Saturday, October 8, 2011

More Qs than answers

Sangita Jha/New Delhi

Rural development minister Jairam Ramesh takes credit for fast-tracking Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation and Resettlement (LARR) Bill, 2011. He is right as far as the draft bill was drafted
and introduced in the Parliament in a flat 55 days since he took charge of the ministry from his predecessor Vilasrao Deshmukh. However, the LARR Bill, 2011 appears to have a clear bias against planned urbanisation. For any township to be set up, which is critical part of planned urbanisation, a developer needs at least 100 acres of land, while the ideal is stated to be about 150 acres.India being home to largest middle class population in the world has a clear challenge to fulfill the demands for affordable housing. There is no denying the fact that India has lagged behind in fulfilling this demand. The LARR Bill, 2011 has all the ingredients to make the dreams of the middle class to own houses in urban centres not only difficult but also painful. The reason for this is the consequent spiking in the cost of acquisition of land.

Ramesh takes credit for introducing one combined legislative proposal for acquisition of land and resettlement of the affected people. The LARR Bill, 2011 makes it mandatory that the acquisition of more than 50 acres of land in the urban areas would require giving
rehabilitation and resettlement to the affected people. Housing experts have claimed that the land cost which was so far about 30 per cent of the total project cost could go all the way to about 60 per cent after the LARR Bill, 2011 becomes a law. The additional cost has to be borne by the end user, that is the flat buyers. Though the representatives of the real-estate developers wanted to meet the minister, no such requests were accepted and when Ramesh was
asked if he had any aversion to the people from the realty sector he had claimed that they were free to submit their demands. Not only affordable housing but as the country gears up for expansion of airports and commissioning of new ones on the back of growing number of air-travelers, the government and private developers too are likely to be hit hard. Since, the airports as have been the case come up in the fringe areas of urban centres. Therefore, the government too would have to factor in higher cost of acquisition of land for new airports and expansion of the existing ones.

While briefing media about final version of the LARR Bill, 2011, Ramesh referred to his long meetings with social activist Medha Patkar. But he had no answers when asked if any of the demands of Patkar had been incorporated in the final version of the Land Bill. In fact Patkar in her meetings with Ramesh had sought ceilings on the extent of land acquisition for projects under public-private partnership. She had given the example of the new airport at Bangalore
where land in excess was acquired, with a large chunk of them being used for developing commercial complexes having no relations to the requirements of an airport. The industries had petitioned that the clause in the land bill to have prior consent of 80 per cent of the affected people for acquisition of land would be quite cumbersome and could even put a brake on the pace of industrialisation. However, the clause remains for all purposes except for when the government acquires land for defence, strategic and national importance. So, all big projects of power, highways and others would have to adhere to the norms of prior consent of 80 per cent of the affected people. Industry bodies have complained that it could be a time consuming exercise.

Ramesh has explained that social impact assessment would be the basis of getting the consent of at least 80 per cent of the affected people at the Gram Sabha level and respective bodies in the urban areas. Since, social impact assessment would also cover the livelihhoods' losers, absence of any database is likely to be a big hindrance. As most often the farmers employ casual labourers, who mostly happened to be migratory population from the poorer states, officials have a tough
task at hand to execute this clause in its proper spirit. Also, the sharecroppers are engaged by landowners on verbal agreement, a fact, which cannot be ignored.

The rural development minister had heard quite extensively demands of farmers, including those from the Bhatta-Parsaul in the Greater Noida and Tappal in the Aligarh district of UP. These farmers had been on the forefront of agitation against land acquisition. One of the critical demands of the farmers had been to define properly "family" for the sake of compensatory employment. They had reasoned that land in villages is generally in the name of a family patriarch who invariably happens to have quite a long family chain. "You give job to one member of the family and he separates out after getting the employment. What about others who too have family of their own to look after. This could lead to disintegration of the joint family system in the rural areas," the farmers had reasoned with the minister.

However, the LARR Bill, 2011 failed to address the demands of the farmers, with Ramesh saying that there could be no end to such issues. The Land Bill makes it very clear that there could be no change in land use once the land is acquired. However, if the acquired land is not utilised for next 10 years it would not be returned to the farmers but would go to the land bank of the state government, which is an idea clearly inspired by that of Gujrat. However, the minister is not
clear if the land is again allocated from the bank for a project and its land use is changed at that point of time, as then it will be upto the discretions of the state government to do so.

In the course of drafting of the Land Bill there was a proposal to address the concerns of food security, as experts regularly pointed out to shrinking land base for the agricultural use. Initially, the draft bill proposed a blanket ban on acquisition of multi-cropped
agricultural land but later on after the states of Haryana, Punjab, West Bengal objected, it was amended with a clause that the barren land equal in size would need to be made fertile in the event of acquisition of such land. This leaves the question of food security when such a law is on the anvil an open question. The move to implement the LARR Bill, 2011 with retrospective effect may please the affected landowners but could affect the ongoing projects. This is because the whole terms of reference would change and the exercise might need to be initiated afresh.
Now that the LARR Bill, 2011 has been referred to the standing committee there would be more representations to the law makers to make necessary amends which might not have been addressed when Ramesh was in a tearing hurry to introduce the legislative proposal in the

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