Nowhere to go

The new land Bill will make it easier to displace the poor in the name of development, say experts

Published: Monday 15 March 1999

 Experts say that the new land (Credit: pradip saha / cse)the Cabinet committee amendments to the Land Acquisition Act ( laa ), 1894, is expected to be tabled in Parliament in the Budget session. The Bill has been drafted by the Union ministry of rural areas and employment ( mra&e ). If passed, it is likely to displace millions of people, say experts. By the government's own admission, about 15 million people have been displaced since 1951 due to development activities, 75 per cent of whom still await rehabilitation.

To add fuel to the fire, R Kumaramangalam, the Union minister for power, has lashed out at environmentalists and non-governmental organisations ( ngo s) who have spoken against the proposed Bill. Despite the minister's threat to take his opponents to court, representatives of anti-displacement movements from all over India demonstrated in New Delhi against the proposed Bill on December 1 and have initiated a campaing against the Bill.

The proposed Bill gives sweeping powers to the government to acquire land for "public purposes" -- a vague, legal term which is often misused to make way for development projects, says Walter Fernandes of the Indian Social Institute ( isi ), New Delhi. Pushed by the industry and backed by the commerce ministry, the mra&e feels that the Bill will hasten the land acquisition procedure for the country's much-needed infrastructure development. "The existing Act is inadequate as it lacks transparency and is time-consuming," says N C Saxena, secretary (rural development) in the ministry.

Many experts, however, feel that the Cabinet committee proposal overlooks is the issue of rehabilitation. "The existing laa is as it is bad. But the present Bill is worse," says Fernandes. The Bill vests more discretionary and legal powers with the district collector and makes intervention difficult. According to the Bill, the displaced people are to be compensated in cash, with the amount being fixed by officials. There is no talk of "land for land" compensation, a norm that is now followed internationally. In most cases, it has been seen that the compensation has been less than the market price.

The existing Act gives a time period of one month for people to file their objections. But the proposed Bill has reduced this to 21 days. Another important aspect is that the Bill gives absolute power to the district collector. Under the existing Act, the administration has to deal with every objection individually. In the proposed amendment, the district collector, whose decision shall be final, can dispose all the objections at one public meeting. Any objection to the collector's decision can be heard only in a High Court, which may be totally inaccessible to the poor.

Interestingly, the mra&e' s own National Policy for Resettlement and Rehabilitation for Displaced Persons ( nprr ), 1998 -- widely seen as a progressive document -- has been shelved by the Cabinet committee.

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