Land Reform: More Problems Than Solutions

Land is the most contentious problem in India today. Although land policy development is taking place, the issue is being looked at in isolation, rather than in the overall framework of human rights.There are few more contentious and complex problems in India today than those dealing with land and land rights. Rather than focusing on land as an issue in isolation, a continuum of rights has to be established regarding land, especially in the areas of access and reform, law and enforcement, use planning and management, administration and information, and other cross-cutting issues.

The new and existing initiatives on land should be guided by the core values of pro-poor, conflict resolution, democratic governance, equity, justice, as well as gender sensitivity. Although land policy development is taking place, it generally lacks a human rights framework. Land is not simply a resource for one human right. While some rights have been recently established in the legal framework (like work, education, food), they can all be adversely affected by access – or lack of access — to land, and the legal implications of it for a broad range of human rights is obvious. The Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bills should also be assessed on the basis of several international principles, interpretive documents and legal frameworks.

If we frame land issues today through different sectoral interventions and activities, we find more problems than solutions, because they have often been framed too narrowly. We have a few recent examples:

a) Special Economic Zones (SEZ), a pet project of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Government of India, for economic growth, supported by quality infrastructure and attractive fiscal packages, both at the centre and state levels, with the minimum possible labour and environmental regulations. The SEZ rules provide for different land requirements for different classes of SEZs. The ministry continues with the same zeal, and the Board of Approval of SEZs at the department of commerce is meeting as usual to consider applications for new SEZs and also to approve several other proposals of companies to facilitate the working of existing notified SEZs, including increasing their existing land areas.

b) Companies are getting restive over delay of their projects, mainly due to serious problems in land acquisition and environmental clearances. Eighteen major projects in sectors like steel and power, equivalent to Rs 244,815.5 crore, are stuck due to procedures relating to land acquisition and forest and environmental clearances, states a recent study by Assocham. The major companies involved are Arcelor Mittal, POSCO, Vedanta Group, Tata Steel, Essar Steel, Jindal and DLF. As a result, Assocham and CII are demanding immediate changes in laws regarding  land acquisition and environment clearance.

c) Government lacks a policy framework and has little internal and intra-ministerial coordination. The ministry of rural development, which is the nodal government ministry to take forward the Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bills, constituted a Committee on State Agrarian Relations and the Unfinished Tasks in Land Reform in January 2008, under the chairmanship of the rural development minister. The committee included experts like K B Saxena, Praveen Kumar Jha and Ram Dayal Munda, and its mission was that “socially just access to land, land-related services and security of land rights are of utmost importance in achieving the desired pace and level of economic growth and sustainable development”. However, the committee’s report and recommendations now find no mention in the same ministry.

d) The Planning Commission, an important body for coordinated policy formulation in critical areas of resource and economic development, in its report by an Expert Group on ‘Development Challenges in Extremist-Affected Areas’ (April 2008) recommends several land-related measures: serious effort must be made to continuously implement the land ceiling laws; the landless poor in occupation of government land should not be treated as encroachers and ordinarily should not be evicted; comprehensive protective measures against alienation of tribal land must be taken up as a priority national programme, etc. Recommendations relating to land acquisition and rehabilitation and resettlement say that indiscriminate land acquisition should be stopped and land acquisition for public purpose should be confined to public welfare activities and matters of national security. According to the report, the proposed amendments contained in the Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill, 2007 fail to achieve these objectives.

The Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill has in fact redefined ‘public purpose’ by delisting community requirements like social infrastructure etc from the land acquisition provisions and adding corporate and company purposes, including mining activities and highways. The amendments also propose replacing the term ‘companies’ by ‘person’, thereby securing legitimacy for purposes that amount to ‘land grab’.

The Rehabilitation & Resettlement Bill does not recognise the rights of affected persons. The Bill does not go by internationally agreed principles like ‘Free and prior informed consent of affected people’ prior to displacement and rehabilitation. It creates arbitrary numerical benchmarks for rehabilitation, in a visible effort to divide affected people. The Bill proposes that rehabilitation will be applicable only if more than 200 families are affected by a project in hill/scheduled areas or only if more than 400 families are affected by a project in plain areas.

These proposals need to be further revised to minimise displacement and secure the rights of the displaced. This exercise must be done in consultation with affected persons and not merely by government agencies. None of these have been taken into account in the current governmental exercise.

The Land Acquisition Act, with its colonial legacy, must go, either by amendment or by abolition. Land-holding inequities have been critical elements in many conflicts throughout the country. The likelihood of serious conflict is substantially increased when a large landless or land-poor population has limited livelihood opportunities. The stakes are even higher when a marginalised population literally depends on a small piece of land for subsistence and survival. Grievances over inequities are increasing the probability of violence. Frustrations are usually directed towards those people who are seen as having an undeserved but profitable lock on landholdings, often going back generations.

Human rights framework

International human rights standards are also valuable tools. Conventions of the ILO (especially c 169 concerning indigenous and tribal peoples) underscore the importance of several key principles related to land. These are: free, prior informed consent (FPIC), relocation, rehabilitation, compensation, return, and procedures to deal with grievances. They lay the basis of informed consent, and offer protection for the community, recognising its rights even if there is no formal legal title of ownership. They recognise the idea of collective ownership, establish legal procedures, set out principles for use of resources, institute relocation principles and principles for compensation, and call for penalties for unauthorised intrusion.

In 2007, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, with India speaking in favour of it. This declaration states that “indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired”. The declaration, while not binding, states that indigenous people have a right to own and develop resources on their land, a right to legal recognition of indigenous lands by states, and a “right to redress… for the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned or otherwise occupied or used, and which have been confiscated, taken, occupied, used or damaged”. Both the Convention and the Declaration emphasise participatory dialogue and the need for free, prior, and informed consent with respect to decision-making about land occupied by indigenous people, especially where the relocation of people from the land is under consideration.

The human rights crisis facing rural India today largely centres on the issue of land rights. Our slums, resettlement colonies and tribal areas are home to numerous campaigns to save their lands and habitat, to secure land reform, and press for land claims. If we only take into account the known 18 disputed projects in 2009, some 300,000 Indians are known to be at risk of forcible eviction in the wake of land disputes, land-grabbing, and agro-industrial and urban redevelopment projects. Thousands have already been forcibly evicted in recent years, many left homeless, others relocated to inadequate resettlement sites with poor infrastructure, lacking basic amenities, including sanitation, and with limited access to work opportunities. We have failed to protect, in law and in practice, the population against forced evictions. By contrast, those with political or economic power are allowed to act with impunity in arbitrarily appropriating land.

This is the burning context amidst which we are dealing with the land acquisition and rehabilitation bills. No single formula can explain how to plan successful programmatic interventions to address land issues. But the starting point should always be to ‘do no harm’ to the small, marginal landowners and agricultural land. Simultaneously, the government could go for improving employment prospects by introducing a comprehensive agrarian reform programme for landless groups, and by promoting alternative employment opportunities, emphasising that access to land and agrarian reform form a key part in the forthcoming right to food initiative.


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