Why Farmers Have Every Right to Feel Gypped

Published: April 30, 2015 16:13 IST

The latest brouhaha about land acquisition misses the main point. Why are the farmers up in arms? The 2013 Act/Ordinance is so progressive - it is good for the farmers and good for the government which must provide infrastructure. Why should any right thinking person be opposed to it? Why would any farmer be opposed to it?  

Well - there is the Act, and the Ordinance, and then there is what happens on the ground. But tell me: how would you (or I) react if we have been ripped off over generations? Well - that is what has happened to farmers over the generations.

There are two areas that have led to opposition, not just to the 2013 Act and the current Ordinance, but to any Act/Ordinance that seeks to take land away from farmers:

1.    The government's inability to pay compensation on time
2.    The inadequacy of the compensation.

The government's inability to pay compensation on time

Let me give just three particularly egregious (out of probably several hundred) examples. We all know about the great dams at Bhakra and on the Damodar Valley. These were the great "temples of modern India" as Mr Nehru called them. I can't imagine that many know that those whose lands were taken from them are still waiting for compensation more than 50 years after their lands were submerged for your glory and mine! As The Telegraph, reported around five years ago "Descendants of evictees who had parted with their land to Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC) - the first multipurpose river valley project of independent India - have come to the national capital to press for their unfulfilled promises of compensation and jobs. The evictees claimed that of 40,000-odd, only around 350 had been given compensation and jobs."

I would feel terrible if I were at the receiving end of this cruel injustice. What about you?

But you may turn around to me and say: "Arrey bhai, that was in Nehruji's time - we are now in Modiji's time, when things move like a rocket." But do they?

In June 2014, India Today writes about Sardar Sarovar (the title of the article is "Sardar Sarovar Project rehabilitation: Dam...Damned ...Duped."). The article talks about raising the height of the Narmada Dam by Mr Modi's government as a gift to his parched home state of Gujarat. And why should not one state help another - after all, we are one nation. But then the article goes on to refer to the shameful past and the likely-to-be disgraceful present and future. Here are a couple of extracts.

"A tribunal was set up that did not even visit the villages. The tribunal set up a number of rehabilitation principals with prescriptions from the World Bank. So on paper, a progressive policy was set up, but policy only remained on paper. There was a lack of planning, a minimum of five acres was guaranteed but never given.

The issue is grave, because raising the height will displace 2.5 lakh new families, while the over three lakh already displaced ones are still languishing without any rehabilitation and any sign of hope fading away with every passing day."

I would not like to be a member of one of those five lakh+ farming families who are uncaringly displaced from their land after centuries by heartless governments which have demonstrated little desire to fulfil their obligations. What about you?

And look at the third and recent case reported this month in The Times of India which makes you want to cry and laugh - both at the same time!

The gist of the case is: in 1998, the Railways acquired land from Mela Ram and Madan Lal to lay the Una-Amb track in Himachal Pradesh. As usual, the Railways adopted delaying tactics when it came to paying up. The farmers filed a case for enhanced compensation. After a fair amount of legal to-ing and fro-ing,  in 2013, the HP High Court directed the railways to pay the money within six weeks. "But the railways hasn't deposited the amount until now", the farmers' advocate AK Saini said a few weeks ago. Typical.

So, on April 9, 2015, Mukesh Bansal, the additional district and sessions judge of Una ordered the attachment of the train if the railways failed to pay compensation to the two farmers!! The court said if Mela Ram and Madan Lal did not get Rs 8.91 lakh and Rs. 26.53 lakh respectively, the train would be stopped at Una station at 5 am on April 16 and attached by it. The farmers were asked to select one out of four trains - and they selected The Delhi-Una Janshatabdi Express!

Have you heard anything so ridiculous?

I would not like to be at the receiving end of such callousness from the establishment. Would you?

The inadequacy of the compensation

The grossly inadequate compensation has been written about for years. But things, it seemed, were getting better under the Act and the Ordinance. The compensation was a multiple of the value of the land. Fine. But which value and what multiple? Well - the multiple can vary by state, but can be as low as 1! And it was a multiple of the official, market value.

One does not have to be a politician or a tehsildar to realise that the official market value of the land, as per land records, is a purely fictional amount, as almost all property transactions have a component of black money. Surely, that should not surprise anyone who knows that the black component accounts for anything up to a third or half of the white component in land and property transactions. So, the farmer gets diddled. But he hopes and prays that there will be a nice juicy multiple. As Alexander Pope wrote, "Hope springs eternal in the human breast"!

But wait! There is a double whammy on the way! A short time after the land is acquired for an "official" price + a multiple, the government often goes ahead and changes the "land use" from agriculture to industry. And Shazam, what happens? The price of the land shoots up, God knows how many fold! If the land suddenly becomes more valuable (and the 'difference' sometimes goes to the greedy government, and sometimes to the friendly industrialist), should not the farmer share in the bounty rather than the government or industry keep it?

Here are a couple of cases that demonstrate the fairness or the lack of it of our system.

Just a month or so ago, a case came up before the Bombay High Court where the state of Maharashtra was pleased to sanction compensation equal to 1.1 times the "official" price of the land - forget the multiple of 2, 3 or 4, it was not even willing to give a multiple exceeding 1.1. And its reason? Would you believe it? The government claimed it could not afford it! So, we are saying that if the government is broke, a poor farmer should take a hit and subsidise the government? Ah, the fairness of it all.

"The state said the rise in the factor from 1 to 1.1 alone, last year, potentially meant a cost escalation of Rs 5,700 crore for rural land acquisition since last January, a figure which the HC said was incorrect and "beyond comprehension", but one which cannot justify lower compensation to farmers."

And the state of Maharashtra? Rather than accept the decision of Justices BP Dharmadhikari and AM Badar, it wants to appeal to the Supreme Court, enrich the legal fraternity and add to the great legal backlog. Also, now the poor farmer will have to find the resources to fight the mighty 'broke' government.

I have rarely heard of anything so shameful. Have you?

For the second case, let us look at the proposed Areva nuclear plant at Jaitapur in Maharashtra. This is a project to generate around 10,000 MW of power. Originally, it was thought that the power would be very expensive, but it was reported in The Economic Times in March, 2014 that "After three years of hectic negotiations, India and France have agreed on the cost of power that will be generated by Jaitapur Nuclear Power Plant (JNPP), clearing a major hurdle in the path of the project. The two sides have agreed on Rs. 6 per unit, down from Rs. 9.18 per unit quoted by the French company Areva initially, which was not acceptable to India, sources told PTI here."

And what is the estimated cost of this project? According to The Mint, "The estimated cost of the project, to be developed by NPCIL, was around Rs.1 trillion in 2010, when a memorandum of understanding was signed between then French president Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. French government-owned Areva is NPCIL's technology partner for the project."

It took me some time to figure out how much a trillion is. But now I've got it. It is Rs. 1 lakh crore!

The Jaitapur plant will be spread over 968 hectares. Now, what was the compensation offered? First, the government offered Rs. 2 lakh per hectare. Now that is what you call "the last of the big spenders". So, for around 1,000 hectares, the government would shell out Rs. 20 crore - that on a Rs. 1 lakh crore project! Then they upped it to Rs. 5 lakh and then to Rs. 22.5 lakh, i.e. Rs. 225 crore.  In other words, the final price that the government offered to pay is marginally over 0.2% of the cost of the Rs. 1 lakh crore project. Just see the venality of the powers-that-be. Doing their very best to squeeze the farmer.

As The Mint  writes: "In February, the Maharashtra government, which is acquiring the land required for the Jaitapur plant on behalf of NPCIL, announced an enhanced compensation package of Rs.22.5 lakh per hectare for people losing their land.  Around 1,000 ha. of land has already been acquired for the project but barely 10% of around the 2,200 affected land owners have so far accepted the compensation package."

If, as the report says, there are 2,200 land owners of the 1000 hectares of land, this means that the average holding is around 0.5 hectare. So, at the rate of Rs. 22.5 lakh per hectare, the current compensation per average land owner (who owns around 0.5 hectare) is around Rs. 11 lakh per farmer.

Isn't it disgraceful that the initial offer (at the rate of Rs. 2 lakh per hectare) was an average of Rs. 1 lakh per farmer - to dispossess him and his (probably joint) family of their house and their means of living on a piece of land that his family has probably tilled for generations? And this shameful offer was made in your name - and mine.

I have a simple question.

If a project costs Rs.1 lakh crore, would it kill me if the cost were to go up by 2.5%(or even 5%)? Or, the agreed cost per unit is going to be Rs. 6. Would it kill me, sitting in faraway Bombay and having the Jaitapur electricity power my flat, if I had to pay 15 paise (or even 30 paise) more per unit, so that a farmer could get decent compensation? (I think that it would be less than 15 paise or 30 paise per unit, for I assume that the Rs. 6 per unit price includes the capital cost and the fuel cost).

Now, that 2.5% on Rs.1 lakh crore would yield Rs. 2,500 crore. From that amount, one could pay the farmers Rs. 1 crore per hectare (either in cash or as an annuity). The remaining amount could be used to pay the farm labour that will find itself out of an occupation, create first rate infrastructure - build schools, training centres, hospitals, etc. I think if the farmers were paid Rs.1 crore per hectare, not only would they willingly offer the land, but I can imagine that many farmers just outside the perimeter of the land acquired would approach the collector and tell him: "Collector sahib, you have made a mistake. My land is inside the perimeter and must be acquired!"

Is that what we would like or would we prefer to impoverish the farmer? I'd much rather pay the extra 15 or 30 paise per unit than penalise an impecunious farmer. What about you?

Many say that farmers do not want to live on the land as they no future there. True, and it is not surprising, seeing that the average holding in India is 1.15 hectares. Around 70% of the 90-odd million rural households have a holding of less than 1 hectare and 85% hold fewer than 2 hectares. Land holdings keep being sub-divided and uneconomical. True. Farmers want their children not to work on the land but go into other occupations, mainly urban. True. The answer is industrialisation and urbanisation. True.

But the question is: how do we accomplish that shift? What can their children do in urban areas? What is their level of education? Pretty bad, as we all know.

So, if the dispossessed migrate to urban areas, what will they do? Are there jobs in urban areas? How many jobs has industry created in the past few years - at a time when the country needs a million jobs a month? Will the movement from rural to urban India help them? Or will we create more slums, more social unrest, more urban unemployment and more crime? At least in the rural areas, they get something to eat, they have some form of shelter - so they eke out a living and, in recent years, rural incomes have been rising pretty fast.

In the long run, the rural to urban shift has to be the answer but the nation has failed to provide a decent quality of education at a time when industrial jobs require at least some degree of literacy.

But, in the meantime, do we stop building infrastructure? No. Do we stop acquiring land for roads and railways, for power plants, for defence and other 'public purposes'? Of course not.

The question is: how do we compensate the farmers and the farm labourers and how long do we take before we pay them? You pay the farmer enough to get off the land and he will do so with alacrity. In recent years, there have been cases in Haryana, I think, where farmers have received significant compensation for their lands. In some cases, they have been given annuities (with annual increases) of around Rs. 30,000 per hectare per month for 33 years. It has to be a win-win situation. The farmers and the farm labourers cannot be asked to bear the entire burden for India's progress - particularly as they are relatively impoverished with not many options before them.

But can the government take the farmer's land for a "public purpose" without his consent? Well, under the guise of the centuries-old English concept of 'eminent domain', it can. But we must bear in mind that this is the 21st century, where an elected government is dealing with an equal: a citizen voter, not a mighty, infallible Sovereign dealing with a groveling serf in the 15th century.

This article is not an argument against the Act or the Ordinance or about the need to serve the "public purpose"; it is about fairness and justice to those who are asked to sacrifice for the "public purpose".

Whether one is a communist or a socialist or a conservative or a fascist or a radical or a reactionary or a wishy-washy liberal (like I am!), I hope we can all agree that, while all of us want India to grow and prosper, "public purpose" is ill served if that prosperity comes at the cost of blighting the lives of large numbers of our less fortunate fellow citizens.

(Dorab R. Sopariwala is Editorial Adviser at NDTV and writes on political and economic issues.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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