That the group of ministers tasked with ironing out issues and differences of opinion over the draft Land Acquisition, Resettlement and Rehabilitation Bill, 2011, arrived at a consensus earlier this week is a cause for relief as well as concern. The proposed legislation, yet far from being introduced in Parliament, has morphed more than just its name. It is now the Right to Fair Compensation, Resettlement, Rehabilitation and Transparency in Land Acquisition Bill. I fear more will change, even as more remains the same.
The long-delayed Bill is perhaps a step closer to becoming legislation. Several continuing inclusions are also welcome: such as free, prior and informed consent by those whose lands and current livelihoods are to be acquired and subsumed by projects; protecting traditional rights of land ownership and livelihood especially in tribal-dominated and forested areas; social impact assessment alongside environmental impact assessment for large projects, and underscoring transparency of intention to acquire land, and clarity in purchase price, resettlement and rehabilitation packages. This is as it should be.
Equally, there are concerns. Among other things, reduction of popular consent for land acquisition has been reduced from 80% of those in targeted areas to two-thirds, for projects to be undertaken by private parties and those with private-public partnership. Retrospective provisions in the earlier version have been scrapped by a future cut-off date for implementation. This is being spoken of as necessary to prevent overlapping of current and future legislation, especially in situations where acquisition and resettlement and rehabilitation processes are ongoing. But, it also reduces the risk for businesses, among other things, to give over land for which there have been long delays in taking possession, or land unutilized for long periods, to government-controlled land banks.
There can be no doubt that the Bill will undergo more changes—primarily to front-load more provisions to favour business over national interest—as it journeys again to the cabinet and later, braves the maelstrom of parliamentary debate. Besides necessary democratic input, such wrangling will also buy time for businesses to complete deals before the cut-off limit for the new law comes into effect. But my concern arises more from attitudes that permeate to the ground with negative fallouts than any tactic to delay and dilute a Bill that has, in one incarnation or another, been hobbled for six years.
A simple, cynical truth is that India’s embedded corruption will continue to threaten effective implementation of even a vastly diluted law, specifically in areas of voluntary public consent, land classification, and implementation of agreed resettlement and rehabilitation parameters that are flouted by projects both in the domain decreed as being for public good—government-mandated dams, canals, power and other areas—as well as domains of private or private-public initiative. As it does now, public and judicial activism will backstop legislation.
The greater danger lies in obtuseness and misunderstanding that persists in policymaking and business circles about what constitutes development in tribal or underdeveloped rural areas, even near-urban zones. That, development includes effective healthcare, education, communication, irrigation, assured delivery of the criminal justice system, and focused vocational and professional training for a sustainable and progressive local economic structure is often ignored for the premise that establishing heavy industries and projects encompassing large tracts of land will immediately uplift such economies and minds. Or, be sacrificed for the often-abused notion of greater good. Such imperatives override decades of evidence repeatedly demonstrated in rural India that project-affected societies are decimated, and mostly menial jobs accrue to a tiny handful of local folk who lose homes, lands and livelihood to projects. Negative energies are born of this.
Deliberate corporate delusion and nimble-footed callousness is often celebrated as best practice. A tube well dug in a village, a small school, or occasional clinic for a cluster of villages by a business house that takes over land are advertised as the epitome of corporate social responsibility (CSR). Besides often masking shabby delivery of rehabilitation commitments, in several cases spending to sustain friendly investors and media exceeds spending on CSR activities. Such charlatanism contributes to reducing opportunities of conflict resolution inevitable in a country as cursed as India is with its volatile matrix of population pressure, socioeconomic poverty, corruption, and the need to boost economic activity simply to keep running in place.
Continuing missteps will harden the evolving irony that, with their holistic myopia, businesses and their government sponsors may constitute the greater threat to India’s internal stability and security; not those who they vilify for protesting obvious wrongdoing in policy and practice.
Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business, runs on Fridays.
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