Paving the way for accelerated loot and plunder of people’s assets
The UPA government is claiming that it finally has achieved an “all-party consensus” on the proposed new land acquisition bill, titled the Right to Fair Compensation, Resettlement, Rehabilitation and Transparency in Land Acquisition Bill, 2011. This will enable it to introduce the bill in the coming monsoon session of Parliament. The government had earlier threatened to bring the provisions of the bill into effect through an ordinance if the opposition parties did not allow it to table the bill in Parliament.
The Bill is intended to replace the colonial era Land Acquisition Act of 1894. Under the provisions of this notorious Act the lands of millions of people, both in colonial and post-colonial India, have been expropriated by the rulers. These expropriated lands have been used by the capitalist class and its government to house industries at throwaway prices both in the public sector and the private sector, for building dams and hydel projects, for mining, for the armed forces, for highways, and so on. Countless families have been uprooted and rendered destitute, all in the name of some larger ‘public good’ from which they have not benefited. It has been estimated that the number of people displaced by various projects under this act is more than 6 crores.
With the current privatisation and liberalisation drive, the demand for land on the part of the monopoly bourgeoisie, both Indian and foreign, has increased tremendously. Land is sought for mining, industrial “corridors” and “parks”, massive infrastructural projects, agri-business, and for purely speculative real estate development. Studies have projected that in the next 15-20 years, more than 64 lakh hectares of land will be required for agri-business, over 70 lakh hectares for infrastructure projects, and over 23 lakh hectares for mining and other extraction projects.
Given the past experience, the affected people – whole villages and communities, men, women and children – are increasingly coming out onto the streets to fight against the expropriation of their lands. As a result, today the fight against such rapacious land acquisition has become one of the fiercest arenas of struggle in the country.
The current Bill has been through several drafts – there has been consistent and large scale opposition to each draft from peasants, tribal peoples and affected communities across the country who have declared that land cannot be acquired under the guise of “public purpose” by the government without consent of the people. The ever widening struggles of the people have compelled the government to come up with this new law, to give legitimacy to the corporate land grab and lower the risk of mass protests stalling the land acquisition process.
The new Bill is being touted by the government as a ‘victory’ for the people affected by land expropriation, because unlike the 1894 Act, it has provisions regarding the compensation that must be paid to the landowners and certain others whose livelihood depends on the concerned pieces of land. However, it is clear that this new Bill has the same orientation — of making land easily available at very little cost to capitalist monopolies, trampling underfoot the right to livelihood of thousands who will be affected.
Furthermore, the bill completely ignores the necessity for harmonious development of agriculture on one hand and industry and services on the other, in order both to ensure adequate food for the growing population, and the constant raising of the standard of living of the rural population. The interests of the capitalist monopolies to acquire the lands they require in order to ensure maximum profits is the sole driving force behind the new bill.
Much is being made of the provision that the “consent” of 80% of the people is required for private projects and 70% of the people for “public-private” projects. However, under the new bill, no prior consent is required for public sector infrastructure projects, which constitute a huge share of the projects for which land is being acquired.
Similarly, much is being made over the fact that landowners, and in some cases even tenants and others, will receive some statutory compensation. However, the greatest share of land that is being appropriated is common lands, for which there are no ‘owners’. These include so-called “wasteland”, grazing lands, forests, water bodies and villages. Right of access to common lands is essential for the survival of countless millions of people in our country. In fact, some of the fiercest struggles taking place now are over the exclusion of people from their traditional common lands. The bill does nothing to protect people’s common lands.
The new bill specifically excludes from its provisions 16 Acts, such as the Atomic Energy Act, 1962, and the National Highways Act, 1956, the SEZ Act 2005. It must be remembered that in April 2007, the UPA government had withdrawn the freeze on SEZs and this led to transfer of hundreds of thousands of hectares from the hands of peasants and working families into the hands of big capitalist corporations. So, land acquisition under SEZ Act can continue as before. This means that those people protesting against the arbitrary acquisition of their land for nuclear power plants, highways and SEZs cannot get any protection if this bill becomes law. This means again that a huge number of displaced people will not be legally entitled to anything under this law.
The bill talks of involving gram sabhas in the Social Impact Assessment surveys that are required before the notification to acquire land can be given. However, as is the case at present, while various parties may or may not be ‘consulted’, the final decision to give the clearance is given by the officials, and not the people.
Lip service is paid to the notion that people who are displaced should not only be rehabilitated, but should be direct beneficiaries of the projects concerned, and that their standard of living should be the same or higher than before. The experience of millions of affected people is to the contrary. Such lofty notions are confined to pious policy objectives in the preamble of the bill, and the mechanisms to ensure that these are realised and to hold the authorities to account if they are not, are not stipulated. Without such mechanisms, the problem of rehabilitation of affected persons can be expected to be no closer to solution than it has been all these decades.
The bourgeoisie has complained that this Bill will lengthen the process of land acquisition and make it more costly for them than before. But actions speak louder than words. In anticipation of the enactment of this bill, lakhs of hectares across the country have already been taken over or bought up by land sharks, profiteers and speculators, many of them politicians and their agents and family members. The minister responsible for the latest version of the bill, Jairam Ramesh, has said clearly: “The new Bill is one that recognizes that you need to be sensitive to investor sentiment.” Justifying the costs to the people from the seizure of their lands one way or the other, the government and the bourgeoisie together sing the mantra that this is ‘necessary for growth’. They claim that there is no alternative to people being forced off their traditional lands and herded like cattle to serve as miserably paid labour in factories, construction sites and mines, or to just wait out their lives as huge armies of unemployed.
This bill must be resolutely opposed. The colonial Land Acquisition Act 1894 must be immediately repealed. There should be an immediate halt to purchase of land under this Act. New land legislation must be based on the principle of harmonising the interests of different users of the land with one another and with the general interest of society. The new law must recognise the primacy of the right to livelihood of the peasantry and others living off the land. It must protect the rights of the tillers, of forest dwellers, tribal peoples and other traditional users of land.
It is possible to harmonise the different interests involved provided no space is permitted for rapacious capitalist interests. From being geared to satisfy the greed of private profiteers and speculators, the economy must be reoriented to satisfy the claims of all the working people and the needs of extended reproduction of society, without any shocks and crises.