SOCIAL activist Medha Patkar has for long led a struggle for those affected by the controversial Sardar Sarovar project on the Narmada river in Gujarat. She established the Narmada Bachao Andolan and National Alliance of People’s Movements and is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Goldman Environmental Prize, Amnesty International’s Human Rights Defender’s Award and the BBC’s Green Ribbon Award.
In an interview with RANJEET S JAMWAL, Patkar alleged that the new Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation Bill, introduced in the Lok Sabha on 7 September, was tilted towards corporates and business houses. Excerpts:
How do you see the new Land Acquisition Bill?
The total balance of development planning today is tilted towards corporates and builders. The need was to tilt it towards justice, not growth. But we don’t feel that full justice has been done to the people who depend on natural resources. They are the ones who are deprived of their livelihood in the name of land acquisition. Here, no doubt, one good thing is that they are repealing the 1894 Land Acquisition Act. But they are still continuing with the forcible acquisition for corporates that started since 1984. The 1894 British Acquisition Act says that there can be no forced acquisition for private purposes or companies. But in 1984 the government started using this for acquiring land for private companies. This should have been totally deleted from the new Bill. We are still demanding that. The only difference is that the under the new Bill, the consent of 80 per cent of those affected will be required for land acquisition for private companies. But we want this 80 per cent consent condition for government projects also because all the big dams and mines are also government projects. But in this Bill no consent of the people is required for government projects. But what is a government project today will become a PPP project tomorrow. This is the scenario today. So we demand that for any project to be taken up on land or mineral resources of a village or community, the consent of the gram sabha should be taken.
The new Bill has defined public purpose. Will it help end misuse for land acquisition?
Public purpose has been defined but it includes all public industries and infrastructure. So how can that be? Is every highway in the interest of the people? It needs to be assessed by someone because every industry is not public purpose. That is a very broad definition of public purpose, which includes private purpose in the public purpose. It is very dangerous. There remains no difference between the government and the corporates.
This Bill, for the first time, says that irrigated and multiple crop land will not be acquired as far as possible. Your comment. We welcome it. But along with that the other agricultural land should also not be acquired. Because other land is about 75 per cent of what the farmers have which is non-irrigated. So they cannot be excluded from this benefit. We believe that all agricultural land should be left out. At least there should a moratorium period for some years. Over 180,000 hectares of agricultural land was diverted to non-agrculture in 10 years. So it is affecting food security at the local and the national level. We don’t want agricultural land to be acquired and it should only be the last alternative. It should be the responsibility of the government to prove that no non-agricultural land is available for a particular project.
How do you see the provisions for monetary benefits and rehabilitation of those affected by land acquisition?
It is clear that they will be mainly giving cash. But the people who live on natural resources, the tribals and small marginal farmers, are not used to the market and they are always cheated in cash. We also have problems with the assessment of land values through sale deeds that always show underestimated values. So even if landowners are given four times the market value, that is nothing because it is based on sale deeds. It is a kind of cheating. They will give Rs 2 lakh instead of employment but if your employment for generations is taken away, how can that be justified? Then there is provision for Rs 2,000 cash per month for farmers for 20 years. All these cash provisions are only to lure farmers, not secure them. There is the provision for rehabilitation of affected people if 100 acres is purchased in rural areas and 50 acres in urban areas by private companies. We want this to be reduced to 25 because ultimately the rehabilitation is of individual families, so whether the total land acquired is 100 or 25 acres, the impact on the family is the same. So even for smaller land holdings, private companies should be forced to ensure an alternative livelihood for those affected. Basically we wanted this to be a “Development Planning Act”.
A community’s right to natural resources should be acknowledged. The main thing is that consent of the community should be taken before any project, government or private, is launched. Industry was worried that it would create problems for acquiring land for development projects. These people go abroad to convince investors, so why can’t they convince a farmer to give up his land? That is necessary even if it takes time. Farmers will be convinced if they get a share in the benefits. Otherwise, minerals under the land yield crores of rupees for the Ambanis, Tatas, Jindals and Mittals, but the farmers are destitute. So injustice is taking place because the whole concept is also unjust.
Do you think this Bill is being pushed in a hurry?
It is. It has not been fully discussed as yet. The government had given a 31 August deadline for the public to give suggestions on this Bill and on 1 September Jairam Ramesh met nine ministers and finalised the draft for the Cabinet. And on 5 September the Cabinet passed it. The present (rural development) minister (Jairam Ramesh) has shown more openness than any of his predecessors but beyond that there should have been proper regional consultations. There was no need for the hurry to send it to the parliamentary standing committee. But there is also another side to it. Corporates are mounting huge pressure to not even permit this much.
Your course of action for this Bill.
There are more people’s movements on this issue than any other. That is why their voices should be fully heard. We will fight the battle. We will of course present our views before the standing committee but we will also campaign for it. It’s on already. It should have been a very good opportunity for the UPA to bring good legislation and gain whatever it has lost due to corruption, because this is also related to corruption. There is more corruption in the land deals, minerals and water privatisation. We wanted this to happen, but it’s not fully happening.