Sunday, January 24, 2010

ORF seminar on land acqusition issues related to "Mega Projects"

Observer Research Foundation (ORF) held a seminar on “Mega Project Development: Issues in Land Acquisition” on 20th Jan 2010.

The participants included top serving and retired bureaucrats, senior officers from the corporate sector and a few representatives from academia and civil society. I was invited to speak to represent a civil society viewpoint. ORF will no doubt bring out the seminar proceedings in time as per their usual practice. The following are the notes I used for my speech.

Development sans the people

Large scale development needs land and other natural resources such as water and minerals; in the current model of development, it has no use for the people living on the land. Boundaries have to be erected around the area of the development as quickly as possible after evicting the original occupants so that the work can proceed. The original occupants are not part of the development nor will they benefit from it except perhaps in some incidental way; they therefore have no stake in the project.

On the other hand, living outside but in close proximity to the development, those expelled have to deal with the “externalities” of the project – the competition for natural resources like water, the pollution of the environment – that industrial activity in the project area inevitably brings along. Is is any wonder that there is strong opposition to acqusition for "mega projects"?
I will give a few examples. An earlier speaker alluded to land acquisition for MRPL. Ground water in the vicinity of MRPL is polluted. The MSEZ comming up in the same area will compete for Netravati’s water with the farmers of the area. In the Uttaranchal run of the river hydroelectric projects, tunnel boring using explosives has caused damage to crops and ground water sources in nearby villages.
An authoritarian colonial legal framework is conveniently used to force the people to part with their land. The framework is focused on obtaining possession of land from its current owners and has no interest in what happens to those who are thus dispossessed and displaced. The process brings years of uncertainity and fear into the lives of the affected.

In order to justify forcible acquisition, the colonial framers of the law used the notion of “public purpose” or “larger public good” for which a forcible acquisition could be resorted to. Justice was seen to be achieved if compensation at “market value” was provided to the land (property) owners as would happen in a free transaction between a buyer and a seller. The compensation fixed by government for land has always been a disputed issue and is responsible for a large part of the civil litigation clogging the courts.

The main preoccupation of changes since independence has been to enlarge the scope of “public purpose” so that the government has an unfettered hand and its decision to acquire land cannot be set aside by the courts on the grounds of purpose or end use. Today – after the experience of over 60 years of land acquisition by the Indian state for varied uses - the garb of public purpose has lost all legitimacy in the eyes of the people. (I have discussed this in great detail in this piece) Land acquisition by the state is seen as a land grab orchestrated by and on behalf of corporate entities with private profit as the motive.

Rehabilitation and resettlement (R&R) – the language of benevolence

Large scale land acquisition covering many villages and their lands has caused large scale human disasters persistently highlighted by the Narmada Bachao Andolan and other organizations.
Instead of addressing the loss of various rights (not just that of land ownership and tenancy) of all the affected people (not just land owners and tenants) consequent on land acquisition in the Land Acquisition Law, the government has been pushing a “resettlement and rehabilitation” policy over the years. This policy has taken a new avatar – an R&R bill that is waiting clearance from parliament to become law.

Acquiring land for a 'public purpose', with its attendant displacement and denial of livelihood, is claimed as a right of the state. But the R&R bill does not accept that it is the state's duty to resettle and rehabilitate all the affected citizens so that they are at least able to maintain, if not improve, their current standard of living.
Rehabilitation is presented as an act of benevolence of the state, a measure to mitigate the suffering of the affected citizens to the extent permitted by the external circumstances and subject to various conditions. In fact, involuntary displacement caused by the planned exercise of the coercive powers of the state is equated with displacement caused by chance natural calamity, both deserving of the same response from the state. The R&R bill remains little more than a statement of policy. And such a policy has been extent for many years without making a real difference. (For a detailed critique of the R&R bill, see this piece 
Land acquisition by the state – even with R&R thrown in – does not change the basic outlook projected by large development projects and the basic perception of the affected people that the state is acting as a land agent on behalf of corporate India.

People have fiercely opposed in the past and continue to oppose acquisition for large projects. If land is acquired overcoming the opposition, creating islands of development surrounded by displaced people will only keep alive a permanent hostility between those sheltered inside barbed wire fences and those outside and push the dispossessed to seek justice through other means.

Needed - a framework for planned (re)development of the countryside

Large scale development must also take up the aspirations of the people of the area. There has to be integrated planning – plans for locating industry, but also for the residential, commercial, environmental, educational and agricultural needs of the population and the environment. Land use has to be planned for the hinterland, just as it is being done for the metros’ today.

The plans for a project must be seen as a re-development of their area by the people residing there – in that case they will be willing to bear the dislocations and trauma associated with the change. This involves taking the people of the affected area into confidence about the plans, getting their approval through direct democracy initiatives; most importantly, it means that the planning of a project should also include planning for the townships for the affected people, compensation for their loss of income and a stake in the project in lieu of their land.
The state must take responsibility for such planning and changes of land use. It’s task must be to ensure that the affected people are not shortchanged and also see the fruits of development…The true cost of a project would include the cost of redevelopment for the people of the area and itself will act as a brake on unnecessary “mega projects” and projects in heavily populated areas.

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