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Monday, October 25, 2021

Fifth column: Not Jantar Mantar again

The land law is not the only bad piece of legislation that the last government bestowed upon us.

Written by Tavleen Singh |
Updated: March 1, 2015 12:09:29 am
Anna with Medha Patkar on the first day of his protest at Jantar Mantar on Monday.(Source: Express Photo by Tashi Tobgyal) Anna with Medha Patkar on the first day of his protest at Jantar Mantar on Monday. (Source: Express Photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

On my desk as I write rests a copy of the land law that the last government bequeathed us. I dredged through its reams of dreary officialese more than once and concluded that when the BJP helped the Sonia-Manmohan government pass it in Parliament, its MPs did not read it. This is not an insult. It would be hard for any normal, healthy, educated person to read it without being utterly defeated by this convoluted, verbose document.

So if the Prime Minister wants to bring the changes without which this law will remain the major obstacle to India’s future progress, he must admit that it was a mistake to support the law in the first place. Then and only then will he be able to move forward. His government has been so defensive lately that it is as if Mr Modi has forgotten that he is the first prime minister in 30 years to have a full majority in the Lok Sabha.

Meanwhile those who have worked tirelessly, and perhaps with good intentions, to keep Indian farmers mired in subsistence farming forever are on the ascendant. At Jantar Mantar have appeared not just Anna Hazare and that eternal promoter of wrong causes, Medha Patkar, but even Congress MPs in peasant turbans. They did this perhaps to look like farmers. They failed. They just looked silly. But they succeeded in joining the raucous, ill-informed chorus that any changes to the ‘Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, 2013’ (phew!) will make it ‘anti-farmer’.

This is not just rubbish, but dangerous rubbish. As the sister of someone who, by Indian standards, is a rich farmer, may I put on record that the only time my brother has made any money is when he sells an acre or two. Most Indian farmers live on the edge of ruin because land reform has made agriculture unprofitable for most. And the reason why unemployment is the biggest problem in rural India is because agriculture has no capacity left to create jobs. So to try and make industry and infrastructure bad words, as the Finance Minister pointed out, is wrong.

Changes to this seriously defective law will not reduce the compensation that farmers get. They will reduce the decades that it could take to get 70 per cent of local residents to agree before land is acquired for roads, hospitals, schools or defence facilities. Incidentally, the change that the ordinance has forgotten to make is that this law interferes in private buying and selling of land as well. The middle class, urban protesters who currently occupy Jantar Mantar should tell farmers this and find out if they still support the law.

It cheered me to hear the Prime Minister remind us in his speech in the Lok Sabha last Friday that the Congress party won only 44 seats in the last election because the ‘aam aadmi’ noticed that the laws made on his behalf did not improve his life. Shame on the BJP for not performing its role as the main opposition party by not aggressively opposing the very bad laws the last government passed.

The land law is not the only bad piece of legislation that the last government bestowed upon us. There is the very flawed retroactive tax that made foreign investors flee in droves. There is a food security law that instead of improving the hopeless public distribution system adds to its burden by seeking to provide more than 70 per cent of Indian citizens with cheap food grain. There is a right to education law that instead of improving government schools allows officials to interfere in private schools. And there is the vaunted ‘flagship scheme’ of the last government, MNREGA, that instead of creating employment ends up as dole.

If these laws had made a real difference to the lives of India’s most disadvantaged citizens, would the Congress have been reduced to 44 seats? The sad truth is that far too many Indians, including far too many political pundits, have not noticed that India looks very, very bad compared to most other countries. We have roads, railways and ports that are among the most decrepit in the world. Our major cities look like vast shanties and in our villages, we have been unable to deal with such basic problems as sanitation and clean water.

The question we need to ask is that why did a decade of ‘pro-poor’ laws make no real difference to those Indians who remain ground down horribly by extreme poverty? The question we need to ask is why most Indians living in extreme poverty are farmers? If the Prime Minister does not continue to ask these questions loudly and aggressively, he will lose to the Jantar Mantar crowd. And if they win, Indian farmers are doomed to eternal poverty.

Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh

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