Land acquisition: Government beware, Anna Hazare won't go gently

Aditya Menon
Aditya MenonFeb 24, 2015 | 15:05

Land acquisition: Government beware, Anna Hazare won't go gently

On January 17 this year, 45-year-old Anantram Rathore, a farmer in Anuppur district in Madhya Pradesh, locked himself in a room inside his small home and set himself on fire. The reason: his land had been acquired by the government and given to a private company for setting up a thermal power plant. Rathore sustained serious burn injuries, but survived. His land, however, is gone. Like Rathore, many more farmers across India might be driven to take such an extreme step if the Narendra Modi government is able to get its land acquisition ordinance passed in Parliament.


Of course, it won't be easy for the government as agitating farmers on the streets and a belligerent Opposition in Parliament are determined to scuttle the ordinance.

Leading the charge against the government is Anna Hazare. In 2011 Hazare became the face of the agitation for a Jan Lokpal, that altered India's politics, bringing corruption to the centrestage of political discourse in the country. Four years later, Hazare is back in Jantar Mantar, demanding that the government roll back the ordinance and attacking it for selling out to corporate interests.

But despite having Hazare as its face and the fact that it is being held in Jantar Mantar, the land acquisition agitation is very different from the Jan Lokpal one.

What is the issue?

Land, unlike corruption, is not an issue that resonates with the middle class. Therefore despite Hazare's presence, it is unlikely that the agitation will get the kind of media coverage that the Jan Lokpal agitation did.

But in some sense, the issue is even more serious as it might have an impact on the livelihood of crores of Indians. The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, passed during the UPA's tenure, was widely hailed as a pro-farmer legislation. It provided for a healthy compensation and relief and rehabilitation package as well as comprehensive safeguards that protected farmers from forcible acquisition of land.


The Modi government wants to do away with the clause that makes it mandatory to secure consent of 80 per cent of landholders, if land is to be acquired for national security, defence, rural infrastructure, industrial corridors and housing for the poor. It also wants to do away with social impact assessment in these five categories. Perhaps this is how Anantram Rathore's lost his land and source of livelihood.

Who are the actors involved?

Even though Hazare is the face of the agitation, the movement is being driven by various farmers' outfits and land rights organsations. Most notable among them is Ekta Parishad, whose founder, PV Rajagopal is leading the famers' march to Delhi. The Gandhian Rajagopal, is a land rights' activist based primarily in Madhya Pradesh. He was part of "Team Anna" during the Jan Lokpal agitation but resigned after differences with other members.

For organisations like Ekta Parishad, the goalpost has shifted significantly since the BJP came to power. In October 2012, the Ekta Parishad had conducted a Padyatra which led to the UPA government setting up a task force on land reforms, which included Rajagopal and then Union ministers Jairam Ramesh and V Kishore Chandra Deo. The task force prepared a draft legislation providing every Indian the right to a homestead. The  proposed legislation has gone into cold storage after the NDA came to power last year. So if Ekta Parishad was agitating to push the UPA to give the poor a right to a piece of land for shelter and subsistence, under the NDA they are fighting to preserve something much more basic: ensuring that land cannot be taken away without the consent of its owners.


Another organisation behind the agitation is the National Alliance of People's Movements whose national convenors include activists Medha Patkar and Aruna Roy. Some of the NAPM constituents back the Aam Aadmi Party. Interestingly, former Sangh ideologue KN Govindacharya has become an active part of Hazare's protest.

Under the UPA, organisations like Aruna Roy's Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan and Rajagopal's Ekta Parishad were a key part of policy-making, even though they often had differences with the government. Be it through the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council or through task forces like the one on land reform, the government did incorporate civil society organisations in the policy-making process.

This area of interface has been completely broken under the Modi government. Therefore in some way, the agitation against the land acquisition ordinance is the activists' way of defending their relevance in the policy process against a government which seems to be pursuing anti-poor policies.

How does the Congress come into the picture?

Two politicians who came to be known for fighting against forcible acquisition of land are Rahul Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee. If Gandhi took on the cause of the tribals of Niyamgiri and the farmers of Bhatta-Parsaul, Banerjee fought against the acquisition of land in Singur and Nandigram. While Banerjee rode to power on the basis of her agitations, Gandhi never really gained much political mileage out of it. The Congress vice-president's decision to be absent from Parliament to "reflect" on party affairs is very surprising. It would have been expected that he would lead the fight against the government's anti-farmer ordinance in Parliament as well as on the street.

Of course, even without Gandhi, the Congress is protesting against the ordinance across the country and even in Delhi. Former rural development minister Jairam Ramesh, who had piloted the UPA's pro-farmer land acquisition legislation, is likely to lead the charge in Parliament. Even outside Parliament, Ramesh has already addressed a rally against the government's ordinance in Bhatta-Parsaul.

Whether the government blinks under combined pressure from agitating farmers, the Opposition and Hazare, will be evident in the coming days. What is clear is that the government's efforts to dilute pro-poor policies won't go unquestioned.

Last updated: February 24, 2015 | 15:05
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