. Once this happens, it is much easier to drive out the farmers from their land holdings.
But it’s not as simple as it appears to be. Land being the only economic security for the poor, they put up a tough fight. In China, as Fareed Zakaria wrote in Newsweek sometime back, 75,000 land conflicts, which means almost 250 protests a day, most of them bloody, happen every year. In India, there were 260 land protests in 165 districts in 2013-14. When the new land bill comes into force, I foresee the battle over land intensifying in India. India will soon turn into a land of thousand mutinies.