The Rehabilitation of Displaced Persons Bill 2007 and Amendments to the Land Acquisition Act 1894 are being placed before the Parliament during the Budget session. In its election propaganda the Congress had promised to enact them as solutions to the problems that persons displaced by development projects faced. In reality the bills are meant to make acquisition easier than in the past. They remind one of the Latin saying "The mountain went into labour and gave birth to a tiny rat." For whose rehabilitation are they? Of the displaced persons or of the companies that want more land?
Their declared objective is "minimising displacement". It is to be achieved through discussion with the requiring agency. The people to be displaced are excluded from it. Their consent is not required for land takeover. The bureaucrat decides the quantum of compensation which is invariably very low particularly in the "Backward Areas" where most land is acquired. One is yet to hear of a requiring agency reducing its demand without pressure from the people to be affected by it. Because of their exclusion excess land acquisition has been a norm in the past and continues to be so today. For example, two thirds of the land acquired for the HAL-MIG Factory at Sunabeda, Koraput district of Orissa in 1966 is lying unused. The 16,000 tribals it displaced have not been resettled. The Burla town in the Sambalpur district of Orissa has been built on excess land acquired for the Hirakud dam.
The situation has deteriorated with liberalisation. Private companies are demanding more land than required. For example, the Special Economic Zones Act 2005 stipulated that 25 percent of the area be used for productive purposes. Under pressure from the people it was raised to 50 percent. The rest can be used for tourist resorts, hotels, townships and other purposes. Each SEZ can go up to 5,000 hectares and a few hundreds of them are being planned. Little wonder then that companies that have no experience in production but only in real estate speculation have applied for SEZs. Studies show that a car factory needs one acre to produce 1,000 of them. The capacity of the proposed Nano factory is 350,000. In 1952, the Birlas were allotted 750 acres for Hindustan Motors. Fifty years later they had used only 300 acres of it and were allowed to develop a township on the remaining 400 acres. That could have been allotted to the Tatas. But they were given 997 acres at Singur when they needed less than half of it. Is the rest meant for real estate speculation?
The Bills take no measures against such abuses. Instead, they limit rehabilitation to projects that displace 400 families in the plains and 200 in the hill and scheduled areas. Vague statements are made about the rest. The administrator is to consult the people while preparing the rehabilitation plan but people take no decisions themselves. They will be given land "if it is available". This phrase replaces the usual bureaucratic buck-passing phrase "as far as possible". There is no assurance of jobs or other economic support. Social impact assessment is limited to common property like schools, ponds and roads. The impact on people such as their impoverishment, social disruption, psychological trauma are ignored. People do not count, only property does. They get some benefits as subsidies. Rehabilitation continues to be welfare, not a right.
Alternatives were available to the Government if it wanted to deal with the issue of people's impoverishment and marginalisation. As early as 1967 a committee of what later became Ministry of Rural Development had suggested major changes in the Land Acquisition Act. In 1985 a committee of the Department of Welfare had suggested a rehabilitation policy. But the Government waited till the World Bank withdrawal from Narmada in 1992 to prepare the first draft policy. The civil society groups prepared an alternative to this defective draft. The Ministry accepted much of it in its 1998 draft. But the policy promulgated by the NDA Government in 2004 turned out to be eyewash.
The UPA promised to improve on it. Its National Advisory Council prepared a policy draft that demanded people's prior informed consent before displacement, stipulated their involvement at every stage, replaced the "public purpose" of displacement with "public interest" since acquisition for private profit cannot be called a public purpose, included replacement value for compensation, declared rehabilitation a right of the displaced and stated that the policy will apply to persons displaced ten years prior to its promulgation. The Ministry of Rural Development prepared another draft that was only marginal improvement over the 2004 policy. That has been accepted by the Government.
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