Industry casts covetous eye on village commons

A rural development ministry plan, which will allow industries to take over non-forest wastelands, will further deprive the rural poor of fodder and fuelwood.

By Anumita Roychowdhury
Published: Wednesday 30 June 1993

INDUSTRY is poised to make the biggest state-sponsored land grab. The ministry for rural development (MRD), which is reportedly facing a financial crunch, is considering asking state governments to take "steps that will enable the long lease of government wastelands to industry."

However, V B Eswaran, former director of the Society for Promotion of Wastelands Development, warns, "If this happens, the rural poor will lose their survival base. Non-forest wastelands were transferred to MRD last year to meet the forest-based needs of rural people and to take up need-based rural development programmes."

At a recent seminar sponsored by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) in Delhi, the minister of state for rural development (department of wastelands development), Rao Ram Singh, appealed to industrialists to invest in wastelands development. He said, "The government does not have the resources to reclaim the millions of hectares of wastelands. We must channelise resources from the private sector."
Huge investment MRD officials estimate a minimum investment of Rs 262,500 crore would be required to reclaim the 175 million ha of wastelands in India, and add that the budgetary allocation of Rs 50 crore for the department "is too paltry". A background paper circulated by FICCI tacitly acknowledged this and suggested, "In the light of the huge investment required, it is essential that the private sector be involved in this area." The MRD has proposed that wood-based and plantation industries such as rubber, tea and coffee draw up investment plans for developing wastelands to meet their raw material requirements.

MRD's offer coincides with the clamour by industries for land, one that has become louder after the formation of the wasteland development department in the MRD last year. Industries are not allowed to use forest land and its representatives have eyed non-forest wastelands with great interest despite a department policy to promote contract farming in private wastelands for the supply of industrial raw material.

Certain legal and social obstacles block industry's way: high cost of reclamation, restrictions on size of landholdings and fear of local resistance to intrusion into village commons. Despite this, industry representatives are keen on manipulating a favourable agreement with the government. "If not forests, at least we have something else," says Piare Lal, vice chairperson of the ITC Bhadrachalam Paper Mills in Andhra Pradesh.
Opportunistic move Industry representatives generally view the MRD proposal as a chance to get land laws changed in their favour and get the government to subsidise reclamation costs. Some industrialists want land "free of encroachers and stifling land laws". Says Shankar Ghosh of WIMCO, "The government must find unencroached land for us. Revenue wastelands are mostly encroached and the industry cannot afford to get involved in law-and-order problems. We do not have the right to throw people out."

Some plantation industries like tea want ownership rights and A K Kala of the Tea Board says, "We must see the land first to assess the reclamation cost." At MRD's initiative, the Tea Board is negotiating with the Manipur and Nagaland governments to raise plantations in degraded wastelands. The cotton industry, on the other hand, wants a relaxation in land ceiling laws.

FICCI vice president Bansi Dhar made it clear at the seminar that "land for development has to be provided to corporate laws have to be amended for this purpose."

The ministry is desperately trying to accommodate industry's demands. MRD additional secretary T K Nair says, "We have set up a task force to review land laws, map wastelands and survey ownership of wastelands to identify land that can be leased."
Cost-sharing scheme MRD has also offered to share costs. Ram Singh says, "We have formulated a scheme of cost-sharing by which 25 per cent will come as a grant from MRD, 50 per cent from financial institutions and the rest from industrialists."

The MRD proposal to subsidise an industry take-over of non-forest wastelands has provoked scathing criticism from environmentalists. Non-forest wastelands that are not privately owned are controlled either by the revenue department or village panchayats and are used by local communities to meet fuel and fodder needs.

MRD officials admit about 80 per cent of the non-forest wastelands are held privately, leaving only a small margin for village commons. Critics condemn the whole approach of allowing corporate groups into the commons as "anti-poor". That industry has its eyes on village commons is reflected in FICCI's background paper, which states, "The ministry should identify government land that can be leased for a period of not less than 50 years."

Critics dismiss the official hue and cry about the financial crunch. Says Eswaran, "Community systems of management can offer much cheaper methods of reclamation. The resource crunch is only an excuse to offer land to industry on a silver platter."

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