Unite Against Land Acquisition Bill, 2015 : Fight Corporate Land Grab and Protect Land Rights

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The peasantry in India has been facing an unprecedented agrarian crisis and in the last 2 decades more than 3 lakh farmers have committed suicide unable to withstand the losses suffered due to the government’s implementation of neo-liberal policies. A farmer commits suicide every half an hour in our country. This year has been even worse with inclement weather in the form of unseasonal rains and hailstorms destroying crops fully in over 2 crore hectares. This scenario has further accelerated suicides by farmers in distress across the country, including in regions where they were uncommon earlier. In the wake of such an acute agrarian crisis and times of a national calamity of a magnitude unseen in recent years, the BJP-led NDA Government has maintained an indifferent attitude. To add salt to the wounds, they have chosen this time to come with the Amendments to the Land Acquisition Bill to suit the interests of the corporate sector and usher in “Achhe Din” for Adani, Ambani and their ilk.

There is a great history of struggles that went into the scrapping of the Colonial Land Acquisition Act of 1894 and the formulation of the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act 2013. Country-wide protests by the peasantry, agricultural workers, adivasis and other dependents on land against the 1894 Act and indiscriminate land acquisition had forced the ruling classes to scrap the Colonial Land Acquisition Act. The Congress-led UPA Government after deliberations with different political parties as well as organisations of the peasantry, agricultural workers and adivasis had come up with the Right to Fair Compensation, Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 (LARR, 2013). This was at the cost of many lives that were lost in police action in different parts of the country.

Facilitating Corporate Loot and Land Grab

The LARR, 2013 had many problems which were pointed out by the Kisan and amendments were moved in Parliament to strengthen it and make it protect the interests of the peasantry and dependents on land. However, the act was an improvement over the Colonial Act as it enshrined the principle of consent and Social Impact Assessment as well as certain token safeguards for food security.

The amendments pushed via the ordinance route in effect takes us back to a situation worse than during the Colonial Act, as even the British rulers did not dare to put it into the act that land could be acquired for private companies without seeking consent.

Under the Colonial Act land could be acquired forcibly under Eminent Domain even without seeking consent of the peasantry. This could not happen under the provisions of the LARR 2013. It gave some confidence to the peasantry and other dependents on land that their voice would not go unheard. The Parliamentary Standing Committee which looked into the Bill was headed by BJP leaders Kalyan Singh and Sumitra Mahajan and the BJP had supported the Bill when it was brought before Parliament by the Congress-led UPA Government.

After BJP-led NDA Government with Narendra Modi as Prime Minister took-over, the BJP made a U-turn and brought amendments through the ordinance route in December 2014. This in effect takes us back to a situation worse than during the Colonial Act as even the British rulers did not dare to put it into the act that land could be acquired for private companies without seeking consent. The Land Acquisition Act Amendment Bill, 2015 brought by the BJP-led NDA Government will facilitate smooth take-over of land for corporate profiteering and real-estate speculation. The government has in effect reinstated the most draconian provisions of the Colonial Land Acquisition Act of 1894 and removed the necessity to seek consent of the farmers and other dependants on land as well as done away with the Social Impact Assessment altogether. The class of projects under the New Section 10 A will continue to be exempted from these requirements. It includes five items in the Special Category including industrial corridors and infrastructure projects under public private partnership. Since most acquisitions fall in these two categories, this has the impact of completely nullifying the minimal safeguards contained under the original LARR, 2013. There will be no scope for review by any Expert Group.

The government in the new amendments has expanded the definition of Industrial Corridors to include land up to one kilometre on either side of the designated road or railway line for such industrial corridors. This is in violation to our demand that for such projects only the bare minimum of required land should be considered as the legal limit.

There will be no safeguards for food security as even fertile multi-cropped land, as well as productive rain-fed land can be acquired without any restriction. The possibilities of some rehabilitation and resettlement benefits to dependants on land other than owners of the land have been totally discarded. There is no proposal for a Land Use Policy at national as well as state Level. The Government claim of offering job to one person of a family is like uprooting a family from their main source of livelihood and giving a token job to one person of the family. It also does not address the problems of a wide cross-section of dependants on the land. Lakhs of acres of productive land will be taken over in the name of industrialisation and infrastructure. This move by the BJP-led NDA Government will only benefit the corporate companies, real estate speculators and the land mafia. It has led to an unprecedented wave of protests across the country by the peasantry and other dependents on land threatened with loss of land and their sole source of livelihood. Across the country there is huge discontent and anger against the Land Bill.

In this context it is to be noted that large scale acquisitions and conversion of agricultural land as well as forest land for Special Economic Zones (SEZs), mining, industries and urbanisation is taking place. Land acquired in the name of SEZs and industrialisation is also often at unfair terms, and is misused for real estate purposes. The Comptroller and Auditor General noted the non-utilisation of land earmarked for SEZs. Out of a total of 45635.63 hectares of SEZ land allotted till 2014, work has begun in only 28,488.49 hectares. The CAG found gross violations in 17 States of which in Odisha 96.58 percent of SEZ land remained un-utilised. In Odisha , over Rs 75,000 crore was raised by mortgaging such land illegally; in ten years only two percent of projects were ready to start. Most companies that sought captive coal mines — and associated land — never used them, except to boost their own value. Several hectares of land acquired for SEZs invoking public purpose were later sold off or used for other purposes. Among the groups that diverted land acquired for SEZs are Reliance Industries and Essar Steel. Since the enactment of SEZ Act 2005, 576 formal approvals of SEZs covering 60,374.76 hectares was granted in the country, out of which 392 SEZs covering 45,635.63 hectares were notified till March 2014. Out of the 392 notified zones, only 152 had become operational, and SEZs had no noticeable impact on the national economy, the audit said.

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The Red Flag flutters against land grab (Image from the Bhoo Adhikar Rally at Bangalore)

According to a calculation in the case of the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor which passes through 6 States there is the potential threat of loss of almost 7 lakh sq.km or 17.5 percent of all agricultural land in the country to forcible acquisition. The proposed capital city of Andhra Pradesh will be built over an area of over 7000 Sq.km of fertile multi-cropped land. The proposed Coastal Corridor SEZ would spread across 1.5 lakh acres in 9 Coastal Districts of Andhra Pradesh. In Uttar Pradesh alone it is estimated that more than 23,000 villages would be affected by ongoing acquisitions. In the case of Yamuna Expressway 1.43 lakh acres and another 37,362 acres for the Ganga Expressway are being acquired. The Dedicated Freight Corridor will also see acquisition of thousands of acres of fertile land. A lot of land acquired for Yamuna Expressway has gone for golf courses, the Formula One Racing Track, and such projects with limited potential of creating jobs. The proposed 100 Smart Cities will also lead to widespread displacement and land grab. Over 40 percent of agricultural land could face direct threat of forcible acquisition. This is bound to have serious implications on food security and livelihood security of millions. Land acquisition is thus emerging as a major source of primitive accumulation and transfer of wealth and resources from the people to the corporate world.

Lies, Deceit and Official Propaganda

Recently, the Prime Minister through his Mann Ki Baat sought to convey a distorted picture on the new amendments to the Land Acquisition Act by twisting facts. Narendra Modi in effect has misused the official media to spread lies and mislead the country. Land is the sole source of livelihood and dignity for the farmers, agricultural workers, share-croppers and the other dependants on land. Its value is far beyond the pittance the government is offering in terms of compensation. A government which has miserably failed to provide relief to farmers reeling under crop loss in vast areas of India is now making a callous promise that farmers will get a "good" price for land. The prime minister is indulging in an exercise of lies, deceit and demagogy to ensure smooth take-over of productive land for corporate profiteering and real estate speculation. The BJP-led government is mistaken to think that the farmers and other dependants on land will trust the false propaganda propagated using government machinery. Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj and Nitin Gadkari were in the forefront of defending the Land Acquisition Act, 2013 brought by the Congress-led UPA Government and competing to claim credit for the act, which they claimed was their baby. They also voted against each one of the pro-peasant amendments for safeguarding of food security and livelihood security moved by the left parties and ensured that they were defeated. Now Arun Jaitley is claiming that 30 crore landless will get jobs in the Industrial Corridors once the Land Acquisition Bill is passed.

Even as the RSS-BJP and the Sangh Giroh are trying to whip up a campaign of hate and lies, divide the country using communal polarisation and divisive campaign like “Love Jihad” and “Ghar Wapsi” the united voice of the peasantry will raise the slogan of “Zameen Wapsi”.

This lie will be exposed when one considers the facts in the infamous Posco project. Four thousand acres of land have been earmarked for the project. Appropriation of this land would involve the eviction, according to the 2001 census, of 22,000 people and indirectly disrupt the livelihoods of a further 30,000 people, just in Jagatsingphur District alone. Posco fudged statistics and put the potential jobs that would be created by it to be around 8 lakh. Governments had then claimed that it would bring unemployment in Odisha down from 9.9 lakh to a mere 1.2 lakh. A paper prepared by Mining Zone Peoples' Solidarity Group — a collection of economic professors and engineers and others— has unravelled the figures estimated in an NCAER report that Posco funded to find that the project has only created a few thousand jobs so far and may be able to create well below 50,000 jobs. The thousands of people whose livelihoods would be destroyed and who would be uprooted from their land rarely have found jobs in the project. Those affected by land acquisition end up as unemployed migrant labour or get some menial jobs with insignificant incomes. The claims of the different Governments about the millions of jobs that would be created by the SEZs have also proved to be false and the CAG Report has corroborated this fact. It is a well known fact that neo-liberal economic policies have not just been marked by jobless growth but also by the massive loss of jobs. Therefore, it is important that BJP’s propaganda against the farmers is nailed.

United Resistance and Struggles

Broadest possible unity will be built against the Land Acquisition Bill and efforts to ensure that the land is distributed to the landless will be intensified. Protests will be held at every spot of indiscriminate land acquisition and they will be resisted. Even as Modi was trying to distort history on 23rd March, the martyrdom day of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev, nation-wide protests were held by the Kisan Sabha and many other organisations unitedly with the firm resolve to carry forward the legacy of the martyrs. It has been decided to collect 5 crore signatures against the Bill across the country, hold conventions at state and district level, conduct Padayatras as part of awareness campaign and plan united actions across the country. It has been decided to carry forward this unity of mass and class organisations against all instances of indiscriminate land acquisition and for land rights. Two such recent united demonstrations include the convergence of peasants and agricultural labourers at Bangalore on April 28th and Bhoomi Adhikar Sangharsh Rally in the capital on 5th May 2015. Ever since the Government ignored united protests and re-issued the Land Acquisition ordinance, the copies of the ordinance has been burnt across the country.

Even as the RSS-BJP and the Sangh Giroh are trying to whip up a campaign of hate and lies, divide the country using communal polarization and divisive campaign like “Love Jihad” and “Ghar Wapsi” the united voice of the peasantry will raise the slogan of “Zameen Wapsi”. The latest of BJP’s agenda of sharing malicious lies is using the new membership they boast of. For example, The Hindu, dated 5 may 2015, states “New BJP members to help build government’s pro-poor image”. In this context it is important that the educated youth come forward to support the peasantry by countering the malicious lies spread around using the media and come up with solidarity actions. United efforts of different sections of the society will be required in these tough times to ensure the victory of the peasants and dependants of land.

A previous version of this article appeared in Struggle.