NAC unfolds package for farmers sacrificing land, but still a long way to go

It is difficult to bar code farm land and trade it over the counter in exchange for a rehabilitation package. Simply because in the countryside, the relationship between the farmer and his land is too complex to be straitjacketed into a barter formulation. For the farmer, his piece of land is not merely a patch of earth to grow crops, it's an insurance against exigencies, a measure of social standing, a source of self-respect, in short, the core to his existence in the the rural set up. To part with it means letting go of the core constant in life.

Thus, when the government gets set to amend the 110-year-old Land Acquisition Act, the core cause of the growing rural/tribal unrest across the country, it has to factor in the centrality of land in rural life.

The political impact of Nandigram and Singur is well documented; the same episode is playing out in Bhatta-Parsaul in Uttar Pradesh and Jaitapur in Maharashtra. Reuters

This is crucial since the insecurities caused by the antiquated act and lack of a clear compensation and rehabilitation package is driving people away from the government, making them hold on to their land, reject rehab packages, and even take up arms. According to a report in The Times of India, 40 of India’s 610 districts witnessed protests over land acquisition over the last three years. These were spread across 17 states. The political impact of Nandigram and Singur is well documented; the same episode is playing out in Bhatta-Parsaul in Uttar Pradesh and Jaitapur in Maharashtra.

'Public purpose’ is expected to trigger a lot of heat in the run up to the monsoon session of Parliament. The rather innocuous words have been the crux of the entire land acquisition controversy. Under the Act of 1894, the governments, both at the Centre and state, can acquire any land anywhere in India for 'public purposes’ even without the consent of land owners.

What pray is 'public purposes’? The governments over the years have made the definition elastic by including public-private partnership projects and even Special Economic Zones. Even the Britishers were conservative — they used the act primarily to acquire land for railways. The spin-off has been unpleasant. By playing midwife to the to land acquisition for the industry, governments have abdicated their moral position as a neutral arbiter between common people and the industry.

UPA’s draft Land Acquisition Bill of 2007 sought to narrow down the scope of 'public purpose’ by defining it loosely as “any project of general use”. These included land for strategic naval, military or air force purposes, for public infrastructure projects, and  for any purpose useful to the general public if 70% of the land has been purchased from willing sellers at market prices. The Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council wants the ratio to go up more in favour of the farmers. It’s a dicey call for the government though. It has to keep its options for land acquisition open  in case of emergency.

The other contentious issue — rehabilitation and compensation — is expected to open up an intense debate in the coming days. The National Advisory Council’s proposed package on rehabilitation on Wednesday addresses the issues rather well.

It promises land owners six times the registered value of their land as compensation if it is acquired for development projects like dams and highways. Besides, it puts land acquisition and rehabilitation in one bracket through the National Development, Acquisition, Displacement and Rehabilitation Bill. Harsh Mandar, member of NAC, said people working on the land would also be included in the category of project affected persons which would make them eligible for receiving compensation. It also recommends giving farmers the right to annuity for a certain number of years over and above the compensation for the land.

A good staring point, but it’s still some way off for the bill to turn into an act. The government will need to do a careful balancing act. Industrialisation is necessary, but how it goes about it without antagonising a lot of people is vital. It must be seen to be an impartial facilitator. Also, it has to rebuild trust with rural India.

Industrialisation will need to begin with respecting a farmer's special association with his land. Because land is no ordinary merchandise. What's important is its value, not the price.