This Article is From Mar 15, 2015

Why an Acquisition Off the Delhi-Jaipur Highway Challenges Assumptions of New Land Bill

Farmers in Rajasthan's Shahjahanpur are protesting the acquisition of their farm lands.

New Delhi:

Off the Delhi-Jaipur highway, a group of men gather in the compound of a government rest house to discuss the fate of their land. A week ago, these farmers of Shahjahanpur, two hours south-west of Delhi in Rajasthan's Alwar District were served a final land acquisition notice by the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC). But they don't want to sell. "We'll give up our lives, but we won't give up our land," said Amir Singh, one of the men leading their revolt.

The DMIC, envisioned as a 1500-km-long freight corridor from Delhi to Maharashtra, covers six states. Its longest stretch is through Rajasthan. In 2012, 137 villages in Alwar District were identified without any warning under the DMIC. Later the farmers learnt it was for a multi-use industrial, residential and recreational area. The acquisition was done under the old colonial law, under which no consent is required from landowners. The new law, introduced by the previous UPA government, sought to restore the seeking of consent of landowners: 80 per cent for private sector, and 70 per cent for public-private partnerships.

The NDA government has amended the UPA's law, removing the consent clause as well as a number of other restrictions for five sectors, including industrial corridors.

But if the NDA law comes into effect, it's unclear how it will make matters easier in Shahjahanpur. "No consent was taken, but we will agitate till our last breath," said Subah Singh Chaudhary, a farmer-turned-activist.

Under the NDA Bill, restrictions on acquiring irrigated land for industrial corridors have also been removed, another step which may exacerbate rather than cool tensions.  

"We completely depend on this land," said Amir Singh. "We grow up to four crops each year - that's how fertile it is." They take us to lush green fields barely a five-minute drive from the highway, to point out their crops - wheat, millet, linseed and vegetables.

To defuse opposition, the NDA made amendments to the Bill, limiting acquisition to industrial corridors owned by the government and only up to 1 km on either side of a highway or railway line. But all industrial corridors are already government-owned, albeit with substantial doses of foreign funding. Moreover, the acquisition in Shahjahanpur covers an area well over the proposed 1 km. The fields being acquired here are over 4 kms away from the highway. "That's only for now. When it gets off the ground it will spread even further," Mr Chaudhary said, pointing at the map.

What the NDA's Bill fails to mention is that even if ownership of land vests with the government, private entities - Indian or foreign -  are free to do business within these corridors. In Shahjahanpur, the farmers tell us the Taiwanese are coming, as are the Japanese. "We don't want the government to become a dalal (broker) for the private sector", said Mr Chaudhury.

We asked them how then will land be acquired for the march of the new economy, visible everywhere on the drive to Shajahanpur with factories and residential complexes dotting the landscape. "Why not use nearby barren land?" the farmers say. Or, use land of RIICO, the state industrial body, acres of which are occupied by defunct units?  An earlier NDTV investigation had found that nearly 50 per cent of industrial lands in possession of five state governments, including Rajasthan are lying vacant or undeveloped.

The NDA brought in an amendment to utilise wasteland for industry.  But that provision already exists under the old law, and is not always observed. "About 12 to 15 kilometers from here, there's absolutely barren land. No farming happens there, and they are ready to sell," said Mr Chaudhary, but says "the government chose our fertile fields since they will get a much better commission. Our land is right along the highway".

When we asked the men about compensation - the NDA Bill retains the very generous compensation structure of the UPA Act - they said the price was yet to be announced. Given its location, land prices in Shahjahanpur have steadily been shooting up, but farmers claim they have seldom been the real beneficiaries. RIICO acquired land five years ago from a nearby set of villages at Rs 65 lakh per hectare. Almost immediately, RIICO sold the same land to companies at Rs 20 crore.  

Moreover, they told us that the social impact of leaving farming by selling land - even at high prices - has not always been favourable. Earlier bouts of land acquisition have created millionaires in neighbouring villages. But the children of farmers ran through the money, they said, blowing it on food, drink and expensive cars. Today 50 per cent of them are bankrupt, they said.

As we spoke to the farmers, young men passing by would stop their motorcycles to listen. As an incentive, the NDA's land bill promises employment to at least one member of each displaced household. Wouldn't the younger generation want to avail of these new opportunities, we asked?  These promises too they have heard before. "In our village, about 25 children have B Tech and M Tech degrees. Not even one industry is ready to take them in. 'You are locals; we can't take you,' they are told. "