Tap available land

Tap available land

LESSONS FROM SINGUR

Past the historic verdict of Singur, if there is any lesson to draw from well-known cases of very troubled and violent acquisition processes as in Nandigram, Singur, Kalinganagar, Posco and Yamuna Expressway, it must not be a doleful lament about the fate of our urban-industrial economy but the realisation that protracted struggle over land and livelihood rights must not be made to lose to canons of ‘development’ on grounds of expediency.

Millions of acres, possibly as much as 50 million acres – about 6% of all the land in the country – have been converted after 1947 while as many as 50 million people have been displaced or adversely affected.

The Draft National Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation Bill 2011, envisaged a role for the government in view of the imperfect land markets in India and the asymmetry of power (and information) between those wanting to acquire the land and those whose lands are being acquired. It sought to balance the need for facilitating land acquisition for various public purposes including infrastructure development, industrialisation and urbanisation, alongside addressing the concerns of farmers and those whose livelihoods are dependent on the land being acquired.

It laid more emphasis on the process of land acquisition, compensation for land acquired and the rehabilitation and resettlement process, package and conditions than the issue of who acquires land. The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act 2013, envisages transparency in acquisition and makes fair compensation and resettlement a statutory right of those who lose their land.

A 2001 McKinsey study reported that most - over 90% by one estimate - of the land titles in India are ‘unclear’, thereby making land acquisition a more litigious issue. India loses 1.3% economic growth annually as a result of disputed land titles, which inhibit supply of capital and credit for agriculture. Petitioner and writer D C Wadhwa, way back in 2002, pitched for conversion of the system of presumptive titles to land into conclusive titles as the only sensible solution of the problem.

He observed that for millions of small, illiterate, backward and poor farmers in our country, the only evidence of title to their holdings’ entry in the record-of-rights in land maintained by the state governments had, was only of presumptive value. “If they are dispossessed of whatever little they have in the form of small pieces of land, which is happening in all parts of the country, the poor fellows are pitted against the might of the mighty and do not get back their lands.”

To remedy this, the Land Titling Bill 2011 was drafted to create a digital infrastructure for land records, under which a registration authority is to be set up, functioning under the deputy commissioners of each district after amending the Indian Registration Act 1908, the Transfer of Property Act 1882, and the Indian Contract Act 1872.

Creating a digital infrastructure as envisaged in the ‘Torrens titling system’, however laudable, has been criticised as land being a state subject, the implementation of which will vary from state to state requiring them to employ huge resources for having an initial systematic survey done.

Jonathan Zasloff, Professor of Law at the University of California, Los Angeles, has forcefully argued in a paper that the embrace of the Torrens registration system is ill-suited for developing countries like India and “could represent another episode of failed economic development planning.”

The Singur verdict put a legal seal on the fact that 'development' cannot happen at the cost of the weakest sections of the society – poor agricultural workers who cannot battle against the mighty state government – as that development is unsustainable. This is confirmed by a finding by Asian Centre for Human Rights in 2006 that industrialisation and development projects like dams, power projects, nature conservation had, until 1990, displaced about 85.39 lakh tribals – who, though constituted 8.2% of the total population of India according to the 2001 Census, also formed 55.1% of the total displaced persons.

How can public policy strike a balance between justice for its land-losers and concerns related to the viability of development projects? The Special Economic Zones Act was passed in 2005 but tracts of land acquired to be used for setting up SEZs are dying as several industrial units are losing their appetite for SEZ projects for lack of economic benefits due to change in tax policy.

Private and public sectors, desperately in need of land for their industry, infrastructure and service sector operations as well as its financial sector, are bedevilled by project delays and non-performing assets that can be traced to land rights conflicts.

Attrition for land
But land acquisition is just one of the thorniest land-related conflicts as there exist many cases of attrition for land such as land rivalry between ‘indigenous’ and ‘migrant’ communities, inter-communal disputes over religious sites as well as private land-grabbing.

It was noted how the Hindu-Muslim riots Kolkata in 1992 which erupted
following the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, resembled a form of ‘land grabbing in disguise’, driven by the aim of land developers to forcefully ‘evict’ residents from their land.

In the context of the 2002 Hindu-Muslim violence in Ahmedabad, the concentration of violence engineered in mill areas lent credence to the perception that the communal tensions were a ploy to evict religious minorities from their lands.
According to an estimate, the land-population ratio by 2050 will decline four-fold in India, making it amongst the most land-scarce countries. Despairing though it may be, there cannot be any fast track industrialisation until every land owner is sufficiently compensated and given alternative sources of income.

To avoid attrition surrounding land acquisition, experts recommend that the government must first tap the inventory of all available land: with defence, railways, state-owned public sector undertakings, sick and closed industries. The Singur verdict sheds light on the need to address the market asymmetry without which there can be no meaningful industrialisation in India.

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