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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 48, Dated 01 Dec 2012
    Jay Mazoomdaar

    Final checks, Mr Ramesh

    The much debated Land Acquisition Bill is likely to be placed before Parliament this session. A few worries

    Jay Mazoomdaar, Independent Journalist

    Grounds for concern Villagers protest against land acquisition for POSCO’s steel plant in Odisha

    Photo: Arabinda Mahapatra

    THE RIGHT to Fair Compensation, Resettlement, Rehabilitation and Transparency in Land Acquisition Bill will reach the Union Cabinet next week. It has passed the scrutiny of a House panel and a Group of Ministers (GOM). Neither Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh, who shaped it, nor GoM head Sharad Pawar, who cleared it, revealed the contours of the final consensus, but it is learnt that the contentious consent clause is back to 80 percent.

    While the industry is upset over what it calls unrealistic terms for consent and land cost, the weaknesses of this wellmeaning Bill may lie elsewhere. In fact, the apparently inflated land value — two to four times the market price depending on the plot’s proximity to urban areas — may still be below the actual market price, which is far above the government circle rates or registration values of similar plots in the recent past.

    It is no secret that registrations are usually done at absurdly low prices to save on stamp duty and to keep the black money in circulation. So in cities, even after a 100 percent solatium, the land value for acquisition is likely to remain lower than the actual market price. If anything, the buyer can only crib about having to pay a nearmarket price entirely in white money.

    Then again, the debate over consent — whether two-thirds or 80 percent of landowners should agree to allow acquisition — misses a crucial point. As projects keep getting bigger, the number of affected often runs into thousands and across many villages. Unless the proposed 80 (or 67) percent consent is sought separately from every affected gram sabha or the smallest local democratic body, the very purpose of seeking consent may be defeated.

    Consider the POSCO project in Odisha. The proposed plant affects some 22,000 landowners in seven villages. Dhinkia, the centre of resistance where not even 10 percent agree to acquisition, has a population of around 4,000. Now, hypothetically, if the other six villages agree to trade their land, should villagers in Dhinkia be forced to give up theirs?

    The compensation prescribed in the Bill is generous. But there is the danger of handing out too much at a time. Every family gets transport and rehabilitation allowance of Rs 1 lakh and another Rs 5 lakh if no job is offered. Another lump sum, presumably not less than Rs 3 lakh, will be handed out if no housing is provided. Added to the price of the land with solatium, that is a lot of money at one go and can easily destroy susceptible families.

    The biggest security of rural or poor women — a wife, daughter, mother or sister — is shelter. Rehabilitation packages in the past are rife with instances where the men of the family splurged the compensation bounty or took off with it, abandoning the wife and children without home or livelihood. The Bill needs to make alternative housing compulsory and transfer the major cash components of the compensation to joint accounts of spouses. Widows are considered separate families. But when they are dependent on their adult sons, they should also be made party to such joint compensation accounts.

    The other unspoken victim of such schemes is the unmarried woman, who is at the mercy of a male kin. While unmarried men are deemed separate families eligible for compensation, the government’s rehabilitation policy, as in the case of voluntary relocation from critical forest areas, ignores the women, effectively leaving the most vulnerable out of the security net. The draft Bill put out for public scrutiny last year described every unmarried adult, male or female, as a separate family. The final Bill must make the clause explicit.

    The provision of jobs for members from each affected family is another clause the Bill should re-examine. It is arbitrary and does not link the buyer’s liability to the quantum of land acquired. Consider two firms acquiring 100 acres each. Depending on the nature of land-holding, one may need to deal with 20 families, while the other may have 50 on its hand. Clearly, projects dealing with numerous smallholders will have to provide more jobs.

    The other issue is with the “job” itself. The Bill fails to specify the buyer’s liability in terms of employment worth a certain wage or salary per acre land acquired. Besides, it will be difficult to gainfully employ unskilled labour and, even if trained, those legally entitled for jobs are unlikely to have any incentive to be productive.

    To avoid such a scenario, the package can instead offer stakes in the project for which land is acquired — worth Rs 5 lakh, which is the one-time compensation presently prescribed in lieu of a job. This will ensure long-term financial benefit to the affected families. The buyers will not be forced to hire what they may consider unproductive staff. The sellers will not have to be saddled with jobs they may resent.

    The brouhaha over the details notwithstanding, the rehabilitation mechanism still depends to a great extent on the state’s discretion. The Bill now allows states to decide on the minimum size of acquisition that will have to follow the new rehab formula. The states also get to decide if and how they mark up land prices in rural areas, and what percentage of agricultural land in a district will be up for acquisition. Land being a state subject, states deserve such powers. But given that a number of states have a history of aggressive land acquisition, the Bill should specify the limits to which its provisions can be diluted.

    FINALLY, TWO key areas need a rethink. It may be too late for the Bill to redefine “public purpose”, but the soft language — “infrastructure, industrialisation and urbanisation projects… where benefits largely accrue to the general public” — keeps, perhaps deliberately, the possibilities of manipulation alive.

    And then, Ramesh and his colleagues in the GoM have made the district collector the sole authority to determine the price of land. That is one office that has figured with alarming regularity at the centre of all that has been disgraceful about land acquisition — from forging gram sabha consent to ordering police brutality. In the same spirit, the chief secretary has been named the ex-officio head of the state compensation and rehabilitation committee.

    What the Bill owes us instead are independent authorities at the Centre and state level to assess if a project is indeed in public interest, confirm the price of land, monitor the acquisition process, and watch over the bureaucracy that has only been too eager to take orders from its political masters and big money. In its present form, this much-needed Bill leaves a lot to convenience of interpretation, which is the recipe for unrest, litigation and delay.

    Jay Mazoomdaar is an Independent Journalist.
    [email protected]

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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 48, Dated 01 Dec 2012



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