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.
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."
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.
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 bodies...land 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."
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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