This Article is From May 21, 2015

Land Acquisition From a State's Perspective

Will the proposed changes to the 2013 Land Acquisition Law make land acquisition easier and more equitable? In the ongoing debate, this question is mostly being answered from a national perspective. But the debate can become better informed if issues are examined with reference to a concrete state-specific situation.

The Odisha case is particularly interesting because of three reasons. Firstly, states like Odisha, though quite large, do not really capture the imagination of the national media in view of the skewed distribution of political power and media reach (TRPs). Secondly, Odisha has huge natural resources and growth potential, much more than any other state in the country, though continuing to be one of the poorest. Thirdly, no matter what the law is or ultimately becomes, the implementation has to be done at the state level, and a law will be of little consequence if it cannot be implemented.

In 1983, the government of Sri Janaki Ballabh Patnaik, in which I was the Irrigation Minister, proposed a second dam on the Mahanadi River at Manibhadra. Odisha had been ravaged in 1982 by the worst floods till date. The objective was laudable as the River Mahanadi indeed needs a second dam for effective flood control in Odisha's coastal districts and the lone dam at Hirakud was aging.

But there were massive protests in Western Odisha and even a fear that the state was getting divided on regional lines. The project had to be shelved. This was the first lesson for us in Odisha that large scale acquisition of land like for the Hirakud Dam will no longer be possible.

The second major project that had to be abandoned was the National Missile Test Range in 54 villages of Baliapal and Bhograi Blocks in Balasore districts. This was in 1986. As a minister in the state government, I was privy to the project. The Union Government had told us that the missile range was vital for India's national security. Scientists had advised that the land chosen was the most suitable in terms of geo-location, and the integrated range could serve the dual purposes of missile and rocket testing for military purposes as well as space exploration. We were also assured that there would be no paucity of funds for rehabilitation and resettlement. Central forces were provided to deal with the agitators. Baliapal became a huge and successful popular movement of the people, the first movement of its kind in independent India.

The villagers erected barricades and did not allow state functionaries to enter the area, and finally the project had to be abandoned. There was little that we could do. The national security argument and the call for patriotism made no headway.

We have seen similar resistance movements in Odisha's Gandhamardan, and more recently, in Niyamgiri. In Kalinga Nagar, where Tata Steel is setting up a 10 million-tonne steel plant, during the process of construction of a compound wall, there was a violent clash between local adivasis and the state police in January 2006.

12 adivasis died in police firing, and one police man was hacked to death. After a decade, the land acquisition for the Tata Steel Plant is still not completed, the commissioning of the plant has been grossly delayed, and the local community has been scarred permanently and is very unhappy with the current resettlement process.

South Korean Company POSCO signed an MOU with Odisha Government in June 2005 for setting up a steel plant. Opposition by people meant huge delays in the land acquisition process; in the meantime, POSCO is no longer sure of getting mining linkage and the future of the project is 'uncertain'. POSCO Steel Plant was to become the largest foreign direct investment in India.

So the last three decades have seen the rise of very strong resistance movements and repeated failure of the state to enforce its power of eminent domain, i.e. the power to acquire land for public purpose. People debating these issues from ivory towers either are unaware of the ground reality or expect the problems to go away. I am unable to join them in their dreams because I have been a grassroots person and have long administrative experience in dealing with these problems.

In all these instances that I have cited the use of the State's power of eminent domain, the might of the state and promises of the best compensation packages could not defeat peoples' resistance. All the tricks of the game were used. Yet, people held out. The Delhi-Mumbai elite need to accept the reality of India.

After seeing the resilience of Odisha's farmers, adivasis and Dalits and working with them for the last four decades I am convinced that any attempt at forcible land acquisition in Odisha for large projects will fail unless people can become partners in the growth process. I cannot say whether it will make land acquisition easier in Gujarat, but it will make no headway in Odisha.

The 2013 Act provides a workable solution and a framework to make development inclusive. Not that the 2013 Act would have made land acquisition easier, or less prone to failure. But at least there was a chance. So make whatever changes to the law you wish by using parliamentary numbers, people will not give up.

This is not a fight between the BJP and the Congress, as some may superficially imagine. The issues are much larger and can cause serious class conflict and violence; at many places, the ultra-left groups will benefit the most. There are many laws in the statute book in India that are not implemented and may be un-implementable. If an attempt is made to acquire land forcibly and without fair compensation by changing the 2013 Act, the new law will also enter the category of un-implementable laws.

Why has land acquisition failed so frequently? In the first three decades after independence, the state could acquire vast tracts of land to set up large industries, dams and irrigation projects. Each time people were displaced, they were promised adequate compensation, a share in the benefits, and a brighter future for themselves and their children. But, in due course people found the growth did not become inclusive, and many were left running from pillar to post to get what they were promised. Some claims are unsettled after 50 years at this writing. People no longer trust the state represented by a politico-bureaucratic combine and deeply resent displacement.

Most people affected by land acquisition happen to be small and marginal farmers, share croppers and landless people. A majority of these people are adivasis, Dalits and people from other socio-economically backward communities because it is mostly under their land that minerals are located. These are the people who live in the hills and forests and face the maximum displacement. In earlier times, they buckled under pressure and clung to the hope of just treatment. But no more. They have no asset other than a small patch of land that they propose to bequeath to the next generation as the only source of livelihood.

Odisha has had no benefit of the green revolution, farming is unsustainable. Because of poor investment in the social sector, people have very little education and employable skills in an industrial economy. They will allow no land acquisition unless they are on board and can see a long-term interest in allowing land acquisition.

So industries planning to acquire land have two options. Either they work with the people using the framework created under the 2013 Act, or crib at the World Economic Forum Meetings in Davos in suit and boot about administrative paralysis and cost of doing business in India.    

The question is whether industries and governments will change their approach to land acquisition. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik promised land to many including POSCO, Mittal, Tatas. He signed MOUs with private companies without taking the consent of the people. People rejected the MOUs, land acquisition failed and projects had to be shelved.

The 2013 Act makes the possibility of land acquisition much more likely and Industry should have accepted the reform as a viable compromise formulae and a possible middle ground, and worked with it for a few years rather than subverting it through a government they have brought to power with generous support.

(Niranjan Patnaik is a senior Congress leader and former Cabinet Minister from Odisha.)

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