Expensive policies to acquire poor people’s land

Given the increasing polarisation and violence associated with the acquisition and rehabilitation of land in India and inadequate central legislation, a state policy is urgently needed that lays out a framework of principles to protect the people

Inayat Sabhikhi
24 July 2012

It seems the first step in appropriating land, is to appropriate vocabulary and a language. Laws and policies that allow for this are full of phrases such as ‘participatory processes’, ‘democratic dialogues’ and ‘development of the nation’.

India’s Orissa Rehabilitation and Resettlement Policy, 2006, is a neat exercise in how to quickly pull out a policy that says one thing and means another, leaving everything important to be read between the lines. In the past decade, three multi-crore projects in Orissa have been delayed because of massive resistance movements; Vedantas' plant in Niyamgiri, Tatas' plant in Kalinganagar and POSCO's plant in Jagatsinghpur. June 22,  2005, the day the Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the Orissa Government and POSCO, is annually marked as a Black Day by the Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PSSS). 

Given the increasing polarisation and violence associated with the acquisition and rehabilitation of land and inadequate central legislation, a state policy is urgently needed that lays out a framework of principles to protect the people, as well as to help them work out the details of the implementation of any such projects. Normally, one might concede the need to outsource this to legal and technical experts, but a red flag automatically went up when the Orissa Government outsourced the drafting of this policy to the UK's Department for Internatioanl Development (DFID) in 2006, who five years earlier, had drafted the Orissa Industrial Policy Resolution 

Although there are several well arranged graphs on their website, there is little information, except that £7,113,614 was spent on a policy for "Improved climate for socially & environmentally responsible investment and enterprise development".  

Setting aside the question of whether prior informed consent was sought, or how the acquisition process was conducted, let’s just examine a few aspects of the rehabilitation and resettlement policy highlighted by the indefatigable Chitta Behera from Cuttack. 

Firstly, with one subsequent clause negating the other, people will have to effectively vacate land first and then be resettled. Earlier the policy states that, "No physical displacement shall be made before the completion of resettlement work as approved by the Rehabilitation-cum-Periphery Development Advisory Committee (RPDAC) and the District Collector". However, later on, the policy states that, “Provisions relating to rehabilitation will be given effect from the date of actual vacation of the land”. This makes explicit the actual reason for such a policy; to say the right things on paper, but to carry on with no intention of delivering effective R&R to displaced families 

Secondly, once a project has been sanctioned, and an area is identified for this, the company proceeds to "conduct a survey" and "a list of displaced families is drawn up" to be rehabilitated. A communication plan for awareness creation is to be formulated and executed in the affected area with the onus and cost of the communication of the rehabilitation to be borne by the Project Authorities. So the only communication which a family may receive, is a report testifying to the fact that they have been surveyed, will be displaced, and that their name is on a list indicating this. The rationale for this list does not have to be explained or communicated. There is no recourse if you are being displaced and your name is not on this list, or if you want to contest your inclusion in this list. 

Thirdly, this policy applied to only those people who had lost their homestead land. Given that of the 4,004 acres required by POSCO, 3,566 acres are government land, housing over four thousand families working on betel vine plantations, in forests, and as cashew farmers, it is clear that an overwhelming majority of agricultural workers are not landowners with homestead or agricultural land. Not recognizing tenant farmers, and others dependent on land for their livelihoods is impractical and foolish on the part of policy makers, since it is one of the main reasons why the resistance continues. 

The good news is that this policy will soon be defunct. The Land Acquisition Act has seen much dramatic evolution over the past decade, and after enormous pressure, the concept of 'Eminent Domain' of the State, i.e. the right to acquire land without reason or due process, has been watered down, but not done away with.

One of the key recommendations of the National Advisory Council, while they examined the legislation's of Land Acquisition and Resettlement in 2009, was to recognise that acquisition and rehabilitation are inextricably linked.

This has been accepted and now there is a joint law, The Land Acquisition and Resettlement and Rehabilitation Bill 2011 that is currently in Parliament. The Standing Committee in its report released in May 2012, stressed that under no circumstances must land be forcibly acquired by the State for a private company (for a public purpose). It also puts the onus of rehabilitation and resettlement on the State. This is in stark contrast to the Standing Committee reports which examined the LA & RR bills in 2009. Will this ambitious law set a precedent for decades to come and show the way forward; or will it be another instance of strategically appropriating language and vocabulary on paper, only to continue with business as usual?  

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