For a piece of Earth

Published: Fri, 06/03/2011 - 07:33 Updated: Fri, 06/03/2011 - 07:36

With stiff resistance and State violence, the colonial land acquisition policy is becoming a contentious issue across the country. Can the Sonia Gandhi-led NAC find a rational and humane solution?

Akash Bisht Bhatta/Parsaul

On a hot summer afternoon, with the sun at its brutal best, dry winds whirled through the dusty and empty terrain of Bhatta village in Greater Noida in the neighbourhood of Delhi. An uneasy calm had descended upon this small, arid, eerie village. Bhatta resembled a ruined medieval village abandoned by its inhabitants. The kuccha lanes and bylanes had no human presence. Burnt carts, damaged cars and motorcycles, ashes and damaged objects, ravaged homes and walls, dotted the landscape. The entire village that used to be bustling with people seemed to be trapped in a strange sense of tragedy. This was one day after Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi had made a secret, dramatic visit to the village. 

The first house on the road that led to the village seemed abandoned, with only a damaged car parked next to the cattle shed. A knock on the door led to a long silence. Much later, a woman and her two daughters emerged with curiosity and fear visible in their eyes. "My husband is not here, he has gone to live with our relatives due to the fear of the police. There are no men in the village and you will only find women and children," said Kamlesh. 

Further inside the village, true to Kamlesh's word, women informed this reporter that the men have fled out of fear and they don't know where they are. "For all you know, they must have been burnt to death in one of the earth-and-ash mounds. We really can't confirm whether they are safe or not," said a woman. With tears in their eyes women recount the horror stories of how the massive police machinery of the UP government wreaked havoc in the village, unleashing relentless, indiscriminate violence; they smashed to pulp the men, they were equally brutal with women and children. Women in the village claimed that men have been burnt alive. However, contrary to the views of Rahul Gandhi and the National Commission for Women, no one uttered a word on rape or molestation. 

The genesis of this violence lies in the agitation by farmers of 17 villages in the area demanding better compensation for their land, which was being acquired for the proposed Yamuna Expressway (UP Chief Minister Mayawati's pet project after the Taj Corridor was scuttled) and a booming high-tech city. The agitation that began in January 2011 had farmers demanding that at least 120 sq m of land should be left for them, and that there should be a revenue sharing arrangement with the Jaypee group, the builders who had bagged the lucrative contract for both projects. The Mayawati regime outrightly rejected the farmers' demands. 

On May 7, the farmers were having a meeting when armed policemen along with District Magistrate (DM) Deepak Agarwal reached Bhatta and apparently incited the villagers, who then retaliated. The violence that followed reportedly left 10 people dead, including two policemen. Even the DM was shot in the leg. 

However, the police version is different. A senior officer told Hardnews that Manveer Singh Tevatia - president of the Kisan Sangharsh Samiti, who had earlier also led the Tappal farmers' movement in Aligarh district - incited "armed villagers" against the state government. "He became their leader, and soon the farmers of Greater Noida came under his spell. He had a following similar to that of a guerilla leader, and even women took to guns under his guidance," a senior police official informed at Bhatta. He said that Tevatia's days are numbered, implying that as and when they find him, they will avenge the murder of the two policemen. Tevatia, since May 7, has gone underground. 

With the crucial UP assembly elections around the corner, the twin villages have become a volcanic hot spot for various political parties who are hell bent on using the agitation and collective discontent to their advantage. Congress has been the first to take mileage out of the issue by issuing statements that were clearly politically motivated. Rahul Gandhi, who sneaked in on a motorbike to stage a dharna at Bhatta Parsaul, said, "I feel ashamed to call myself an Indian after seeing what has happened here."

"The whole idea of supporting farmers in Bhatta Parsaul was to launch the party's political agenda for the crucial upcoming elections in UP. Reportedly, it is also being alleged in what is clearly a 'conspiracy theory' that Congress leader Digvijaya Singh paid big money to Tevatia to instigate the movement," said a political observer. Digvijaya Singh visited the villages with Rahul. 

Critics argue that thousands of farmers have committed suicides across the country in recent times, especially in Congress-NCP-ruled Maharashtra, but Rahul has doggedly ignored this mass tragedy. Congress, similarly, became stunningly speechless after the killings and rape in Nandigram, and atrocities in Singur, and in many ecological hot spots of Orissa and elsewhere, where there are struggles against land acquisition, mining and SEZs. This sudden compassion for the reasonably prosperous farmers of UP as compared to the lakhs of impoverished, landless farmers and malnourished adivasis living below the poverty line, in most parts of India, has been taken with a pinch of salt.

Defending Rahul, Union Minister of State for Communications and IT Sachin Pilot said, "Unlike politicians from other parties who went for photo-op in the twin villages, Rahul's visit changed the way the agitation was being perceived by the nation. He was the first one to visit the villages and since then the UP government has been under tremendous pressure."

However, Rahul's comments and posturing didn't go down well with his political detractors. BJP launched an offensive. "We are ashamed of the Congress rule of half-a-century which has denied the rights of farmers, be it remunerative prices or amendment to the Land Acquisition Act," said BJP spokesman Prakash Javadekar. Mayawati too made scathing attacks against Rahul's "drama". 

Congress responded with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announcing that the Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill would be cleared in the monsoon session. Singh assured RLD chief Ajit Singh and Rahul that the bill would be tabled in the next session of Parliament. 

The colonial Land Acquisition Act (1894) is hated by farmers. There have been umpteen calls to dump this draconian law. However, the proposed amendments ran into a hurdle after the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council (NAC), in a draft proposal, made suggestions for Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill, 2009, and Resettlement and Rehabilitation Bill, 2009. 

"This is not the first time that such protests have happened. Large protests have centred around land acquisition. The country has waited for too long. This colonial law favours the State and there is very little protection for people. This agitation is a reminder in this direction. I feel the proposed amendments won't go far enough, and there is a need for a consolidated bill instead of two separate bills," NAC member and former IAS officer Harsh Mander told Hardnews.

The draft note says: "...NAC-II therefore feels that it is important that these proposed statutes are reviewed once again with a view to making these more just and humane, and to ensure that the processes of acquisition and involuntary displacement are more transparent and fair, and those affected by the development projects are made partners in development."

In a major development, NAC-II, in its meeting held on May 25, came to the conclusion that the government should be acquiring 100 per cent of the land for public purpose by offering extremely good compensation to landowners. However, Hardnews learnt that not all members were in favour of the government acquiring land even for private players.

"Land acquisition by the government for private companies isn't a great proposition. It is a historical irony that the former Marxist government in West Bengal was acquiring land for private players. This makes the question relevant: should the government be acquiring land for private players?" said Mander, moments before the NAC's meeting on May 25.

However, he also stated that there are alternate views. The proposed note prepared by the NAC reads: "In NAC-II Working Group, this is the only major issue on which there is no agreement, and the full NAC will have to take a considered view: (4.1) Dr (NC) Saxena believes that it is appropriate for government to acquire land for private companies. If this is not done, private companies would exploit unorganised, small and particularly tribal cultivators and pay them a pittance. They will also be deprived of benefits of R&R." It seems that it was Saxena's view that prevailed over the dissenting voices. 

Agreed academic Shekhar Singh of the National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI), "Private companies should not be allowed to acquire land as then it would be a market transaction and there is a strong possibility that people might be fooled or forced to part with their land."

Several experts and activists do not agree with the NAC proposal. "This entire proposal by the NAC seems like a clever camouflage to facilitate corporate land grab. This is what the corporate houses basically want - that the government should acquire land for them. I ask, why should chief ministers become property dealers? It looks like this draft has not been prepared by the NAC - but by the Ambanis," said Devinder Sharma, leading food security expert. 

Sharma is appalled that the NAC has failed to mention foodgrain production as public purpose. "It is most important," he said. He suggests that instead of acquiring fertile land for the industry, which would lead to a decrease in overall food production, the government should relocate the industries to huge tracts of barren land. "There is almost 1.7 lakh hectare of barren land in the country. Even countries like America are conserving agricultural land through various State policy measures," he mentioned. 

The National Alliance of Peoples' Movements (NAPM), which has been at the forefront of protracted movements against land acquisition (as in the Narmada Valley), has expressed reservations about the proposed NAC draft. "The draft is a bit mindless. It is silent on the proposals made in the 2006 draft. It should address the issue of forced displacement because now the people have made it clear in so many words and at so many places that they don't want to give their land at all," says Vijayan MJ, an NAPM activist. Incidentally, Aruna Roy, NAC member, is also part of NAPM. 

Despite the debate surrounding NAC's proposals, there is ambiguity on what would be tabled in the coming monsoon session of Parliament. The Union ministry of rural development has already made it clear that there would be no single bill and that two separate bills would be tabled like 2007. Even then, the ministry, rubbishing the NAC's draft, had gone forward with two bills which were later stalled in the Rajya Sabha. "The Resettlement and Rehabilitation Bill provides for rehabilitation of people affected far beyond those getting affected due to implementation of the Land Acquisition Act alone. Its provisions are also for people affected due to national calamities and other land acquisition provisions," Vilas Rao Deshmukh, the rural development minister, reportedly said.  

Pilot too believes that the debate surrounding the scrapping of the 1894 bill is just a fallacy. He adds, "Nowhere does the law say that the government should forcibly evict the villagers The onus of acquring land is on state governments, and it is they who manipulate it according to their needs. The amendments should be aimed at protecting the rights of farmers and others dependent on these farmlands." He asks why these inudstries can't be set up, for instance, in parched and hungry Bundelkhand instead of on fertile lands,  

"When Sonia Gandhi could not push the NAC draft in 2005, how can you expect that now?" says Vijayan. Many activists in the conflict zones of India, seem to agree with him.

Indeed, the land acquisition policy of the government is becoming a contentious issue across the country. With UP assembly elections due next year, it remains to be seen whether the tabled bill would be able to silence its critics and give a fair deal to farmers and others dependent on land, including landless farmers, Dalits and adivasis. 

"Take the case of UP," points out a caustic Devinder Sharma. According to my calculations, there will be a deficit of 14 million tonnes of foodgrains if the state government carries forward its land acquisition policy and acquires 6.6 million hectares. Who will feed this huge state of UP then?"     
With inputs from Sadiq Naqvi in Delhi

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British and Indian regimes follow the same law

1894  The British bring in the Land Acquisition Act (LAA) based essentially on the principle of 'eminent domain' that gave the State right over all the property within its boundaries. It is argued that it has been used ever since to deprive the poor of their rights over natural resources. 

1984  Rajiv Gandhi government brings in amendments to the LAA, inserting a chapter on companies. The government now had the mandate to acquire land for private companies.

1987  The Narmada Bachao Andolan prepares a draft on National Resettlement and Rehabilitation (R&R) Policy, which is discussed by the National Working Group on Displacement.

1990  Indian Social Institute, Delhi, initiates a national process which leads to a draft R&R policy. The Planning Commission and Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD) come up with draft policies in 1998 wherein non-governmental drafts are also incorporated. 

2003  NDA government brings in the National Rehabilitation Policy (NRP). Civil society groups complain that this was a secretive affair without any consultations. 

2004-05  There are demands  soon after the UPA government comes to power that it should start a consultation process to amend the NRP, and review the issues of displacement and rehabilitation. There are country-wide consultations by NAC and other social movements against displacement. Diverse viewpoints are consolidated into a draft which is passed by Sonia Gandhi-led NAC in 2005.

2006  With absolute silence on the NAC draft, the MoRD brings in NRP 2006, which critics from civil society describe as similar in framework to the 2003 policy of the NDA government.

2007  In October, the MoRD again notifies NRP 2007. In December, amendments to the LAA and the National R&R Bill are both tabled in Parliament. People's movements argue that several important arguments are not accommodated. Both the bills are passed in the Lower House and later stalled in Rajya Sabha.

2011  Manmohan Singh promises to bring in the LAA in monsoon session. NAC prepares a fresh draft and asks for one bill rather than two separate bills. However, MoRD is adamant on bringing in two separate R&R and LAA bills.                    
 - Sadiq Naqvi

With stiff resistance and State violence, the colonial land acquisition policy is becoming a contentious issue across the country. Can the Sonia Gandhi-led NAC find a rational and humane solution?
Akash Bisht Bhatta/Parsaul

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