With the resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) Bill likely to be delayed—it is being evaluated by a group of ministers—before it is tabled in Parliament, it would appear that the debate being played out in public over the recent controversial experience of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) is finding an echo within the government, too.
While events in Nandigram and Singur have speeded up a long overdue realization of the injustice of displacement and the need to minimize its impact, the details have been harder to work out. Apart from a substantial R&R package, some effort is being made to ensure the displaced actually benefit from the process that unfolds on their lands.
Unfortunately, the government’s role is posing a hurdle. The commerce ministry, after earlier ruling out this possibility, now wants the state to be able to acquire up to 10% of the total land area of the project to ensure contiguity. This is a dangerous idea for the simple reason that it leaves too much ambiguity over the government’s role and brings into question the very idea of fairness. If there is worry that land prices will rise in the course of the process, then that precisely is the logic of the market, as would be the case with the prices of a block of shares that could tilt the balance in a corporate takeover. Industrialists who have been fighting for freedom from government control do not seem to want to extend the same freedom to a farmer.
A fair price in keeping with market rates could be sufficient safeguard in areas such as Punjab and Haryana, where the farmer has long understood the play of such forces. The problems are more severe in areas such as Orissa, Madhya Pradesh or Jharkhand. It does not matter whether the displacement is a result of SEZs, mining leases or dams, the need for far more specific R&R guidelines is evident. This is where the role of the state is essential, not as a force to ensure acquisition of land, but as an entity to mitigate the effects of displacement.
There seem to be a number of ways being considered to achieve this. The first set of issues involves ensuring compliance with laid down norms. Certainly, independent tribunals and state-level councils to ensure that rehabilitation norms are being complied with are necessary. Judicial redress is far too slow. However, the problem in the past has been that such tribunals are situated at state capitals, making them impossible to access for the very people who need them the most. So, monitoring and redressal mechanisms have to exist within easy reach of the people being displaced.
The second issue deals with the long-term benefits that should accrue to those displaced. There are many ways in which this can be ensured—from their becoming shareholders if the land is bought outright to a permanent lease that allows them an annual return.
Apart from such benefits, a number of measures to develop areas around SEZs seem to be under consideration. These would require companies not only to apportion part of their profits for the development of the areas in and around the project, but also require them to give preference to those affected in terms of contracts, allotment of shops or other economic activities generated around the sites.
While for the moment these provisions are being considered mainly for SEZs, there is no reason that they should not be enforced for any development activity that involves displacement. Such an approach should work equally well for a mining project, a dam or even a highway and would be a recognition that the apportioning of benefits should not simply accrue to one side in the two-way process of acquisition and displacement. At the same time, there’s a concern whether the known inefficiencies in state machineries will deliver what may well evolve into a sound package. Handing over the execution of the R&R to a private party might possibly work better.
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