I am rather forced to continue with my theme of ‘Dealing with Public Unrest’ and ‘Redressal of Public Grievances’, by the events unfolding around us!
There are many agitations either already taking place or being contemplated around the country, against ‘forced’ acquisition of land for major projects. Most of these agitations are against acquisition on farmlands and the loss of livelihood of the farmers. It is becoming a pattern to mar any new project that requires large chunk of land, thereby hindering the accelerated development of the country and its economy.
Look at the major conflicts that are in various stages around the country: Narmada in Gujarat and Singur- Nandigram in West Bengal are well chronicled. Greater Noida is still simmering; with news of gross State sponsored atrocities against agitating farmers/villagers making rounds (while I am tempted to deal with Rahul Gandhi’s allegations and the response of other political dispensations thereto in detail, I will restrict myself to the subject at hand). Bhavnagar in Gujarat just succeeded in thwarting a cement plant in their area and is now on the war path against a proposed nuclear project. Orissa Government’s acquisition of land for Posco Project is being challenged by locals and human rights groups. In Maharashtra, land is being used as a tool in the fight against the proposed Jaitapur nuclear power plant.
If we look at all these agitations, we can see that the displaced farmers are holding genuine grievances against the governments and various political parties (even extremists groups in some cases) are successfully channelizing these grievances into movements against current governments. While it may be profitable in the short-run for these political groups to enhance their political capital through mass movements, these agitations (often violent) are definitely not in the interest of our nation.
Genesis of the problem
Agriculture makes highest contribution to India’s GDP, at about 18%. Agriculture also contributes to 60% of the employment opportunities for Indian labour. With nearly 60% of the land already being used for agriculture, there is not much scope for any increase or developing alternate land for agriculture in India. It is also a fact that what is being produced by Indian agriculture sector is not sufficient to meet the growing demand for food in India. Only way forward is, therefore, preservation of the existing farmlands and increasing the productivity.
But can we preserve the entire land currently being used for agriculture, as farmlands? The GDP share being merely 18%, agriculture alone cannot shoulder India’s economic development and growing need for employment. Increased industrialisation, infrastructure and power generation are crucial in the onward march of India towards its economic development. Therefore, diversion of agricultural land for other uses seems to be unavoidable!
Since the livelihood of vast majority of people on the one hand and the need of land for increasing industrialisation and infrastructure development on the other hand are seemingly conflicting with each other, it is imperative that we have a proper policy towards any acquisition and conversion of agricultural land for other purposes.
Central Government has renewed its commitment to amend the existing Land acquisition Act, which is an archaic piece of legislation. It has also promulgated a rehabilitation Policy in 2007, which obviously has not succeeded in meeting the aspirations of various stakeholders associated with acquisition or rehabilitation.
Right to property, though not a fundamental right, is a recognised constitutional right of Indian citizens. However, like every other right, right to property is also not an absolute right, but subject to reasonable restrictions. Setting up of projects of national importance, in my opinion, provides enough ground for reasonable restriction on the right to hold property. Otherwise, we will not be able to move forward in the path of development. However, let us also recognise and respect the right of the farmers to their property and devise means to ensure protecting their interests in the event of unavoidable acquisition for any purpose.
Since the land acquisition for projects is a major issue threatening the society, we need to keep away our narrow political goals and come together to find a way out. Let us have a national debate on all aspects of land acquisition and land conversion, in a non-partisan manner, and devise fair policies that take into account interests of the all the concerned. This policy must also aim to reduce conversion of agricultural lands for any other use, to the extent possible, so that we can preserve this most important resource for the survival of humankind.
When the time demands proactive measures let us make it happen, instead of merely reacting to the agitations, or exploiting them for narrow political ends. Clarity in policy often serves to remove most of the grievances.