Common sense demands that the government tabulate its own unused lands before embarking on an acquisition spree and targets acquisitions wisely

Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel laureate, may well have based his position —  that one’s confidence in one’s beliefs is no guarantee of its correctness — on the Indian goings on around the amendments to the Land Acquisition Bill. That such a mess can be made with such certainty is hard to believe. Common sense demands that the government tabulate its own unused lands before embarking on an acquisition binge.

In all probability, there are over two lakh hectares of land lying with various government or public sector units that can be made available immediately for private sector industrial expansion. These entities will not cede control of their lands willingly and the government would also be worried about alienating its own unused lands in favour of the private sector for fear of agitation from trade unions and political parties or CAG notings.

There is also another 100,000 hectares of land owned by the Indian Railways, which should be capitalised to fund railway modernisation and expansion. There is the defence land and wasteland that need to be taken into account as well. It may appear the government wishes to fund new highways by selling land for industrialisation and to colonisers along the new expressways, where they want to construct.

There is nothing wrong with such thinking but the clause to acquire one kilometre of land on each side of the highway for development is outright foolish. It makes the government appear more like a property developer or someone under the influence of property sharks, rather than being a force driving the development or jobs agenda. Both farmers and industrialists and my fellow farmers are all flummoxed by the proposal. Farmers have proposed their own amendment:

Industrialists want to invest in areas close to urban centres with fast access to the site of development; they do not necessarily want to be on the highway or in the city. There is a clear difference that the government seems to have missed. Had it understood that, it would not have proposed to acquire land up to 5 kms on either side of the highway or within 50 kilometres 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 back regions.

Further from the highway and the municipal limits, easier would it be to secure the farmers consent. Normally the circle rate decided by the revenue department of the state government is accepted as market rate in case of acquisitions. In most cases, the circle rate is same for an administrative block and does not differentiate between locations close to or away from the highway. The circle rate for land within one km of the highway will invariably be far less than the actual market potential of the land and farmers will be unwilling to part with it.

As one moves away from the highway or municipal limits, the cost of land reduces drastically. The amendments also stipulate four times the market value to farmers on acquisition. So farmers with land five kms away from the highway or further from municipal limits, may feel adequately compensated and willingly give consent for such acquisition. The UPA had made a choice and now it is the BJP’s turn to decide between economists’ complicated theories or the farmer’s common sense.