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Heed Supreme Court warning on land grab

Heed Supreme Court warning on land grab
Highlights

The recent Supreme Court judgment scrapping land acquisition in Singur and a report of the SN Dhingra Commission on illegal and unethical land deals...

The recent Supreme Court judgment scrapping land acquisition in Singur and a report of the SN Dhingra Commission on illegal and unethical land deals in Haryana brings to the fore that land remains the core to both economic and political realities in this country. In the two cases, the State governments of Haryana and West Bengal were actively involved for purposes that had least to do with public good.

Indeed, the Supreme Court judgement has become all significant for future land acquisition. It establishes the basic norm that the State cannot acquire land for a private body. It also States that the court would stand by the most vulnerable section. It notes that the weakest sections of the society alone cannot take the brunt for development.

Importantly, the judgement is expected to go a long way to save fertile multi-crop land losing its farm character. What has transpired is that farmers are deprived of their land for a pittance, which in turn fetches almost eight to times more for the rich and the powerful.

The Gurgaon land deal is unique as the purchaser, Skylight Hospitality, got Rs 7.5 crore as loan from builder DLF. Its land use was changed and fetched him almost Rs 58 crore. In this case, the deal involved the powerful Gandhi family. However, like Singur, it too took ten years to come into public domain.

In Singur, the court not only scrapped the land deal of 2006 but also found the then Buddhadeb Bhattacharya government to have indulged in gross irregularities, misinterpreting public purpose to benefit a company. The SC said that the “hurried” acquisition process was anti-farmer and in violation of law. What had happened at Singur in reality is far graver than what transpired in Gurgaon. In the name of public interest, the WB government had entered into a secret agreement granting largesse to Tata’s Nano car.

It had given the 997 acre of land at an annual lease rent of Rs 1 crore which would gradually rise to Rs 20 crore. It had also given a loan of Rs 200 crore to the company at nominal interest of one per cent a year. This apart, the Left Front government had agreed to return the VAT that was to be paid on the sale of cars, to the company, which had virtually made no investment.

The choice of the land given a-la-carte to the Tatas was an act of overcompensation. Even the compensation to the farmers was paid by the State government and not the Tatas. The SC now has allowed them to retain the compensation for loss to their ten years of livelihood. What emerges is the blatant misuse of State power to benefit a company, which clearly was doing no charity. While its coffers were overflowing, 2200-odd “unwilling farmers” were deprived of their fertile land.

No wonder the SC observed “if Singur land acquisition was termed valid, then there would be attempts by governments to justify any and every acquisition of land of the most vulnerable sections of the society in the name of public purpose”.

It went beyond and stated: “When the brunt of this ‘development’ is borne by the weakest sections of the society, it is onerous duty of the State Government to ensure that the mandatory procedures laid down under the Land Acquisition Act are followed scrupulously”. And, warned “otherwise the acquisition proceedings will be rendered void ab initio in law”.

Both in Gurgaon and Singur, one or more individuals or a company with the backing of the State power, was out to mint tonnes without investing a single penny. Indeed, it is a brand new form of liberalization at the cost of the poorest! In this context, it must be noted that large scale acquisitions and conversion of agricultural land as well as forest land for special economic zones (SEZs), mining, industries and urbanisation is taking place.

Land acquired in the name of SEZs and industrialisation is also often at unfair terms, and is misused for real estate purposes. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) has critically made a note of non-utilisation of land earmarked for SEZs. Out of a total of 45635.63 hectares of SEZ land allotted till 2014, work has begun in only 28,488.49 hectares. The CAG found gross violations in 17 States, of which in Odisha 96.58 percent of SEZ land remained unutilised.

In this ‘poor’ State, over Rs 75,000 crore was raised by mortgaging such land illegally; in ten years only two per cent of projects were ready to start. Most companies that sought captive coal mines — and associated land — never used these, except to boost their own value. Several hectares of land acquired for SEZs invoking ‘public purpose’ were later sold off or used for other purposes. Among the groups that diverted land acquired for SEZs are Reliance Industries and Essar Steel.

Since the enactment of SEZ Act 2005, 576 formal approvals of SEZs covering 60,374.76 hectares was granted in the country, out of which 392 SEZs covering 45,635.63 hectares were notified till March 2014. Out of the 392 notified zones, only 152 had become operational, and SEZs had no noticeable impact on the national economy, the CAG stated.

According to a calculation in the case of the Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor, which passes through six States, there is a potential threat of loss of almost 7 lakh sq.km or 17.5 per cent of all agricultural land in the country to forcible acquisition.

Then there is the proposed capital city of Andhra Pradesh, which will be built on an area of over 7000 sq.km of fertile multi-cropped land. In Uttar Pradesh, it is estimated that over 23,000 villages would be affected by the ongoing acquisitions.

In the case of Yamuna Expressway 1.43 lakh acres and another 37,362 acres for the Ganga Expressway are being acquired. Shockingly, large tracts of land acquired for Yamuna Expressway has gone towards golf courses, the Formula One Racing Track, and such projects with limited potential of creating jobs.

The NDA Government’s pet project of proposed 100 smart cities will also lead to widespread displacement and land grab. Over 40 per cent of agricultural land could face direct threat of forcible acquisition. Thus, land acquisition is emerging as a major source of primitive accumulation and transfer of wealth and resources from the people to the corporate world.

The Singur judgement will be a landmark one precisely for this reason. No longer can the hands that till and feed be tied. The SC’s verdict is a reminder and provides hope that in this seemingly harsh world, there is room for justice and fairness, and even the weakest won’t be taken for a ride in a democracy like ours.

By: Shivaji Sarkar

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