UP land mess: It’s not about the poor, it’s about the best deal
The apex court ruling on the Shah Beri land in Uttar Pradesh points to the same old malaise afflicting land acquisitions in the country. The governments concerned must desist from playing a partisan role, and the courts should not confuse issues.
"Even a horse will laugh at this argument," the Supreme Court told the Uttar Pradesh government while rubbishing its contention that the 156 hectare land acquired in Shah Beri village in Greater Noida was meant for 'public purpose'. By "public purpose" the UP government meant housing complexes with swimming pools, spa and ayurvedic massage parlours.
The government had indeed played a sick joke on the unsuspecting villagers. It had acquired land for industrial purposes under the much-maligned century old Land Acquisition Act and transferred the land to real estate developers, who were planning to come up with glitzy residential and shopping premises for the well-heeled.
"In the name of development, governments are acquiring land from the common man. The developers are constructing malls, multiplexes and townships on it and the common man has no access to these. Does it come under the perception of public purpose?" the court had asked the counselor of the UP government.
This is a question that has been weighing heavy on the nation’s conscience for sometime now. The action of the UP government reeks of unfairness. But it’s not the only government charged with similar crime. This has been the running theme behind all the land acquisition disputes across the country.
'Public purpose' is a highly abused phrase. The court made clear as much.
"Taking advantage of the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, the state is driving poor people to the wall. This is a sinister anti-people campaign started by many governments, including UP. The common man’s rights are taken away by the instrumentalities of the state, which should actually be protecting them," it said.
Explaining 'public purpose' it said, "It means it should help the poorest person. That is the concept in the Constitution."
The court might have got carried away by its own argument while harping on the poor and the deprived – the judges seem to be living in a separate ideological world — but the real issue here is not poverty of people sacrificing land, it’s the honesty involved in the whole affair. There’s no reason why the state must play the midwife in land deals between the villagers and industrial houses or developers. It always ends up on the wrong side, looking as the dishonest broker.
The upcoming national legislation for land acquisition and related issues must take care to whittle down the role of the government’s to the basic minimum and lay down in clear terms what 'public purpose' is.
It does not help that the land acquired for any purpose goes back to the farmers after considerable developmental activity. It affects the productivity of land and renders it useless for any agricultural use. After the Supreme Court’s order upholding an earlier Allahabad High Court order the land at Shah Beri goes back to the original owners. It has been a similar case at Singur in West Bengal. The situation throws the fait accompli at the owners: sell the land again. And this time look for a better bid.
The basic issue here, with due apology to the honourable court, is not poverty. It’s about the best deal. The farmers should not ultimately feel short-changed in the market place. And the government should not look complicit in the process.
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