Who’s Land is it Anyway?
The ghosts of the archaic Land Acquisition Act of 1894 have come back again to haunt farmers, politicos and those who have invested their life-savings into their dream home in Greater Noida, alike.
Amitayu Sengupta, renowned Economist at the Economic Research Foundation, sheds light on the issue and why it is pertinent even after two centuries of its conception
One issue that has grabbed public attention in recent times, besides corruption, is the ‘problem’ of land acquisition. All across the country, numerous public protests have sprung up on various land acquisitions by the state machineries of various states. All these protests have reached such levels that the entire political system has been shaken by it. Land Acquisition, especially from farmers, is a highly politically sensitive issue and almost all parties in power across various states have burned their fingers.
There has been a persistent call to do away with the current Land Acquisition laws of the
country; and the recent call by the Supreme Court for the same lends
serious credence to the call.
It is common knowledge that even as the British left India as a sovereign nation in 1947, much of their legacy still persists in how we run our country even today. None highlights this more starkly than the Indian Penal Code and other legal provisions that we still follow from the British era. The Land Acquisition Act that we follow today is basically the one designed in 1894 by the British government, with some tweaks and turns over time.
Under this Act, the state machinery, the central government or state government or even local authorities can acquire lands that are privately owned for ‘public purposes’. The Act defines public purposes as setting up educational or health institutions, housing, slum clearance, rural planning projects, industrial or other project sites etc. Under the law, the authorities must pass a formal
notification, upon which those who own the land can raise an objection if they want to. The authorities dwell on the objections and hold an enquiry to pass judgment on their veracity. The entire process has to be completed within a year. The government has special powers in case of urgency under which the process of enquiry can be waivered. The original owners are to be compensated monetarily, based on market value of the land at the time of issuance of the original notification. Failure to pay compensation within a year entails an interest rate to be paid to the recipients for the delay period. There are numerous facets to all of the above mentioned broad
outlines of the Act.
Any legal provision should be seen in the context it is used. The Land Acquisition Act of a colonial government is bound to have certain high-handedness that is not supposed to exist in a sovereign democracy. While we make proud statements of how independent India defined Fundamental Rights for all it free citizens, legal provisions like land Acquisition Acts prove that a stark sense of inequality exists when it comes to an exchange between the State and the inhabitants. The argument of the State often tries to poise this question as a debate between the interests of an individual and the good of the collective. However, the numerous protest movements have managed to reach such proportions simply because they were not protests by some misguided or selfish individuals, but because they represented a collective will by themselves.
Defining Public Purpose
This brings us to how public purpose is defined in the current context. More important perhaps is the difference in perception of public purpose, as defined by the State machineries and as perceived by the public itself. Much of the present debate is about land acquisition for industrialisation or modernisation. The current imbroglio has often been interpreted as a stand-off between traditional agricultural society and a more modernised industrial one. This viewpoint is often misinterpreted, and many well intentioned individuals get swayed by it. There is no debate about the need for progress and modernisation of any society. There is no doubt that any such change is bound to generate frictions in society as any transitional phase is bound to be bumpy.
Those who lose land are paid a monetary compensation and the matter often ends there. Besides problems of corruption, unjust compensation payment, usurpation etc aside, the biggest debate is about the future of those poor people. Industrialisation in an erstwhile agricultural land does not necessarily mean that those who owned the land get to reap the benefits of the process. More often than not, those rendered landless become socially more vulnerable. Lack of education or formal training in modern means of livelihood mean that they end up becoming landless labourers fit only for unskilled jobs. They are forced to join the huge stream of migrant labourers in the unorganised sector of our country. The Arjun Sengupta Committee only few years ago had highlighted how in the informal sector workers barely make `20 a day. The poor villagers from whom lands are been sought are not poor and backward by own choice, but are victim of their current situations. The choice before them is not between modernisation and traditional poverty, but between destitute and the status quo. Monetary compensation based on land valuation does not take into account the unsecured future of the present and future generation of those who stand to lose their lands. T. Increasingly, there has been a call for rehabilitation instead of just compensation and the Supreme Court’s acknowledgment of the same is a much welcome step in this regard. The review of the Land Acquisition Act is thus necessary to take this factor into account.
Public Purpose vs Private Profiteering
Another important factor in today’s context vis-à-vis the interpretation of ‘public purpose’ is about the final usage of the land acquired. Public purpose had a different connotation under British Rule, and a meaningful connotation under a welfare state as India was before liberalisation. However, in the current context, the State has bypassed much of its responsibilities to the private sector and much of the land acquired is passed on to private companies, MNCs, major industrial conglomerates etc. This land is therefore to be used for private profiteering which is supposed to generate trickle down benefits for the society at large. It is increasingly being found that the State is just acting as the agent for furthering private interests in grabbing land from the residents; and massive issues of corruption, kickbacks etc highlight that the agents of the State have vested personal interests in it as well. Almost all such ‘developmental’ projects are carried at the expense of huge losses to the state exchequer that does not serve any public purpose by any stretch of the imagination. The need for a more transparent and democratic Act is a necessity in this context. The Land Acquisition Act of India needs to be reviewed, not simply because it belongs to the archaic British colonial legacy but also because the legal provision fails to do justice in the current context. Any sovereign democracy must ensure justice to all its citizens, and legal provisions must be reviewed to uphold this principle. n