"The state cannot deprive people"

WALTER FERNANDES, who has worked extensively for tribes and on tribal issues, talks to SURYA SEN

Published: Wednesday 15 October 2003

You had once proposed an alternative land acquisition and rehabilitation policy. What were its basic premises?
The state cannot deprive people of their livelihood. The first premise of our proposed policy was that prior consent of the people affected should be mandatory for acquisition of their land. The displaced should get be able to enjoy the same livelihoods after rehabilitation -- this is their fundamental right. And, the affected people must be involved at every stage of the rehabilitation process.

Define rehabilitation
A whole process that helps people to begin life anew, and in a better way, because they have paid the price (for our development).

Why was your policy never considered?
Unofficial sources tell us, the private sector was not keen. They like the 'land acquisition act' as it is today. You can know their intent from how the regulations have been made to smoothen the work on Prime Minister's pet project -- the golden quadrilateral.

How long did it take you to frame this alternative?
Approximately 15 months. Thousands were involved. About 1,500 voluntary agencies and activist groups participated at various stages and levels. Each of them in turn discussed the alternatives with hundreds of other people.

What came of it?
One, rehabilitation became an issue. People were empowered. Small voluntary groups struggling for the displaced realised that their network of support was much larger than they had previously thought. Two, the state realised it can't take the people for granted; it has to negotiate.

Is the nature of dissent in Orissa and the Northeast comparable?
No. The nature of the civil societies in the two states is different; the socio-political situations are also not the same. In the Northeast, we live under the "Armed Forces Special Powers Act'. Any agitation can be quelled by declaring the area disturbed. Since 1958 the fear is embedded in the people's minds. In Orissa, while there was repression certain groups did take a stand.

Should each state have a different land acquisition act?
There should be a central act, which works like a set of basic and minimum requisite guidelines. Each state should then build to improve on it.

Would that address the peculiarities of the Northeast?
For that to happen, the land acquisition act will have to address a few questions. Say a displaced tribe holds the land under community ownership. How will the government calculate compensation according to the usual formulas meant for individual ownership? What is market value of a community asset? Take another complexity: do you give two hectares land for permanent cultivation to each displaced individual when the community has been practicing jhum? Have we taken measures to prepare tribals for the transition to individual ownership of land? Will they be technically equipped to deal with this? Will they be psychologically, socially and culturally prepared for a new way of life?

Which developing country has a progressive rehabilitation policy?
China has done a fairly good job on rehabilitation; it does give importance to the village communities. In China, in the now famous case, just one person brought the construction of the highway to a grinding halt by refusing to move his house and appealing to the courts. Jamaica is another progressive case. Uganda was working on some policies in 1996, but I have not kept in touch with developments there.

Coming back to the Northeast, how do you see the agitations against the Tipaimukh and lower Subansari dams advancing?
I don't see the Tipaimukh people leaving easily, unless the government buys off all the underground groups. Lower Subansari, on the other hand, is sparsely populated. I don't see much of an agitation brewing. Officially only 38 will be displaced. But there are a few thousand families who have been ignored completely in the government reports. But the Pagladiya agitation in Assam is catching up.

Where shall the displaced people go?
They will fell trees for timber, or smuggle wood and encroach on lands and forests elsewhere. Or become bonded labour. There are links between these processes and unrest -- the extra-hardening of ethnic identities.

Development induced displacement is a fact. What do you say?
It is. But, ideologically I do not accept the type of displacement taking place currently, because much of it isn't needed, or can be minimised. I definitely oppose the idea of causing impoverishment by treating people's livelihood as commodities.

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