The land testhttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/the-land-test/

The land test

NDA government wants to look pro-poor. Its proposed changes to land acquisition act show why it can’t.

Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari and his party members have yet to explain why the BJP gave its nod to the 2013 land bill if it was as anti-farmer as they now suggest.
Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari and his party members have yet to explain why the BJP gave its nod to the 2013 land bill if it was as anti-farmer as they now suggest.

The 2014 winter session of Parliament ended on December 23. The land acquisition ordinance was brought in by the NDA government on December 29, displaying a blatant disregard for the people who gave it  a Lok Sabha majority. The timing of the ordinance is testimony to the haste with  which the government has been trying to pass the amended law. The NDA government, which claims to have pro-people credentials, didn’t even wish to dedicate one month to discuss an ordinance like this one, which has far-reaching socio-economic consequences. Land acquisition had finally been made pro-people, at least on paper, to an extent in 2013, after being used like a bulldozer against the marginalised for 100-odd years.

The amended land acquisition act promulgated in 2013 was brought about not only by  the UPA government, but also by the parties that now comprise the NDA. Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari and his party members have yet to explain why the BJP gave its nod to the 2013 land bill if it was as anti-farmer as they now suggest.

Gadkari’s main argument against the 2013 bill  is in regard to the acquisition of land for the purpose of defence, which he claims it made difficult. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi alluded to this in a speech in the Lok Sabha. However, the 2013 act already exempts defence and national security projects from both the consent clause and social impact assessment (under the urgency clause), making it easier for the government to carry out such projects. Given this, the BJP’s argument is baseless and intended to distract and confuse the public. The BJP must explain why it needs to remove the consent requirement and social impact assessment altogether, if not to benefit the private sector and push for aggressive industrialisation.

On March 31, Gadkari suggested that land being acquired in rural areas is for irrigation. However, one wonders as to how that land will be of any use when only Rs 1,000 crore has been allotted in this year’s Central budget for nationwide irrigation. Moreover, regardless of the industrial corridors being set up in Delhi and Mumbai, the ordinance will benefit only corporations. Just because an ordinance might affect the middle and lower classes equally doesn’t mean it is pro-poor or neutral. On the contrary, the ordinance now becomes not only anti-poor but anti-middle class as well.

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Gadkari also lamented that while acquiring land, it is difficult to generate a consensus from 80 per cent of stakeholders for rural development programmes, suggesting that people are not willing to part with their land. But in another instance, he claimed that  people are willing to give up their land as land prices have increased, and by selling it, they make profits. Gadkari’s arguments are contradictory. One wonders what the point of removing the consent clause is if people  are happily giving up their land. Gadkari  must realise that only one of the two is possible —  people are either willing or not.

Gadkari also says that land is being acquired for schools. If primary and secondary education is on the government’s priority
list, why has the Centre reduced the budget allotment to education? One would expect  a government acquiring land for education to allot at least more than 5 per cent of GDP  to the cause. The same logical fallacy applies  to his claims that land is being acquired for hospitals, as the amount allotted to healthcare has also steadily reduced. Not only that, his government is also setting the stage for foreign investment in education and healthcare, with profit as the only motive. Therefore his assertion that land is being acquired for schools and hospitals is true only for private players. The public sector is not benefitting from the ordinance. The rural poor have no stake in the projects for which land is to be acquired. Gadkari’s agenda is clear: rob the poor, feed the rich.

Gadkari also suggests that land cannot  be returned as projects are incomplete. It doesn’t occur to him that the government, rather than pressing for a more draconian law to acquire more land, must first finish all stalled projects and make use of all the land already available to it.

If no surplus acquired land were available, the question of returning land to the real owners would not arise. Gadkari expresses concern over the deteriorating condition of the environment. But at the same time, he is calling for changes in the forest act, which is not yet fully enforced given various bureaucratic and practical issues. He is not only preparing the ground for the largescale eviction of tribals and other marginalised groups who use forests but also pushing for deforestation for the establishment of foreign industries that would pollute and devastate the ecology.

To compound this, Gadkari and his  party are not concerned about questions pertaining to food security, mass destruction of crops due to natural calamities and the unprecedented reduction in the number of people engaged in agriculture. The BJP is not concerned about how to distribute relief funds to farmers affected by calamities. It is clueless as to whether events like lightning, strong winds, hailstorms and crop destruction by animals should be regarded as natural calamities or not. It has been more than 67 years since Independence, yet the condition of Indian farmers has gone from bad to worse. But these issues are not what Gadkari is concerned about. Instead, he worries about whether setting up an industry is a crime. Setting up industry is not a crime, but doing so by imperilling the poor definitely is.

The writer is a Rajya Sabha MP from the JD(U)