Land and growing social malaise

The ongoing brouhaha in India about the amendments proposed to the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 has concentrated on its potential for depriving small and marginal farmers of their meagre land-holdings, pushing several of them to desperation and even suicide. But addressing just one of the several major issues in Indian agriculture and the resultant endemic rural poverty is at best a short-sighted attempt to gain political brownie points. Nothing more.

Farmers’ suicides mainly occur in the more remote areas of States like Maharashtra, which are part of the great underdeveloped hinterland of India, and unlikely to attract large infrastructure projects in any case, so issues of land acquisition by government (whether under the unamended or amended Act) are moot. The major cause of farmers’ suicides continues to be great rural indebtedness. How many otherwise well informed urban Indians know that if a farmer wants to take a personal loan because of an illness or marriage in the family, the formal sector banks insist he put up his land as collateral? Otherwise he has no alternative but to approach the rapacious village money-lender, and either way, he is a hostage to the vagaries of weather and market forces, and a couple of failed crops seals his doom. (What ails Indian agriculture as a whole is a separate issue covered partly in my post ‘It’s all about the land…’, so I shall not dwell upon it here.)

The failure of successive governments to tertiarize the rural economy, through the development of agro-industries in the myriad small market towns which dot the countryside, is the primary reason for widespread poverty in rural India. This situation has been made worse by engendering a deep sense of dependency among the rural poor, so that they have lost all appetite for enterprise, risk-taking and innovation. And again, it suits successive governments to have a pliant and dependent peasantry, ready to accept its state of perpetual misery as karma, never revolting, never protesting; but ever grateful for any largesse that comes its way (like loan waivers) in the  year immediately before a General Election. That way, they will not demand their basic rights – like universal education and health care and access to higher education.

Suffice it to say that right now, the greater opposition to the Land Bill Amendments will come not from these crushed millions, but from relatively prosperous farmers, carrying out commercial rather than subsistence farming, closer to the big towns and definitely not prone to desperate measures like suicide! Theirs are the lands most likely to be acquired for industrial corridors, intercity expressways, new airports, ports and high speed transit systems. And this is also the group which has benefited the most from farm subsidies, and even cheap electricity, since the Green Revolution of the 1960s.

Of course small and marginal farmers in these catchment areas are also at risk of losing their sole means of livelihood, and forfeiting not just their own future but also that of their children and grandchildren, because all such laws basically speak only of monetary compensation and there is no provision for alternative and sustainable livelihoods included in the compensation package.

The real concern about the Amendments among grassroots NGOs and Community-based Organizations (CBOs) however, is the dilution of 2 provisions of the 2013 Act: The government has amended Section 10(A) of the Act to expand sectors where assessment and consent will NOT be required. These are: national security, defence, rural infrastructure (including electrification), industrial corridors and housing for the poor including PPP where ownership of land continues to be vested with the government. For these five sectors, the government or private individuals/companies will no longer need the mandatory 80% consent for land acquisition.

The more disturbing aspect of this amendment is that by omitting the mandatory social impact assessment, the government will be required to compensate only the land owner, not all those who are dependent on the land and likely to permanently lose their livelihoods; and who also needed to be compensated. To add insult to injury, the fertility or infertility of the land will NOT be taken into consideration while acquiring it for these five specific sectors. Thus, even if the land is extremely fertile, it can be acquired if it fits the criterion of these five sectors, no questions asked.


These Amendments have been opposed by several stakeholders, and their very legitimate concerns need to be addressed in totality, not piecemeal. Allowing these grievances to fester will not only stymie development through Public Interest Litigation (PIL), but will add further to the unrest and malaise seething just below the surface in Indian society, which manifests itself in increasing violence in day to day social transactions as much as in the sporadic skirmishes between extremists and law enforcement agencies in the ‘hot spots’.

The political class needs to stop playing its power games, and listen…

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