April 07, 2015

Trinamool doesn't want government meddling in land deals between industry and farmer

There's a delightful phrase of Persian origin called 'noora kushti'. It denotes a fixed fight ­ two people pretending to wrestle and fool spectators. The so-called tussle between the BJP-led government and Congress over the bill seeking to amend the land acquisition law is a first-rate example of noora kushti. Neither party is serious. Both are taking pro forma positions.

That is why Trinamool Congress opposed Congress' land acquisition law of 2013 and will oppose BJP's amendment bill this year. We are not doing this because we are determinedly oppositional. In fact our criticism of both the existing law and the new bill is consistent with our approach since at least 2006. TMC has lived up to its name: Truly Most Consistent.

What happened in 2006? The CPI(M) government then ruling West Bengal sought to forcibly acquire fertile, multicrop land from farmers in Singur for a car plant. Unwilling farmers were beaten up by CPI(M) cadre, backed by police muscle. In a shocking incident, a protesting farmer's daughter was raped and killed.

That episode shook Bengal's conscience. Mamata Banerjee, the leader of Trinamool, went on a marathon 26-day fast that attracted national attention. It embarrassed the CPI(M) government as well as UPA-1 in Delhi.

Matters were compounded in March 2007 when the CPI(M) government responded to similar farmer protests in Nandigram ­ location of another `land acquisition' scam ­by firing on innocent citizens. Eventually, the oppressive state machinery had to surrender to the moral authority of farmers and the just cause espoused by Mamata.

It was a historic moment. The issue of forcible land acquisition and need for a modern and fair law and mechanism to transfer agricultural land for industrial use had come to the fore. This was Mamata's contribution.

What was the prevailing situation? Land acquisition was governed by a colonial-era law dating back to 1894. This law had been drafted by the British to forcibly acquire land for `public purposes' ­ railway tracks, army cantonments, greenfield cities such as New Delhi. Free India's governments had retained this law, but used it even more dishonestly.

State governments were routinely acquiring land for a `public purpose' and then selling that land, at a handsome profit, to private companies. In some cases the land was handed over virtually free. The businessman and the government (or an individual set of politicians and crony capitalists) made windfall gains. The farmer got only a pittance. He lost his one asset ­ his precious, ancestral land ­ and was left to fend for himself and his family .

The logic applied was that of eminent domain, that the state had the right to acquire any property for a larger public or national purpose. One can understand the principle of eminent domain being applied to build a public hospital or a highway, but how does it become applicable in case of shopping malls, automobile plants, BPOs and other facilities owned and run by private enterprise?

Industry requires many 'factors of production', to borrow an expression from my Marxist friends. It needs land, water, raw material, labour, transport and logistics. In most of these government doesn't interfere. It does not seek to forcibly or cheaply acquire raw material or feedstock for an aluminium plant or a petrochemicals unit. It leaves this to the market, and to negotiation between buyer and seller, irrespective of the price.

Why can't this be done in the case of land as well? That is the simple question Trinamool asked in 2006, repeated in 2013 and is iterating in 2015. Congress failed to answer it and BJP ignores it too.

It is not a matter of x per cent or y per cent of a farming community agreeing to sell individual parcels of land. Let the industrialist negotiate and get the concurrence of 100% of farming families the land of whom he believes he needs. Let this be a clear negotiation between buyer and empowered farmer.Why should the state intervene?

Do farmers have the capacity to negotiate with industry? Perhaps all don't; that is true. Some guidance, whether from government or civil society, could be provided, but let the farmer decide for himself. And if the 100th farmer gets more for his land than the 17th ­simply because he holds out longer ­ then let the industrialist deal with it. When cement is in short supply the same industrialist is willing to pay higher prices, isn't he?

Maybe some farmers would want cash up-front. Maybe other farmers would want a staggered deal, and equity in the factory or facility being constructed. Let the onus of structuring different arrangements and giving the farmer a choice be on industry. Why should the government play fairy godmother?

As a pre-requisite for a land law and a genuine land market, India needs a rigorous and detailed map of its entire land area. Such a map should be easily accessible, including online. Also helpful would be an estimate of rust-belt land or factory land that is lying unused or is enmeshed in legal cases. How can this land be unlocked? Can we have some answers please?

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament from Bengal
Trinamool Congress Parliamentary Party Leader (Rajya Sabha) & Chief National Spokesperson