Land bill changes, relief for farmers

The U-turn isn't a sign of retreat but of politi-cal maturity. Shift focus now to agriculture and rural development.

At a time when hundreds of people displaced as early as in 1948 for the construction of the Bhakra dam have still not been rehabilitated, and thousands of those evicted for the construction of a series of dams on Narmada river are still fighting for their legitimate dues, the latest report of the Socio-Economic Survey for Rural India has brought out the economic vulnerability from growing landlessness.

Accordingly, 56 per cent of the rural households have no land. They are left with no option but to depend on manual labour for their existence. Therefore, the withdrawal of six key amendments to the UPA’s Land Act, 2013, including social impact assessment and restoring the consent clause, is being seen as a major relief for the farming community.

Call it a triumph of democracy or people’s victory, the climb-down on the land bill is simply a temporary reprieve. Although Union Rural Development Minister Birendra Singh has now mellowed down his brazen tune, saying that the government was always willing to listen to good suggestions from any institution, political party or farmers, the fact is that despite the groundswell of opposition, the government brought in three ordinances in quick succession. At no stage was the government willing to makes any changes to what had been spelled out in the ordinances.

Let us not forget that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had himself said earlier that the 2013 Act was passed in hurry. He had explained in a ‘mann ki baat’ programme on how the new bill that his government was trying to bring in, would remove the hurdles in the path to development and in the process brings prosperity to farmers.

His ministerial colleagues, Arun Jaitley, Nitin Gadkari, Venkaiah Naidu and even Prakash Javadekar had parroted the same argument time and again. The stakes were so high that Jaitley had even hinted at the possibility of a joint sitting of parliament to get the bill through.

The u-turn is therefore an outcome of political necessity rather than any change of heart. Knowing that the numbers in Rajya Sabha were not in its favour, and aware that the political overtures with some of the state leaders was not indicative of a support for the land ordinance, there was hardly |any other option left but to withdraw the contentious amendments.

The democratic victory that many are claiming is just because the NDA was not in majority in Rajya Sabha. If the numbers in Rajya Sabha were in its favour, I am sure the amendments – despite the opposition by Bhartiya Kisan Sangh, Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh and the Swadeshi Jagran Manch – would have been bulldozed to turn the ordinance into a law by now.

Economic security

What has been deliberately missed out in the heated debates that followed the promulgation of ordinances on land acquisition is that a piece of land, howsoever small it may be, is the only economic security for a majority of the people. Moreover, land has inter-generational benefits that can never be quantified. Depriving people of their only economic security thereby adds on to their economic vulnerability, with the negative impact lingering on to successive generations.

Given that only 7 per cent Indians own 47 per cent of the country’s land as per the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) 2013, which means 93 per cent of the population is somehow struggling to retain its foothold over the remaining 53 per cent of the land resources clearly shows how skewed is the land equation in India.

To say that the availability of land is coming in the way of development is nothing but propaganda to grab as much land as possible. I have heard that projects worth Rs 4 lakh crore are held up because of land. This is not correct.

According to Economic Survey 2015, only 8 per cent of projects are held up because of land. It blames unfavourable market conditions and lack on investors’ interest and not paucity of land. Many surveys have shows that 45 per cent of the land acquired in just five states has been utilised so far.

Even in the case of Special Economic Zones, only 62 per cent of the land acquired has been put to use. A CAG report says: “Acquisition of land from the public by the government is proving to be a major transfer of wealth from the rural populace to the corporate world.”

Affordable housing is another justification that goes well with the urban middle class. But the fact remains that the country at present needs 1.8 crore houses. It already has 1.2 crore houses/flats that are lying vacant which is because the prices are exorbitantly high.
The challenge, therefore, is not to be unduly harried by the bullying tactics of mainline economists and the industry lobbying groups. The u-turn is not an indication of retreat or defeat. It’s a sign of political maturity, and should be used by Modi to shift the focus of development to agriculture and rural development, which would directly benefit 70 per cent of the population.

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