A recent media interview with Planning Commission and National Advisory Council member Mihir Shah created a flap in both industry and activist circles. In the first, for his comment that “private sector has been swindling states”—since hotly denied by Shah. And in the second, for Shah’s remark that “those who criticize acquisition per se are anti-industry”.
The passing controversy underscores the permanent concern with land acquisition—specifically, the purpose, process, consent, price paid and rehabilitation—that in India has regularly reared its head and is now a gigantic human rights issue, and a robust internal security issue. The immediacy is also on account of the Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill, 2012, expected to be taken up in the delayed monsoon session of Parliament; this rides on the mother Bill, as it were, the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, 2011, introduced in Parliament last September. Both seek to plug vast assumptions—and, therefore, on-ground misuse on that count—spawned by the Land Acquisition Act of 1894.
The core issues of concern are by now well-imprinted. Among other things, business is aghast that it will lose its key fig leaf for acquisition and enforcement, the state, for all but a few exceptions that come via the umbrella of the state. And that it would have to pay proportionately more for rural land than urban land in the graded instrument proposed in such legislation.
Activists, though largely mollified with several key inclusions such as narrowing the scope of eminent domain—land acquired for public purpose—reducing the scope of misuse, should such land be transferred to a private party; compensation based on the time of purchase rather than the time of notification of land acquisition; and more robust provisions to return land to sellers should a project be unable to kick-off beyond a point, remain suspicious. More precisely, suspicious of the fast-corrupting reality in India that quickly subsumes well-meaning legislation. The additional concern is also about how various states go about implementing provisions as and when Bills become Acts of Parliament; this includes the continued trampling of rights, and the corruption of law, in tribal and non-tribal lands alike.
These legislations will in all probability be stuck, or greatly modified. Business will continue to raise objections and ensure such Bills are stalled and diluted, the same as the mining Bill. Nearly all statements from business lobbies and chambers of commerce show clear bias for status quo, even though current practices feed directly to creating negative energies India can do without.
There is additional perceived risk for business. Several corporations—private sector and public—are sitting on land they have possessed for a particular project for years, even decades, on which they have either done nothing of their own volition because of inefficiency, business cycle downturn, and over-ambition. Or, on account of presumption that political satraps in various states will bail them out of deliberate project clearance snafus—only, local populations have stepped in and exposed the process of land acquisition for projects and method of recompense for the de facto illegalities they often are. And so, public pressure forced abandoning or long-term postponement of projects. Such examples are legion.
Businesses will also try to buttress their position to stave off any retrospective effect coming their way, by which interpretations of the proposed land Bills could lead to returning of land for projects that for one reason or another literally haven’t got off the ground. The modalities of such return are complex. How do you give land back to communities that are long uprooted and gone? Do you hold such land in public trust, and recycle, as it were, any such vested land without socioeconomic and environmental encumbering for a new project, without uprooting new communities or destroying additional farmland? But business is not known for graciously offering redress. It requires being judicially compelled.
As I write this, I’m in-boxed with news that on Wednesday the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, based in Costa Rica, has in a ruling favoured the Sarayaku indigenous people in Ecuador’s Amazonian territory over the State of Ecuador, for the state permitting a foreign oil company to encroach on their traditional land without consulting the Sarayaku people. It has taken a decade, but this ruling will add to precedence.
Truth be told, business in India, and attendant politics, haven’t been particularly concerned about such matters. The current red herring of pointing to global economic slowdown to dilute essential law is just that, a red herring.
Sudeep Chakravarti writes on issues of conflict in South Asia. He is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and the recently-published Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations that directly affect business, runs on Fridays.
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