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Exclusive! Medha Patkar: Land acquisition ordinance will destroy poor

January 14, 2015 11:24 IST

The new ordinance on land acquisition will allow land grabbers to deprive millions, destroy agriculture, horticulture, rivers, forests, tree cover and mangroves to extract minerals as well as ground water, without replenishment at a pace that will not leave anything for the next generation, warns activist Medha Patkar.

The latest ordinance by the Narendra Modi government amending the Land Acquisition Act 2013 is a big step against the farmers, workers, and all rural and urban poor communities. It is bound to affect the country's natural wealth and development priorities.

Many intellectuals, the social elite and youth in the social network may not have realised the implications of the decision nor can our country's toiling masses understand the impact.

The ordinance denies 'peace and good government', guaranteed to the scheduled castes and tribes, the most disadvantaged sections, and permit infringement upon the right to life and livelihood of millions, including middle-class workers to small traders.

The 'development' paradigm over the last many decades has already been undemocratic, ignoring the basic rights and space to communities which are the socio-economic-political units at the base of our democratic structure.

The resources -- land, water, forest and minerals -- have been taken over and transferred to private investors through various acts which legitimised the phenomenon.

The legacy that began with the British through the Land Acquisition Act 1894 has not been ever questioned instead it has been rather extensively used, misused and furthered by the governments in India, against the interest and rights of communities surviving on natural resources.

Not less than 16 central acts and about 100 state level acts are in action, forcibly acquiring people's property. Since the 1960s and especially after 1980, Indian governments have invoked these acts for transfer of people's resources to private companies and corporations.

The Special Economic Zone Act, the Mining Acts, Industrial Acts, the National Highway Authority Act had provisions that empowered the rulers -- our elected representatives -- to do this.

The people's resistance has intensified over the years, challenging deprivation, destitution and displacement. The impact on livelihood as also the brutality, that accompanied the forcible eviction were brought to the fore by people's struggles.

They challenged violation of laws related to not these acquisitions, but the Constitution itself. Technical and procedural violations apart, conflict also revolved around the violation of the Right to Life including the Right to Livelihood, Food, Shelter, Health, Education.

The agitation against the POSCO steel plant in Odisha.The politicians had to take cognisance before and during elections and those in Opposition, after the election too. Vote banks changed as in Narmada, Nandigram, Posco, yet the undignified treatment to the nature-based population continued and grew beyond discrimination, with relative devaluation of hand grown products to justifying the use of force to snatch away their generations old resource-capital.

It was against this background that the government at the Centre had to begin a dialogue with the people's movements in 1998. I remember the discussion held by the rural development ministry, then led by farmer leader Baba Gowda Patil of the National Democratic Alliance-led government and the sensitive bureaucrat N C Saxena, who was secretary in the ministry.

Sunderlal Bahuguna, Thomas Kocherry, Shekhar Singh and all of us spoke not only on the issues of rehabilitation as a precondition to displacement but also on principles and procedures of development planning.

The Narmada struggle as well as others in the Adivasi areas of Orissa, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh had already raised the voice against imposition of projects on Adivasi communities, as against self rule.

Farmers as well as fish-workers, Dalits and labourers too asserted their right to farms, forest, fisheries to grazing lands. They questioned the extraction of mineral resources, destroying their environs and culture-nature based deities and lifestyle.

When they acted against the law or didn't bother to consult and include local populations, the government and its public sector companies were challenged, along with the multinationals and foreign corporates.

The political debate that evolved brought forth a sharp difference in equitable, sustainable development vis-a-vis one initiated by the corporate-State nexus, promoting a consumerist lifestyle and unacceptable inequity.

The shocking incidents in Singur and Nandigram warned us that neo-liberalism has made a dent from the Right, Centrist to Left politics, necessitating strengthening of alternative politics of people's movements.

The exercise to formulate and amend the national rehabilitation policy with a vision on development planning continued and versions of the policy were brought out in 2003, 2007 and 2009.

The movements of Adivasis, Dalits, landless and farmers reflected, responded and reacted to, critiquing certain aspects while the State preferred not to implement those at all.

The protests by thousands before at least four parliamentary sessions and continued dialogue with ministers, from rural development to tribal affairs and presentations by multiple stakeholders before the two parliamentary committees on rural development made an impact.

With long and serious consultations that involved organisations from different states the final draft of the parliamentary committees's unanimous report was approved by the Lok Sabha but not without compromises imposed by the Bharatiya Janata Party, threatening to defeat the bill in the Rajya Sabha.

The Act passed in 2013 was neither fully acceptable to the people's movements and their alliances nor did it make corporate bodies happy. The execution of the Act had hardly commenced; people, even the organised, were yet to use and be aware of the opportunities created by the new Act.

Yet the new BJP government has taken the extra-parliamentary route to avoid even a debate and amended the Act. This is against the spirit of the Constitution, under Article 123, but also the tenets of democracy.

It is also a U-turn by the BJP that had the opportunity to lead the process in Parliament and had given consent when it was in the Opposition.

No doubt, ordinances were passed even in the past, but this particular one, which affects the lives of millions and debated over decades, deserved a thorough debate, before the amendment turning over the basic framework was to be brought in.

The impugned amendment reverses the 2013 Act to 'the principle of eminent domain of the State.' The Act for the first time since 1980s brought in as a precondition, the consent of 80 per cent and 70 per cent of the affected land holders only for private and Public-Private-Partnership respectively.

No other country, I am informed, has a law permitting the State to forcibly acquire land for private projects. The Act didn't put in the same condition for governmental projects, leaving public sector projects out, which was a flaw.

Yet the new amendment drops out 'consent' totally, justifying the 'public purpose' served by private projects.

Housing to the poor, highways and infrastructure are some reasons mentioned to argue the point. In fact, the Act would permit acquisition by the State for private entities and not just private companies. This will open a Pandora's Box for land pulling and pooling by private bodies in various sectors, may it be a private trust or society.

Who does not know how mafias in educational institutions have been getting land chunks to grants allocated in their name, hiding profits.

Under 'infrastructure,' the 2013 Act, includes anything from tourism to manufacturing industry as also water and power projects. Housing in the name of poor too are now profiteering projects and cannot be distinguished from real estate development.

Slum rehabilitation projects, which grant large prime land chunks to 'developers', are cleverly named. The claim that fast tracking of the land acquisition is to expedite housing projects for the poor is, therefore, fictitious to say the least.

The worse that could happen to India's agrarian economy through this amendment is deleting the clause mandating exclusion of multi-cropped land and use it for non-agricultural purposes as the last resort and only up to a limit.

All agricultural land should be left out of industrialisation, says Medha Patkar.

In fact, all agricultural land should be left out from industrialisation, as majority of our agriculturalists are on rain-fed agriculture and today's single-crop land can be tomorrow's multiple-crop land.

But whatever minimum granted, in favour of food security by the United Progressive Alliance government, in 2013 is being taken out, by the BJP, which is unjustifiable and unacceptable.

The worst land grabbing is coming through industrial corridors. The proposed Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor alone has plans to acquire 390,000 hectares of land in the first go -- 70 per cent of it agricultural.

Such decisions that cause enormous impact on farmers and other economically-disadvantaged groups was made without their knowledge, with agreements even with a Japanese bank without caring for consent nor transparency. Even legislators were kept in the dark.

The 2013 Act brought these under some scanner with other infrastructure projects, by applying the very clauses, on social impact assessment and prior informed consent. Both are democratic, scientific and rational preconditions for any exercise in development planning.

The Modi government doesn't want it to go the democratic way when the agenda is corporatocratic!

The amendment reverses the very pro-people features that made the 2013 Act somewhat democratic. First and the foremost, the Act recognised the role of the Gram Sabha not as the final decision maker but participant at the planning stage.

The social impact assessment as a process in consultation with the village community, with displacement considered as important as the environmental, was included for the first time.

It was, however, already excluded in the case of irrigation projects, with the largest of all social impacts through displacements, on the insistence and threat by the BJP government in Madhya Pradesh of defeating the bill in the then Upper House.

No doubt it will give a clean chit to the politicians to play with our rivers, water and people, as in the Narmada valley.

The only positive side of the ordinance, propagated by the finance minister, is that it brings into the domain of this Act, not three but all the 16 central Acts which permit acquisition. These include highways to railways, mining to coal bearing areas, but all with no democratic space, since all the activities under these, are covered in five categories, exempted from all processes that would involve the consultation or consent of the people.

The 2013 Act, mind you, had already protected all government projects, but this ordinance is a panacea for private interests.

The wider agenda of any citizen having faith in people and people's power should be to have our participation to receive primacy otherwise to what end democracy, we must ask.

Resettlement and rehabilitation which got annexed to land acquisition for the first time in 2013 when the two were brought together under the single umbrella act, will be applicable to all acquisitions, no doubt.

However, that is not to bring heaven to earth. It is clear that R&R is not a clear precondition in the 2013 or the 2014 Act.

With social impact assessment being out, the first objective, stated in the National Rehabilitation Policy 2003 onwards to minimise displacement, can't be bargained for.

If not the affected, who else, the partners in profiteering or which other multiple stakeholders, can do that?

So with given scale of displacement, can one expect somewhat beneficial provisions to be implemented in a fair and just manner?

The experience of lakhs of people in the Narmada-Sardar Sarovar Dam, along with many others, facing eviction in mines, industrial estates, urban infrastructures is that R&R is considered to be a burden, more importance being given to pushing plans without resources, land and finances for rehabilitation.

 Dongria Kondh tribe from the Niyamgiri hills in Odisha. Photograph Reinhard Krause/Reuters.The 'Land for Land' principle is toyed converting it into cash disbursement, giving scope for massive corruption and cheating of the oustees. It took the affected Adivasis, farmers, labourers, fishworkers 30 years to get land based rehabilitation (legally mandatory) for about 11,000 families, yet leaving behind thousands of others to get alternative land or livelihood, when the Sardar Sarovar Dam is being pushed to the completion.

The 2013 and 2014 (amended) Act no doubt offers more cash for the property, but the real market value would still escape the offer. Much drum-beating on 'multiplied compensation', publicly announced to be four times, is still to be finalised by the state governments, many fallen into BJP fold!

Except the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, therefore, hardly any state government has raised a clear voice against forcible acquisition. Madhya Pradesh, for example, is not ready to go beyond 'double' the compensation which too is still not on paper.

Experience tells us that the real (unrecorded) market price (with black money within India taking worst proportions than abroad) is even 10 times the official one!

Land, one acre for others and upto 2.5 acres for the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes is provided only in irrigation projects, with the prefix, 'as far as possible'!

Jobs, if created by the project or in any other project with wages not lower than 'minimum wage' or Rs 5 lakh in one installment or Rs 2,000 per month for 20 years is not a great offer anyone would agree, knowing the market economy of the present times.

Affected fisher people 'may' be allowed to fish, as 'may' be prescribed by the state government and artisans/small traders to be given Rs 25,000, as one time assistance, further left to the State!

Will this attract these skilled, hard working producers and servicemen? Cash crumbs may be thrown to lure, knowing the indebtedness to prevent suicides, but also to take away the life support.

The silver line in the 2013 Act was the clause with retrospective review of land acquisition where compensation was declared five years back, but possession continued with original prices. This too is reasonable as there is a large unjustifiable gap between acquisition and rehabilitation, during which the prices rise exorbitantly.

Not only the affected people, but also the sensible citizens of the country would grant this to those who are made to sacrifice. The amendment to bring in some further conditions but if they drop this or exempt projects like dams, there would surely be no consensus, but conflicts!

Unless those to be affected get confused and mesmerised with various grants, they will surely fight for their rights not only to property (guaranteed under Article 300 of the Constitution) which is forgotten in the case of those who sacrifice for the nation but also right to life.

Land grabbers are all out to deprive the millions, destroy agriculture, horticulture, rivers, forests, tree cover and mangroves to extract minerals major and minor as well as ground water, without replenishment at a pace that will not leave anything for the next generation, whether coal or water.

The common people -- with courage to resist, keeping democracy alive and with a vision-sustainable and equitable -- are the only hope to save life-supporting resources and to carry forward development with justice.

Medha Patkar is a social activist and founding member of the Narmada Bachao Andolan and National Alliance of People's Movements. E-mail:

Medha Patkar, for