Gujarat's One-sided Land Policy

The Gujarat Government's efforts to push for the Dholera Smart City and other Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC) projects have resulted in lopsided policies. These policies prove that agriculturists have no representation in the state’s legislative processes.

Delhi and Mumbai—two of India's biggest cities—are separated by a distance of 1,500 kilometres (kms). The Western Dedicated Freight Corridor (DFC) is a railway track originating from Dadri Dry Port (near Delhi) and terminating at the Jawaharlal Nehru Sea Port (near Mumbai). This railway track, now under construction, is meant to exclusively carry raw and manufactured goods, to and fro, across seven states. Around 23 areas have been identified to serve as “manufacturing hubs” that would actually use the services of this brand new railway system. This is the famed Delhi–Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC). Some “manufacturing hubs” actually exist in this corridor while the rest exist only on paper; in reality, there exist miles and miles of rich fertile lands in their place.

While the plan sounds modest enough to be single-mindedly focussed on expanding industrial output and thereby the gross domestic product (GDP), employment, etc, the DMIC's actuality is manipulated by golf-loving millionaires in suits. After initial rounds of planning and passing papers, Amitabh Kant (erstwhile CEO of the Delhi–Mumbai Industrial Corridor Development Corporation, and now the secretary of the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion) articulated a dire need for building cities before factories[1].  Currently, the official focus is on building cities—smart cities to be precise—while the rhetoric of India's industrial productivity gathers dust. Funded by different first world nations who would ultimately own sizeable chunks in the newly built townships and industrial parks, the DMIC directly challenges India's sovereignty, food security and, most importantly, economic and regional equality. 

It should come as no surprise to an average Indian that, before planning or implementing anything else, central and state governments went on a spree to acquire land. But, no one wants to part with their A-grade agricultural land. Prioritising this, the newly elected government has wasted no time in promulgating the Land Ordinance, which makes serious dents in the limited safety offered by the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 (LARR Act)  to people whose land is sacrificed for the big development projects. 

Let’s take a look at the history of the current government (which traces its beginnings as the state government of Gujarat) and its relations to the land-related laws of this country. 

Special Investment Region Act 

More than 38% of the DMIC will fall in Gujarat and, of the $90 billion promised, 30% will be invested here. On 3 March 2009, the then Gujarat government led by Narendra Modi passed an act that in many ways heralds the current practice of manipulating laws to suit corporate or private interests. The Gujarat Special Investment Region Act (SIR Act), framed to facilitate development of large industrial townships, borrowed its land policy from the much older Gujarat Town Planning and Urban Development Act, 1976, which is based on the concept of “land pooling,” where a large number of individual plots are clubbed together. The township project is planned on this integrated land; after infrastructure development, 50% of each plot taken is returned to the original owners. It is assumed that land values appreciate after development of infrastructure, so there is no compensation given for the 50% of land that was used. Instead, landowners are expected to contribute  “betterment fees” to the developers.
Transactions of Land 

On 4 June 2009, 22 villages belonging to districts Barwala and Dhandhuka were notified about the acquisition of land under the terms of the SIR Act. Termed the Dholera Special Investment Region, the land totalled 879.3377 square kilometres in the original notification (approximately 88,000 hectares)[2],  42,000 hectares of which is agricultural land[3].   A city is to be built from scratch, six times the size of Shanghai and twice that of Delhi[4].  

The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report for Dholera SIR prepared by Senes Consultants mentions that the area is suitable due to availability of maximum government land. As early as 2011, much before any proper public hearings were conducted in the Dholera region, the government was engaged in the sale of this “government land,” which is around 2,600 hectares. Three private firms— Greater Dholera Infracon, Hindustan Construction Company and Nano Works Developer Gujarat—signed memorandums of understanding (MoUs) worth nearly Rs 927 crore and pledged to invest more than Rs 1 lakh crore in the Dholera SIR and provide employment to around one lakh people. Until 2013 neither had made any payments and their allotments stood cancelled[5].  

The EIA report reverentially mentions that “pastureland is to be retained as is,” but in real terms only 5% of the area is recorded in government revenue as pastureland, and the rest would be called wasteland and appropriated in land deals like the one above[6].  Gauchar or pastureland is already a sticky point in Gujarat, as is evident by the intense protests by Maldharis (a semi-nomadic cattle-rearing ethnic community), who own no private lands but depend exclusively on the gauchars for cattle feed.

Smart City

The nomenclature of “Dholera SIR” has moved on to become “Dholera Metro-city” and the prefix to “city” in official mentions keeps changing to “super”/ “tech”/ “future”/ “dream”/ “mega” / “greenfield” etc. There is another mega-plan of a “greenfield-airport” too. The plan is supposed to materialise in 30 years. Critics say it might never be built, or if it does, it will not be half as “mega” as it claims to be[7].  

Brochures and corporate videos carry 3D rendered graphics straight out of comic books. Ayona Dutta, senior lecturer in Citizenship and Belonging at the School of Geography, University of Leeds, surmised: “Urbanisation as a business model, scaled from regional to national, made possible because the regional state of Gujarat has acquired increased powers in controlling and directing urbanisation through a rule of law”. In the same lecture, she points out the swiftness with which Dholera's fate was decided in policy circles[8].  The Government of India (GoI) gave its in-principle approval to the DMIC project outline in August 2007. In 2009, within months of the passing of the SIR Act, villagers were notified of the acquisition. In 2010, the McKinsey Urban Awakening Report was released. The report directly promotes urbanisation through building of cities and predicts mass-migration of people from the countryside to these cities. The “590 million urban inhabitants by 2030” figure is quoted by all and sundry in urbanisation conferences. The figure was just a result derived from an internal econometric model developed by the McKinsey Global Institute[9].  Then, in October 2010, Halcrow was ready with the Dholera Masterplan. The SIR Draft Development Plan was ready by December 2011, and the land allocation was completed by December 2012. 

Politics of Water

In June 2013, the Gujarat government delivered another blow to the local inhabitants of these regions: the entire area was de-commanded from the Narmada canal network. Villagers in these areas have been waiting for the promised waters from the Sardar Sarovar Dam Project for decades. Citing the declaration of SIRs in various parts of Gujarat, Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd (SSNNL) denotified almost 80,000 ha of agricultural land from the irrigation network command area of 18,40,000 ha across Gujarat, including 30,000 ha in Dholera[10].  

Another important piece of legislation enacted by the Gujarat government on 22 March 2013, the Irrigation and Drainage Act, makes it mandatory for farmers to get a licence to draw groundwater. It sanctions the appointment of canal officers who would have the power to detain farmers violating the rules. Farmers will have to pay charges even if water from a canal reaches cultivated land by percolation or leakage. Fines can range up to Rs 10,000 and penal action includes imprisonment of up to 6 months[11]

Public Hearings

The environmental impact report for Dholera blatantly states: “The approach of villagers is quite positive towards the SIR development.”[12]  While, in reality, almost all villages have noticeboards prominently displayed barring the entry of SIR officials into their area. The Environmental Public Hearing (EPH) organised on 3 January 2014 by the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB), chaired by the District Magistrate, Ahmedabad, was attended by 2,000 villagers and civil society representatives, with a majority of them being against the project. Various anomalies were pointed out at the EPH: the draft project report appeared to be flouting legal provisions of the Coastal Regulatory Zone (CRZ), and the EIA was based on 2001 data, even when 2011 data was available. 

There are portions of land marked in the plan that have long been submerged in the sea, as the area loses one centimetre of land to the coastline every year. It was raised at the hearing that the EIA report mentions sources of water for the Dholera SIR in a haphazard manner. It talks about the Kalpasar project, which is controversial with its environmental impact and net costs and benefits being widely debated[13].  At the DSIR EPH, naturalists spoke for wildlife, which somehow always escapes human attention while making development plans. The boundary of the SIR is 600 metres from the Blackbuck National Park, the largest breeding ground for lesser floricans and the largest wintering ground for migratory harriers. The park has the highest density of wolves in India, and is a habitat for globally threatened species like Dalmatian Pelicans, Imperial Eagle, Houbara Bustards and Stolokza's bush cat. It falls in the migratory route of wintering birds to Asia, and projects in migration routes are against the law. The Indian Bird Conservation Network of the Bombay Natural History Society has identified this area (Bhal) as an Important Bird Area. In addition, 1,536 ha of dense mangroves will be lost[14].  

Many technicalities seem to have bypassed official wisdom. The public hearing was put to an end abruptly by the chairperson and regional officer of the GPCB before the allotted time was over. During the hearing, someone who was pro-SIR tried to snatch away the microphone from someone who was opposing the project[15].   The situation at the Dahej Petrol, Chemicals and Petro-chemicals Investment Region (PCPIR) in Bharuch, Gujarat was similar, where complaint after complaint was raised and unsatisfactorily answered by officials. There, the district collector ultimately called it a day at 6 pm and did not entertain any more verbal questions, insisting that written complaints be submitted directly to her office.

Social and Environmental Laws

As the leadership of the regional government eventually made it to the nation’s top posts, laws protecting the interests of farmers, environment, natural resources and labour have come under the direct threat of revisions. The Land Ordinance removes the clause of mandatory consent of affected landowners, renders the social impact assessment of projects unnecessary and excuses government officials from judicial scrutiny in the case of the misuse of the LARR Act[16].  In effect, it renders the LARR Act paralysed. Under its new leadership, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has set aside its responsibility as a custodian of ecology and has wholeheartedly dedicated itself to the mission of India’s industrial expansion. It recently appointed a high-level committee (HLC) to review India’s environment laws in order to expedite the clearance process given to new projects. 

The HLC, in a very short time, reviewed the Water, Air and Forest Acts and presented its report to the government. In between, there have been hardly any consultations with state governments, local communities. In a postiche public hearing held with environmentalists in Bangalore, the chairman of the committee, T S R Subramanyam, walked out midway through the meeting when the questions became too much for him to take[17].  The HLC’s recommendation that only very dense forests (more than 70% canopy cover) be considered “no-go” zones has undermined the importance of public hearings. The HLC has also made a bizarre recommendation of presumption of “good faith,” which means that the government will accept all statements, data, and reports submitted by the project proponent as true and valid[18].  

The report endangers India’s ecological balance most virulently. Proven by the track record of this government, another ordinance might just flip India’s environment laws over. Voices of concern over the Land Ordinance and the HLC report are pouring in from all parts of the country. 

Dissent has found its way through the filter of paid media and censorship. The task is not limited to the protection of land rights and the environment, but the very foundation of parliamentary democracy. 

Notes 

[1] Mishra, Asit Ranjan (2010) "Freight Corridor Aims to Host Smart Cities", Live Mint, 29 April http://www.livemint.com/Home-Page/bYAhhDIh5hwgUBfnleDP8H/Freight-corrido...

[2] Industries and Mines Department (2009) "Notification, Gujarat Special Investment Region Act 2009" The Gujarat Government Gazette, 4 June (pp 40 – 41)

[3] Senes Consultants India Pvt Ltd (2013) "Existing Land Use / Land Cover" Executive Summary, Draft Environmental Impact Assessment of Dholera Special Investment Region (DSIR) in Gujarat, E-4 to E-6

[4] Press Trust of India (2013) "Dholera Will be Better Developed Than Delhi: Narendra Modi” The Economic Times, 8 January 2013 http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2013-01-08/news/36216587_1_...

[5] Dave, Kapil (2011) "Govt Strikes a Mega Land Deal in Dholera SIR", Indian Express, 25 October. http://archive.indianexpress.com/news/govt-strikes-a-mega-land-deal-in-d...
Dave, Kapil (2012) "3 Large Infra Projects in Dholera Shelved? Times News Network 29 December. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/vadodara/3-large-infra-projects-...
Umarji, Vinay and Vora, Rutam (2013) "Vibrant Gujrat's Big Ticket Projects Fail to Take Off" Business Standard 4 January. http://www.business-standard.com/article/economy-policy/vibrant-gujarat-...
Umarji, Vinay (2013) "HCC's Rs 40k-cr Dholera Waterfront City Washed Out" Business Standard 9 February. http://www.business-standard.com/article/companies/hcc-s-rs-40k-cr-dhole...

[6] Ginwalla, Persis and Rabari, Sagar (2014) "Gujarat SIR Act Seeks to Corner All of Government Land and 50% of Privately-held Agriculture Land for 'Land Pooling Purpose'" Counterview, 13 May. http://counterview.org/2014/05/13/gujarats-sir-act-seeks-to-corner-all-o...

[7] Dutta, Ayona (2014) "India's Smart City Craze: Big, Green and Doomed from the Start?" The Guardian, 17 April. http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/apr/17/india-smart-city-dholera-f...

[8] Dutta, Ayona (2014) "New Urban Utopias of Postcolonial India: 'Entrepreneurial Urbanisation' in Dholera Smart City, Gujarat." Workshop No 54, Centre for Policy Research, 22 July.

[9]Ghosh, Swarnabh (2012) "Plans and Consultants, DMIC". Extrastatecraft. http://extrastatecraft.net/Projects/DMIC

[10] Chakravartty, Anupam (2013) "Robbed of water", Down to Earth,  31 October 31. http://www.downtoearth.org.in/content/robbed-water

[11] Chakravartty, Anupam (2013) “In water-stressed Gujarat, government proposes to punish farmers who draw groundwater", Down to Earth, 27 February. http://www.downtoearth.org.in/content/water-stressed-gujarat-government-...

[12] Senes Consultants India Pvt Ltd (2013) "Support to Native Population, Public Consultations", Executive Summary, Draft Environmental Impact Assessment of Dholera Special Investment Region (DSIR) in Gujarat, E-15

[13] Pandya, Mahesh (2014) "Letter to Gujarat Pollution Control Board by Director, Paryavaran Mitra", Counterview, 3 January.  http://counterview.org/2014/01/03/environmental-impact-assessment-report...

[14] Admin (2014) "No Land Acquisition in Dholera SIR, But Farmers Must Handover 50% of Land for Infrastructure: Gujarat Govt at Public Hearing", Counterview, 18 January. http://counterview.org/2014/01/18/no-land-acquisition-in-dholera-sir-but...

[15] Kaushik, Himanshu (2014) "Sparks Fly At Dholera SIR Public Hearing", Times News Network, 4 January. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/ahmedabad/Sparks-fly-at-Dholera-...

[16] Land Reforms Division, Department of Land Resources, Ministry of Rural Development (2014) "The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Amendment) Ordinance, 2014". Information Note on Ordinance to amend the RFCTLARR Act, 2013. http://dolr.nic.in/dolr/downloads/pdfs/RFCTLARR%20Act%20%28Amendment%29%...

[17] Thakkar, Himanshu (2014) "Review of Environment Laws is Necessary – But the TSR Subramanian HLC Lacks Credibility", SANDRP, 26 September https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/09/26/review-of-environment-laws-is-ne...

[18] Iyer, R, Ramaswamy (2015) "A hasty, half-baked report on environment",The Hindu, 13 February. http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/a-hasty-halfbaked-report-on-enviro...

 

 

 

 

Featured Image Courtesy: Representational. Wikimedia Commons/Akkida 

Title Image Courtesy: Representational. Wikimedia Commons/Rahulology

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