Tamil Nadu seems set to gift community land to corporates under the name of wasteland regeneration
In the face of mounting protests against the Comprehensive Wasteland Development Project (cwdp), the characteristically intractable chief minister (cm) of Tamil Nadu (tn), J Jayalalithaa, has been forced to climb down partially. The state government's ambitious programme has been in the eye of a storm ever since it was conceived two years ago. Panchayats, political parties and civil society groups are bitterly opposed to the cwdp because in its current form it favours corporate houses and big landowners, at the same time being loaded against local communities (see box: Points of discord). The discontent is so widespread that despite the cm's rethink, the project may well go to seed.
Jayalalithaa unveiled the cwdp during a meeting of the Confederation of Indian Industry (cii) in July 2002 (see box: The sell-out). The project seeks to regenerate two million hectares (ha) of wasteland -- including a swathe of 0.1 million ha of community land -- by leasing it out to corporate bodies. The companies would use the tract for agro-industrial purposes.
On January 28, 2003 the cm declared in the state assembly that she was willing to lease out wasteland also to self-help groups of farmers. This concession came after several months of intransigence wherein she wanted only the industry and cooperatives to execute the project. Even now the cm hasn't conceded the demand for handing over these tracts to landless people. Her contention: such people would not be able to plough huge sums of money into the scheme -- supposedly an essential input for making wasteland cultivable.
|Points of discord|
|GOVERNMENT'S STIPULATIONS||COMMUNITY'S CONTENTIONS|
|Large chunks of community wasteland will be leased out to corporates||It will favour land mafia instead of benefiting the community|
|Corporates can afford to invest heavily, not the government||Cheaper option would be to involve community in project|
|Deep borewells to be drilled for developing wastelands||This will lead to large-scale depletion of groundwater|
|The programme will be a source of rural employment||Similar schemes in the past have only provided limited employment|
The most controversial component of the cwdp pertains to leasing out of common wasteland from which villages still derive benefits. The stark contrast between the clauses that deal with private tracts and community land has queered the pitch further. Even as the tn government has been generous while dealing with the former, it has given unbridled control of the latter to corporate houses.
Records show that community wasteland continues to be used for grazing purposes, cultivating rain-fed crops and taking up palm and tamarind plantation. In fact, it generates substantial revenue for community members. A deliberate attempt seems to be underway by the state authorities to grab these tracts and club them with wastelands. Rural Development Society, a Chengalpet-based non-governmental organisation (ngo), prepared a list of wasteland classified in Kancheepuram district. It was found that all plots bigger than 40.5 ha were used as pastures. Even in the 9-40.5 ha size, nearly 80 per cent were utilised for the same purpose.
Thomas Fatimson, convenor of The Campaign for Right to Livelihood and Food Security, Chennai, points out that under the 73rd and 74th constitution amendments, panchayats have the right and access to common property resources. "Leasing out wasteland to corporates will override the Land Ceiling Act and Land Reforms Act," he avers. The fear is that once the land is handed over it will be fenced thus restricting grazing activities on it.
Bakthavatchalam apprehends that corporate houses would take up water-intensive plantation, which would further deplete groundwater and lead to mono-cropping. "This would impact the traditional economy of community members," he feels. D S S Mani, convenor of ngo Human Rights Tamil Nadu Initiative, opines: "The move will favour the land mafia close to the powers that be. In the process, encroachments on government land will be legalised." This, it is believed, is the underlying reason for the state government to offer several incentives in the case of private land.
The creation of tawdev to supervise the programme has also been criticised by experts since many departments, funded both by the Union and state governments, already exist for monitoring wasteland development schemes. At present, three major programmes with an annual outlay of close to Rs 200 crore are being implemented.
Questions are being raised about the financial viability of the cwdp with regard to the money required for developing private wasteland. In spite of the absence of external funding, the government appears overzealous in its effort to sustain the project for two years.
While the director of tawdev refused to comment on the programme, Down To Earth's numerous attempts to contact other officials came a cropper. When a copy of the government order on the project was sought from tawdev manager C Vidyasagar, he turned down the request saying it was an internal matter. The lack of transparency in implementing the scheme lends weight to the theory that there's more to the cwdp than meets the eye.
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