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The Battle for Land: Unaddressed Issues

The episodes of violence in land acquisition by the government, as witnessed recently in Bhatta-Parsaul in Uttar Pradesh and in other states earlier, occur because patterns of violence are inbuilt into the process. Despite a bill pending in Parliament since 2007, there has been little effort by political parties to evolve a consensus on acquisition of agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes. The law as at present and also the provisions of the pending bill do not leave any scope for resistance other than on the issue of compensation. The UP government's new policy on land acquisition is an improvement but more needs to be done.

COMMENTARY

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The Battle for Land: Unaddressed Issues

Avinash Kumar

The episodes of violence in land acquisition by the government, as witnessed recently in Bhatta-Parsaul in Uttar Pradesh and in other states earlier, occur because patterns of violence are inbuilt into the process. Despite a bill pending in Parliament since 2007, there has been little effort by political parties to evolve a consensus on acquisition of agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes. The law as at present and also the provisions of the pending bill do not leave any scope for resistance other than on the issue of compensation. The UP government’s new policy on land acquisition is an improvement but more needs to be done.

The argument presented in this paper is the outcome of the discussions with Sudha Pai as a part of our ongoing work on land acquisition for special economic zones in Uttar Pradesh.

Avinash Kumar (avinashmishra.jnu@gmail. com) teaches political science at Ram Lal Anand College (E), University of Delhi.

T
he drive for rapid industrialisation and urbanisation in the last one decade has led to the rise of a large number of protests by farmers on the issue of land acquisition. The recent episode of violence in the twin villages – Bhatta-Parsaul of Greater Noida in Uttar Pradesh (UP) indicates yet another epicentre. Though the process has not been an unfamiliar one it has taken on a different i ntensity and degree with the defeat of the world’s longest democratically elected communist regime in West Bengal which traditionally enjoyed the support of this class. This may well be a reason for the Left Front to ponder over the drubbing it received; the challenge is to understand the larger sense of disjunction as far as the issue of land acquisition is concerned. Whether it is Nandigram and Singur in West Bengal, the agitations by tribals in Orissa, the massive resistance to land acquisition in Goa, Maharashtra, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh or the one that UP witnessed recently, all point to the need to urgently consider this issue.

The State in modern India has been seen as synonymous with modernisation which in turn translates as being on the side of science and development. The episodes of state violence, as witnessed in the cases mentioned above are not because the State is necessarily in the wrong hands, but because the patterns of violence are

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inbuilt into the process.1 In a true Hegelian sense, whatever the State does is to be accepted as right, and with “so mighty a form must trample down many an innocent flower; it must crush to pieces many an object in its path”. Thus, at a stage when we have already accepted this process of

modernisation as natural, the question is how to safeguard the interests of those who are being crushed to pieces by the State. The categories, communities, individuals and factors falling under this are many, but the focus here will remain only on the issue of land acquisition.

One of the most significant changes in policies after the liberalisation of the economy in the early 1990s has been the shift away from land reform to that of the removal of government protection to agricultural land in order to use it for a variety of industrial/commercial purposes. This fundamental change has attracted much controversy and in fact a large number of problems. However, just problematising it as a “nexus of legality, state power and neo-liberal capital” (Sampath 2008) or a form of “corporate imperialism” (Srivastava 2010) or the “biggest land-grab movement in the history of modern India”2 does not throw up a solution in itself. The purpose of land acquisition from farmers and the issue of alternate livelihood for them r emain unanswered.

In the competitive electoral politics of the day, any and all episodes of agitation and demands are politicised in such a way that instead of a solution the masses make do with a few more dharnas and bandhs, only to politicise it further. Farmers allege that they are entrapped in a situation where leaders rush to encourage and support their agitations but do very little to

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tackle these problems. Despite a bill pending in Parliament since 2007, there has been little effort by political parties to evolve a consensus on the political economy of land acquisition – when, why, how, how much and what kind of land should be acquired? The only issue that is raised time and again is compensation. Political parties, in the name of supporting the demand of the agitators and in the name of democratic and peaceful movements, only intend to create space for their divisive politics in order to ensure their vote bank based on apolitical affiliations. And in the process even the genuine struggles to expose those hungry for power get marginalised. There is an urgent need to decide the purpose for which prime agricultural land has to be a cquired – special economic zones (SEZs), infrastructure and industry or housing projects for the upper/middle class.

The mainstream media seems to be intent only on looking for opportunities to get video footage of episodes of violence to create space for studio discussions later. “Nandigram of Uttar Pradesh” was the caption that several news channels used to describe the recent agitation in Bhatta-Parsaul. There are very few discerning viewers who critically examine what a ppears in the media especially on television. The news stories instead of providing the socioeconomic and political context personalise and politicise the events. The role of the media in obfuscating these i ssues does need to be probed. It also leads us to question the fate of democracy in a society where the fourth estate subverts the reality.

Agitation in Bhatta-Parsaul

Bhatta and Parsaul are among the few Jatpopulated villages in the Gujjar-dominated Gautam Buddha Nagar district.3 The recent episode was initiated by a non- resident Jat leader, Manveer Singh Tevatiya, who hails originally from a village called Tevatia Bhautana in Bulandshahar district and allegedly has more than 20 criminal cases pending against him.4 It started with the abduction of three employees of the UP State Road Transport Corporation (UPSRTC) on 6 May in support of a demand for more compensation for land acquired by the Greater Noida Industrial Development Authority (GNIDA). On 9 May, when policemen tried to rescue the hostages, gunfire was exchanged between the two sides leading to the death of three people, including two policemen. Many were injured including the district magistrate.5

In the age of satellite TV, the “hostage drama” had enough ammunition for raising television ratings points and the news channels left no stone unturned to make Bhatta-Parsaul into a “Peepli”. It started demanding sound bytes from the leaders of various political parties. The political parties with eyes firmly fixed on the state assembly elections due in May 2012, jumped in to politicise this issue. Unable to challenge the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) government so far on other issues, it had found a subject to embarrass it. The Congress hoped to use it in its struggle to displace the BSP and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), aware of the need to reverse the decline of the party to single-digit seats in 2009, was quick to undertake fasts and court arrests. On 16 May, when Rahul Gandhi led a delegation of farmers to meet the prime minister, he accused the UP administration of severe atrocities including the rape of women and burning of dead bodies.6 All this was alleged without any substantive evidence; and when the Congress Party was asked to clarify these allegations further, it replied, “The media reports are wrong… his statement is based on feedback he got from the people.”7 While Rahul said “We’ve just begun in Bhatta. Beware of our next move” (speaking at the Varanasi conclave of the Congress), a Congress Party worker said “Congress is not an agitational party. It did not have even an agenda for the Varanasi conclave just few days before, except the general law and

o rder issue; thanks to Mayawati.”8

Despite their demonstrations at Varanasi the farmers got meagre financial assistance (those injured during the recent incidents).9 However, even this concerted strategy of the Congress seems to have been in vain as the general perception over the compensation among the villagers is that, “this is no relief. The centre has rubbed salt on our wounds….Even government hospitals in the country will not provide proper treatment to villagers with this measly amount….Such a meagre package is not expected from the high o ffice of the prime minister”.10 The Mayawati government’s decision to increase the compensation rates in lieu of the acquired land by 12.5%

– for the third time in the last four years is a victory for the farmers; but in this entire political vendetta, what remains unaddressed is the process of land acquisition

underlying the agitation in UP and elsewhere. Over the last four years, the central government on numerous occasions has promised to pass the land acquisition bill, but that has not happened. Today building a consensus on the issue seems near impossible considering how politicised it has become. Since land is an emotive issue, closely linked to identity and livelihood, if this issue is not resolved it is bound to generate more protests. However, the larger question is how and how far the proposed bill will bring a change in the situation. And more importantly, can laws by themselves save rights?

The Existing Law

The purpose of the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 was to enable the State to acquire land with minimal compensation payment in order to keep the state exchequer rich. More importantly, the questions such as when, how, what kind of land and for what purpose the land was to be acquired was never spelt clearly; it was only left to the State to decide. The law neither d efined nor elaborated what “public purpose” meant. But the end of British rule did not bring about any significant change in the land acquisition law. The colonial law remained in force unless explicitly repealed (Article 372). Stepping into the shoes of a “developmentalist” state, the government started several developmental projects based on the same law, requiring massive land acquisition. No effort was ever made to evolve a political economy of land acquisition and the only issue that was raised time and again was that of compensation. However, earlier farmers knew that it was for national projects built by the government. The situation today, after two successive amendments in 1962 and 1984 (primarily an effort to preserve the State’s authority for acquiring land) is very different. Today, the perception among farmers is that corrupt governments are grabbing land and selling it to private companies which then proceed to reap huge profits, often in real estate, which makes the compensation given to them seem like a pittance.

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The problem lies in the process of land acquisition that does not leave any scope for resistance other than on the issue of compensation. The process begins with notification of the earmarked land by the district magistrate (DM) (Land Acquisition) u/s 4(1) of the Act, without any consultation or negotiation with the landowners. This is not a case of land reforms that could be defended under the concept of distributive justice. Here the State’s role is that of a “venture capitalist” (Palit and Bhattacharjee 2008). The only exceptions to be added (through amendments) are in states like Maharashtra, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh that initiated the process of undertaking a survey of the land to a ssess its feasibility for acquisition even b efore the notification is issued. This is followed by providing the landowners an opportunity to file their objection against the notification within 30 days u/s 5(1). This seems pro-people but the law does not permit the owners to object to the acquisition if they do not fall under the categories of objections already defined: the purpose for which land is sought to be acquired is not a public purpose; the land in question is not suitable for the stated purpose; more land is being acquired than what is necessary for the proposed project; an alternative piece of land could be a cquired which would cause less (or no) inconvenience to people; and the land contains historic monuments, places of public interest, religious buildings, tombs, graveyards, etc, and hence it should not be acquired (Chaudhary 2009). In all these options there does not seem to be any scope to oppose acquisition on the ground that the land is their only source of livelihood and hence should not be taken away from them at any cost. On the contrary what seems to be clear from the conditions applied is that the State’s action should be considered to be the best and the onus to prove it unjust/wrong lies with the public.

After hearing all objections, the DM (LA) submits a report, following which a declaration is issued u/s 6(1) to give a green signal to the government’s acquisition process and a notice is issued to each landowner u/s 11 for the award of the compensation stating the area of the land; compensation payable; and its apportionment among all the interested persons. The Act requires that Section 6(1) should be issued within a period of one year from the date of issuance of preliminary notification and compensation paid within two years (ibid). However, as far as our knowledge based on studies in several states goes, farmers rarely come to know about the acquisition at the stage of notification. A majority of them complain that the administration keeps them in the dark during the stage of Section 4(1) and makes it public only at the stage of Section 6(1). In fact, on several occasions, they allege, the administration uses Section 17 of the Act that confers special powers to the government to dispense with Section 5(A) and issue the declaration u/s 6(1) immediately after the preliminary notification.11

The Allahabad High Court in a recent and unique judgment denotified the acquisition of about 70 hectares of land by the GNIDA in 2009 on the ground that “the state was not justified in invoking the u rgency provisions (not hearing objections) in the Land Acquisition Act” and directed the government to issue a fresh notification, hear the objections and start the a cquisition process afresh.12 But this is not the case of any one state or two. For the past 10 years the country is witnessing a protracted conflict between the State and unwilling farmers regarding the acquisition of agricultural land at several sites.

Pending Bill on Land Acquisition

The new bill permits land acquisition only if the land is to be used for a “public purpose” project, which includes specifically land needed for village-sites, town or r ural planning, land for residential purposes for poor or displaced due to natural c alamities, land for planned development (including education, housing, health and slum clearance). With regard to the current practice of acquisition for private companies for a “public purpose” project, the bill permits the State to acquire land on behalf of the company, only when the companies have already purchased 70% of the land needed through the free market.

However, as far as the process of land acquisition is concerned the bill does not provide for any significant amendment. From publication of notification to that of objections being registered with the collector’s office, to issuing a declaration within one year of notification – all that remains

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intact. The bill once again, just goes on detailing the provisions for compensation, some of which are – acquisition costs to include factors in the intended use of the land and the value of such land in the current market; if the acquisition is for a company, shares or debentures of 20-50% of the compensation amount must be offered through these options. The interested person may either accept this offer or opt for a full cash settlement. In the case of reselling the acquired land, the new acquirer is to distribute 80% of the capital gains to the original owners or their heirs. However, with regard to the “urgency clause”, the bill instead of deleting it adds that the landowners whose property would be acquired under urgency shall be compensated an additional 75% of the market value of the land. Another very important point to be noted in the new bill is that it bars the jurisdiction of civil courts on all matters related to land acquisition and instead proposes to establish the Land Acquisition Compensation Disputes Settlement Authority (CDSA) at the state and central levels, staffed by members without judicial qualifications or experience, to adjudicate disputes resulting from land acquisition proceedings (ibid).

Thus, the bill creates more dilemmas. The law still does not define or elaborate “public purpose” and again gives the State a free hand on this. Without defining the term “urgency” it makes special provisions for compensation if land is acquired under the “urgency” provision. In the case of resale of the land it is for the acquirer to keep track of the original owners and their heirs in perpetuity. Changes relating mainly to the procedural aspects of the land acquisition are no different and therefore end up adding to the existing ambiguities. The bill neither speaks of any mechanism by which a person may challenge the acquisition when the CDSA fails to do justice, nor does it provide an answer to the farmer who says,

I have only 2.45 bighas, I will not let them take it at any cost. I am not against … (read development) but we have had this land for generations. I do not want any compensation. Besides, our land is very fertile. This… should be shifted to some barren land.13

In fact, if one studies the land acquisition acts of various states, one finds that

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all these provisions, except some additional provisions of compensation, already exist. Some of them are even better than that being offered by the new bill. The UP policy on land acquisition existing during the Bhatta-Parsaul agitation is credited with being one of the best in the country. It i ntroduced a process of negotiations in GNOIDA with the local farmers leading to signing of a karaaraniyamavali (deed) in 1998 which has rates of compensation that farmers along the Yamuna Expressway are demanding (Pai and Kumar 2011). Also the state government after the resistance along the Yamuna Expressway in 2010 announced more compensation benefits: an annuity payment of Rs 20,000 an acre a year for the next 33 years in addition to compensation; a fixed raise of Rs 600 an acre a year; those who do not opt for annuity a one-time payment of Rs 2.40 lakh an acre; shares in private companies that acquired land equivalent to 25% of the farmers’ land; if acquired under “land for development” 7% of the total land acquired would be reserved for housing for farmers; if acquired for residential projects, the landowners would be given 17.5% reservation in the allotment; farmers rendered landless would be given a one-time labour charge of Rs 1.85 lakh; one member of each family rendered landless would be provided employment, consistent with his/her qualification, in the concessionaire company. A Supreme Court bench on 8 September 2010 had u pheld the land acquisition policy of the UP government for development of projects alongside the Yamuna Expressway dismissing an appeal by some farmers (Pai 2011).14 The court categorically rejected the contention of the farmers that the land was acquired for a private purpose and not for a public purpose.

However, during the recent agitation and even earlier, farmers have alleged that – apart from the compensation – most of the other benefits do not reach them; they rarely come to know about the acquisition at the stage of notification. According to a recent news report, a total of 15,526 hectares land has been acquired in the Greater Noida area since 1991 using the urgency clause.15 Thus, the problem lies not in the law, but in the process. Therefore, the drama that the political parties stage on the issue of the land acquisition bill seems to be nothing but an election gimmick.

Postscript

The UP state government has amended the Land Acquisition Policy announced last year to unveil a new one following a kisan panchayat held at Lucknow on 2 June 2011. The new policy makes land acquisition more profitable for the farmer defining the State as a mere facilitator. It declares that the State would “only be involved in notifying and earmarking the boundary of the land…the price of the land and other modalities would be d ecided by the buyers and the sellers” in cases of land acquisition for private projects. In a way, it bans the forcible takeover of farmland by the State for promoting private development. The policy also adds that the state government will f acilitate the project only if 70% of the farmers consent to it, and that the amount of developed land to be returned to farmers would be increased from 7% (practised since the earlier Karaaraniyamavali) to 16% along with annuity at the rate of Rs 23,000 per acre for 33 years (an increase of Rs 3,000 per acre announced in 2010).16 One may argue that there is still scope for improvement, especially as small farmers and agricultural labourers have very little to gain. More importantly; it does not leave any scope for resistance other than on the issue of compensation;17 but the reaction of the opposition parties in the state shows that they are not interested in building a political consensus on the political eco nomy of land acquisition. They have described the policy as a “big fraud”, that is “befooling innocent farmers”, and is also “anti-farmer”.18

Notes

1 To understand this with more substantive examples, see Nandy (2007).

2 Sumit Sarkar quoted in Sheetal Sharma, “Displacing Livelihoods: Land Acquisition for Special Economic Zones”, accessed at http://www.mainstreamweekly.net/article408.html (2007).

3 Gautam Buddha Nagar was created as a separate district by carving out Dadri, Noida and Greater Noida from Ghaziabad, Sikandrabad and Bulandshahar districts when Mayawati came to power heading a BSP-BJP coalition in March 1997 (vide Govt order no 1249/97/82/97dated 6/9/97).

4 The Statesman, 10 May 2011; http://www.thestatesman.net/index.php?option=com_content& view=articl e&show=archive&id=369047&catid =36&year=2011&month=05&day=10&Itemid =66

5 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia13330343

6 Hindustan Times, 16 May 2011; http://www.hindustantimes.com/UP-cops-raped-women-killedfarmers-Rahul/Article1-698269.aspx

7 http://ibnlive.in.com/news/rahul-flip-flops-on

bhattaparsaul-facts/152808-37-64.html

8 A Congress worker (name withheld) in a personal interview to the author.

9 The scale of violence in Greater Noida, as compared to other agitations was not so high that the Congress could not resist undermining the general practice of offering relief and financial assistance to the injured by the state governments. This sudden deviation from the general practice not only clarifies the action as a move for political gain, but also sets a bad precedent for the future.

10 Times of India, 23 May 2011; http://www.pressdisplay.com/pressdisplay/viewer.aspx

11 This has been the most common complaint of farmers, even those who were satisfied with the compensation package, during the several occasions of field work in various parts of Uttar Pradesh.

12 Hindustan Times, 14 May 2011; http://www.hindustantimes.com/StoryPage/Print/697220.aspx

13 Indian Express, 20 May 2011; http://www.indian-express.com/news/Cong-hopes-Bhatta-Parsaulwill-be-its-Singur/793342/

14 The decision came against the farmers challenging the Allahabad High Court decision which had upheld the policy of the Mayawati government on 30 November 2009 (Pai and Kumar 2011).

15 It was only in December 2010 that the UP government anticipating trouble, issued a circular across the state to use the “urgency clause” only in emergencies. The Economic Times, 23 May 2011. http:// articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2011-0523/news/29574400_1_urgency-clause-landac quisition-act-greater-noida-authority.

16 Farmers who are reduced to small, marginal and landless status after acquisition will get payment equivalent to wages of 375 days, 500 days and five years of agriculture labour respectively and those who are already landless will be given a one-time assistance equal to wages of 625 days. As announced during Chief Minister Mayawati’s press conference on 2 June 2011.

17 According to the census data, out of 127 million farmers with holdings in India, 82% own less than five acres each. The percentage of agricultural workers of the total Indian population is 23% (234 million).

18 Seehttp://www.hindustantimes.com/Oppn-dubsMayawati-s-new-land-policy-as-big-fraud-on-farmers/ Articl e1-704901.aspx. The reason probably lies in the fact that areas which participated in the recent stir including Bhatta-Parsaul and Tappal are out of the ambit of this policy.

References

Chaudhary, T (2009): “Use of Eminent Domain: Process and Its Critique”, India Infrastructure Report, 2009: Land a Critical Source of Infrastructure (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), pp 73-82.

Nandy, Ashis (2007): The Romance of the State: And the Fate of Dissent in the Tropics (New Delhi: O xford University Press).

Pai, Sudha and Avinash Kumar (2011; forthcoming): “Politics of Land Acquisition for SEZs: Two Contrasting Case Study from the National Capital Region of Uttar Pradesh”.

Pai, Sudha (2011): “Our Land of Discontents”, Indian Express, 20 May.

Palit, A and S Bhattacharjee (2008): Special Economic Zones in India: Myths and Realities (Delhi: A nthem Press).

Sampath, Priti (2008): “Special Economic Zones in I ndia”, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol XLIII, No 28, 12 July.

Srivastava, A (2008): “The Problem”, Seminar, 582 special issue on SEZs, February.

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