Has India really turned the corner courtesy the Land Acquisition Bill or is it political skullduggery?

Colonising via Land Acquisition?

The Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman has established that confidence in one’s own beliefs is no measure of their accuracy. That was clearly demonstrated by the amendments to the Land Acquisition Bill that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken about to farmers through a radio broadcast. He was seeking to dispel many lies being spread about the amendments. Truth to tell, some amendments are good but other contentious issues from the old bill have not been resolved, even as new issues have arisen.

Farmers feel very strongly about the consent clause in the Land Acquisition Bill but these amendments are unlikely to unite them in agitation. Meanwhile, land acquisition is a topic resonating in Lutyens’ Delhi and in the media channels though the farmers elsewhere have more immediate and pressing worries. It has been a tough year; after selling their last crop at depressed commodity prices (major crops paddy and cotton down 25 per cent), farmers were compelled to buy urea at a 40 per cent premium over the printed MRP in the sowing season.

There is worse, prior to the new crop being harvested, farm lands are being hammered by a spate of unseasonal rain and hail, damaging the crop. Current worries on the farm will always take precedence over future probabilities like acquisition and environment. Also, 50 per cent of India lives in cities and really does not care about land acquisition. Most of the rest living in villages feel that their land is not even remotely under threat of acquisition because of their commercial or locational disadvantages.

It may appear that the government wishes to fund new highways by selling land for industrialisation and to colonisers along the new expressways being constructed. There is nothing wrong with that except for the clause to acquire land, one kilometre on each side of the highway, for development, which is outright foolish. It makes the government appear more like a property developer or acting under the influence of property sharks rather than one seeking development or wanting to create jobs. On this one issue, industrialists and fellow farmers are equally flummoxed and farmers propose their own amendment.

Industrialists want to locate investments close to urban centres with fast access to development sites. Being on the highway or in the city is not the priority. Had it understood the difference, the government would have acted differently. Contrary to what it did, it would not propose not to acquire land up to five kilometres on either side of the highway or within 50 km of municipal limits. It would be easy to add a few kilometres of expressway connectivity from the main highway to these development hubs. Such a development would deliver more inclusive growth in the more remote regions and, indeed, it would be easier to secure the farmers’ consent for land further away from the highway and the municipal limits.

Normally the ‘circle rate’, decided by the revenue department of the state government, is accepted as the market rate for acquisitions. In most cases, the circle rate is uniform for an administrative block and there is no difference between locations close to or away from the highway. The circle rate for land within a kilometre of the highway is invariably far less than the actual market potential of the land and farmers are unwilling to part with the same.

As one moves away from the highway or municipal limits, the cost of land drops drastically. The amendments also stipulate four times the market value to farmers on acquisition. Thus farmers with land five kilometres away from the highway or further from municipal limits may feel adequately compensated to accord consent for acquisition.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress are both enchanted with the wrong set of people. The Congress’ position continues to be influenced by leaders and intellectuals far removed from the ground reality, while the BJP pays far greater heed to industry than it should. Opportunistic new political entities wanting to reap an electoral harvest have already jumped on to the bullock cart. Politicians, who have never farmed but wanting to exploit the farmer’s plight for political dividends are the reason why the country will fail.

The trust deficit has increased to such an extent that farmers do not trust the agitating political parties on the issue anymore. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) made a choice, now it is the BJP’s turn to decide between the complicated theories propounded by economists and the farmer’s common sense. Special Economic Zones that were supposed to be the game changer that would spur development and create jobs are no more than a bad memory that still hurts.

The biggest beneficiaries of such land acquired from farmers in the past have been the various state governments, like Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, turning into mere colonisers. They were not private enterprises, the commonly perceived culprit. Has India really turned the corner courtesy the Land Acquisition Bill? The din created by the media would suggest so but much of it is political skullduggery. One wishes that it had been different.