September 06, 2011

Let private players buy land directly

The Trinamool Congress was the first party to articulate a policy on land acquisition. We did this as far back as 2006, because we saw a huge problem coming in the absence of a well-defined, modern land acquisition mechanism. The issue here is not just about who should buy land — whether the state or industry. There is a larger context to it, including concerns of food security.

The Trinamool policy is based on a fair and just reading of the Doctrine of Eminent Domain. When the state recognises private property, the private owner is the absolute title holder. However, the state is the paramount title holder. Should it need a piece of land for a clear and apparent public purpose — building a highway, for instance — it can resort to land acquisition. Of course, this should be done with generous compensation and not just a textual interpretation of 'market rate'.

The Doctrine of Eminent Domain cannot be misused to acquire land for favoured industrialists or real estate companies. That would be a gross misuse. As we saw in West Bengal in the Left Front years, it would lead to crony capitalism and sweetheart deals. If private players want to build factories or condominiums, they must buy from the farmer directly.

However, it is not as if private companies should be free to buy agricultural land at will. As a pre-requisite to a new land acquisition law, India needs a proper, digital and easily available (it must be online, for instance) map of its entire land area. This map must establish exactly which tracts of land are fertile and suitable for multi-crop cultivation. Such land is a national asset. It is critical to growing food for our 1.2 billion people and serves as a bulwark for food security.

Therefore, it must be a 'no go' area for industry. There are some concerns about whether farmers have the necessary skills to negotiate directly with corporate buyers. There may be a role here for education and oversight by a facilitative authority. Overall, however, we need to trust the sagacity of the Indian farmer. He knows what's best for him, and for his country.