Land Acquisition in India: Will the Proposed Bill Protect Displaced People?

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A coherent policy response to the tough social questions raised by compulsory land acquisition in India is long overdue. Conflicts have escalated, while successive governments failed to enact a law protecting the livelihoods of affected people. The proposed Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill 2011 is a major step forward in this regard. However, a number of loopholes in the bill need to be addressed. Otherwise, it will not respond adequately to the sensitive nature of India’s land situation and instead, make the conflict more intractable by covering unchanged practices under a new law.
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  OXFAM INDIA POLICY BRIEF OCTOBER 2012 www.oxfamindia.org  LAND ACQUISITION IN INDIA Will the Proposed Bill Protect Displaced People? A coherent policy response to the tough social questions raised by compulsory land acquisition in India is long overdue. Conflicts have escalated, while successive governments failed to enact a law protecting the livelihoods of affected people. The proposed Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill 2011 is a major step forward in this regard. However, a number of loopholes in the bill need to be addressed. Otherwise, it will not respond adequately to the sensitive nature of India’s land situation and instead, make the conflict more intractable by covering unchanged practices under a new law. SUMMARY The proposed Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land  Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill sets out to reconcile two agendas that have so far clashed: 1  it aims to secure the land requirements of the government‘s development agenda, while addressing the mounting resistance of people whose land is acquired. The bill is a major step forward because it links land acquisition with rehabilitation and resettlement (R&R). By doing so, it brings to the forefront questions that have long since been at the heart of conflicts around land acquisition: ã   When can the government legitimately exercise its powers of ‗eminent domain‘, that is to forcibly acquire land in exchange for   compensation of previous owners and users? 2  In other words, how narrowly should the notion of public purpose be defined? ã  How should compensation and R&R procedures be designed to counter the negative impacts on displaced people? These questions are arguably harder to answer in India than in most other countries. Land is both scarce and unequally distributed. Fragmentation of small plots has prevailed over redistribution of larger ones, pushing an increasing number of households into landlessness. Alternative opportunities rarely exist for farmers who lack the skills required for other avenues of income generation. These systemic constraints result in dysfunctional and opaque land-markets, where sales are few and often unreported. While the draft bill is an important step forward, it falls short of expectations in some crucial aspects: it opens the door to abuses by adopting an excessively  2 broad definition of public purpose, and its progressive safeguard clause needs to be strengthened. Oxfam India urges policymakers to address these weaknesses by adopting the following recommendations. Recommendations 1. Compulsory land acquisition should be limited to a few strictly-defined government purposes. For private projects, the government‘s role should be to regulate purchases. 2. Social safeguards should be strengthened by giving binding powers to the expert committee‘s recommendations.  3. Provisions for R&R should be revised to ensure that people‘s livelihoods are restored. 4. Special laws that regulate a broad range of acquisition should effectively be aligned with the proposed bill. Beyond these aspects, the draft bill raises a number of questions. Given the complexity of the issue, much-needed public debates risk focusing on secondary issues, while letting some of the crucial and more problematic aspects unquestioned. Two such aspects are: 1. What should the respective roles of centre and state governments be in defining compensation norms? 2. How can civil society be efficient in holding the government accountable?   3 Context The government does not keep official figures on how much land was acquired, and how many people were displaced as a consequence, but the most reliable estimates suggest that about 60 million people were displaced between 1947 and 2004. 3  The overwhelming majority of acquisitions has historically been carried out by the government for its own uses. However, the policy of economic liberalisation is progressively changing this picture: many public enterprises have been partially or entirely privatised, and the emphasis on PPP advocated in the 12th Five Year Plan further blurs the distinction between public and private interests.  Acquisitions, often carried out without proper compensation and R&R measures, have been met with growing resistance. Struggles such as those of the Narmada Bachao Andolan in Gujarat nearly thirty years ago, of Nandigram and Singur in West Bengal or Greater Noida in Uttar Pradesh have drawn public attention to the claims of those affected. The case of Singur, where the Left Front had intended to expropriate 1000 acres of land for a Tata car production site, exemplifies this trend. The conflict acquired political tone after courts failed to settle the issue. In fact, the Tr  inamool Congress‘s promise to reverse the land acquisition in Singur was one of the factors that led to its victory in the state elections. 4  The growing conflict around land acquisition takes place in a context where demographic and economic pressure on land has increased tremendously. Sizes of landholdings in rural India are amongst the smallest in the world, with averages as low as 0.57 acres in Kerala and less than 10 acres in states such as Punjab, where land properties are large by Indian standards. Landholdings are smaller in countries like China (0.5 acres) and Bangladesh (0.6), but India‘s average remains amongst the lowest if compared to regions like Europe (32.3), South America (111.7) and the US (178.4). 5  Inequality in land distribution is huge and rapidly increasing: the GINI coefficient of landholding sizes is as high as 0.7 according to conservative estimates; 6  in comparison, GINI coefficients for consumption and income indicate a more equal distribution at 0.32 and 0.53 respectively. 7  Demographic growth and low urbanisation rates further fragment landholdings: mere or complete landlessness is estimated to have increased by as much as 6 per cent between 1992 and 2003. 8  To complicate matters, there is no ready alternative to the land-dependant livelihoods of most rural inhabitants: economic opportunities are limited across rural India, and even where new projects generate alternative sources of income, local populations generally lack the required skills. This complex pressure on land results in dysfunctional land-markets, where voluntary land sales are few and reported transactions are generally under-valued to avoid taxation. The underlying systems of ownership also vary widely from region to region: while land rights are reasonably formalised in certain areas, customary rights are often not recognised officially, notably in many Scheduled Areas where forest dwellers are yet to be awarded land titles under the Forest Rights Act.  4 History of the Bill The draft bill will replace the colonial-era 1894 Land Acquisition Act.  Amendments by successive governments did not address the controversial aspects of the Act, despite decade-long civil society calls for adequate R&R measures; instead, governments pursued land acquisitions without addressing tough social issues resulting from forced displacement. Never before had any central law guaranteed R&R in cases of compulsory land acquisition: a number of state governments had introduced R&R policies in response to increasing resistance, but a single legal framework is still missing. In the late eighties, the Narmada Bachao Andolan opened discussions around a coherent R&R policy. This was followed by a number of propositions, by both civil society organisations and successive governments. However, none of them were made into law. Finally, in 2011, the National Advisory Council (NAC) called for a law linking land acquisition and R&R. The Ministry of Rural Development prepared a draft bill, and opened a short window for comments before referring the draft to a Standing Committee. The latter proceeded with thorough public consultations. Its report highlights major weaknesses in the bill. These include the broad definition of public purpose; the limited scope of the bill given the fact that a majority of compulsory land acquisitions fall under special laws; the centralised definition of compensations and rehabilitation packages. 9  Despite these weaknesses, the bill is a meaningful step forward: it provides for safeguards against acquisitions whose impact on people and food security are deemed unacceptable; it establishes the precedence of special laws for Scheduled Areas, such as the Forest Right Act (FRA) and the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESA); it entitles all affected people to a diversified R&R package and sets generous standards to calculate compensations for landholders. 10  The range of positions that have been taken on the bill reflects the complexity of the issue it addresses. Defenders of a broad definition of public purpose  justify government acquisitions for private use on grounds of long-term economic development: in the absence of a functioning market, government facilitation is required to unlock these opportunities. However, others within the corporate sector fear the hurdles caused by government interventions and prefer to rely on markets. Most civil society organisations agree on the need to define public purpose narrowly: potential economic benefits have to be weighed against the impacts for affected populations, they claim. Beyond this, questions remain on numerous aspects of the bill.
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