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WALTER FERNANDES, director of programme for tribal studies in the New Delhi-based Indian Social Institute, is a vocal critic of Development projects that dislodge people and degrade the environment. His study on displacement is the most comprehensive one available in India and is quoted even by the government. In an interview with JITENDRA VERMA, he talks about the proposed amendments to the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, which he says will make the Act all the more anti-people
You initiated this campaign against the new Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill. Do you think it will succeed? Has it become a political issue?
It is a people's campaign. Despite the fact that the opposition against the Bill took off a little late, it has gained momentum in states like Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and some parts of Jharkhand in Bihar. Earlier, we had hoped that the Bill would become a political issue in Rajasthan and some other states. But the people decided to take up the issue only after the elections. I think the people were afraid of being exploited by political parties.
We need more time to mobilise people and our success depends on the people. So far, the voice of people has not been heard. It is the only the voice of industry which has reached the government.
Why are you opposing the Bill?
As of now, we are opposing the Bill to protect people's right to livelihood. Forest and other similar issues are important in terms of people's livelihood. We believe that relaxed land acquisition norms will deprive people of forests and common property, which is the basis of their survival.
According to your studies, three-fourths of over 20 million displaced people have not been rehabilitated. Does anybody know their plight?
It is estimated that about 21.3 million people were displaced between 1950 and 1990. Now the number may have increased to 30 million. A majority of them are tribal people. These people are now living in slums or have migrated elsewhere in search of a jobs. They have been reduced to cheap or bonded labourers. Even jobs that require no skill are not available to them. The (Amendment) Act will displace more people and increase exploitation.
It is time we addressed the land issue its entirety. We need to recognise that it is not merely a commodity but is about people's livelihood. The people cannot be deprived of their livelihood in the time of national development which in this case has come to mean profit for the big industry.
Why is this kind of dispossession still a fringe issue?
About 80 per cent of people who are displaced are poor. Given that something like 80 per cent are marginalised, I think that the noise which is being heard is pretty good. There are many more struggles which are not widely-known Everybody knows about the Narmada struggle, but a very few have heard about the struggle against the National Aluminium Company (NALCO) in Orissa during the 1980s. Subsequently, the displaced people were rehabilitated.
Despite all this, our policy and decision-makers seem to think that people can be displaced without any opposition. This can be seen in the proposed Amendment Bill. They have proposed an amendment to the Land Acquisition Act but rejected the draft of the rehabilitation policy. For them, globalisation means that a powerful person can easily acquire land thereby displacing many poor people. They don't even mention rehabilitation.
Don't you think people, today, are increasingly fighting a losing battle against strong business and political lobbies?
I think the people who arc struggling are in a position similar to that of the Indians in the pre-Independence days. At that time, it was a losing battle against the British. At present, we are fighting among ourselves. We may take another 50 years to win this battle, but we will definitely win.
What do you think of progressive rehabilitation policies now being pushed by international donors such as the World Bank?
International donors are not talking of equity distribution. They are only pressing for rehabilitation. They want more land only to satisfy human rights activists. The problem is that while the international agencies are demanding rehabilitation, our own industries are not interested in it. We are just talking of industrial infrastructure, which is required. But it is done without a social policy. That is what makes the poor poorer.
Instead of a social policy, we have a draconian Land Acquisition Act. It is not accidental that the Act has come up. It is a part of the whole process of building an industrial infrastructure without a social policy. On the other hand we are not asking for the moon either. We need an industrial infrastructure but not at the cost of social infrastructure, otherwise it will benefit only 20 per cent of the population. We are looking for a type of economic policy with a social policy that will benefit a majority of the people.
What about the global necessity of industrial and economic growth?
The question is whether we should sacrifice the local for global. We have sold our country to global forces with no consideration for local people. I think we have to work on three areas. Firstly, on pluralism of the country. Secondly, link economic policy with social policy. Finally, reconcile global with local. At present, there is liberalisation with no checks. We are sending wrong signals to everybody saying that here is a land freely available to those wishing to invest without taking care of the people.