Land Acquisition Bill: Rahul Gandhi has spoken. Can Modi reply?
The failed experiment of Special Economic Zones is testimony to the use of brute force and covert intimidation, that has had disastrous ramifications.
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Land is a myriad, complex issue. I discovered that several years ago when purchasing an apartment in Pune. The well-established local builder with a formidable brand equity was flabbergasted to know that I wanted the full commercial transaction in cheque. Are you sure? he asked me, nonplussed, as if he was dealing with an extraterrestrial. The fact is that real estate sale contracts are perennially under-invoiced to escape state taxes, and often conceal black money accruing to both the willful buyer and the unctuous seller. It is a marriage of mutual convenience, or, to use the modern parlance, friends with benefits.
Now just imagine the plight of a star-crossed farmer in a remote rural district of India, facing the onslaught of a corporate leviathan and an intimidating state power that buttresses the former’s acquisitive predilections. The situation is usually aggravated by the absence of land records, amorphous title-deeds, fragmented holdings, and a lazy legal system that can take a lifetime to dispense fair justice. The fact that the farmer’s family is annually subjected to a rigorous stress test come monsoon time is another matter altogether. If his land is forcibly acquired for creation of an industrial park or a privately-run educational institution, without his full consent, is that not a manifestation of a draconian, all-powerful law that is at core unequal, unfair and unjust? The stormy debate in Parliament on the BJP’s proposed Land Ordinance and outside, now further escalated by a belligerent Rahul Gandhi, vice president of the Congress party is just about that. Gandhi asks a fundamental question; are economic growth and social equity mutually exclusive? Shouldn’t India’s development model ensure that they are made financially compatible, along with certain other concomitant benefits? Incidentally, several votaries of the BJP-NDA government have furnished some research report that suggests that farmers are in fact, eager-beavers when it comes to selling their agricultural property and settling in urban townships. If that questionable assessment is indeed true, though, then why is BJP so cagey and apprehensive about the consent clause? It beggars description.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government seems partially blindsided, partially myopic. They don’t have to look back too far. The wretched failed experiment of Special Economic Zones (SEZ) is testimony to the use of brute force and covert intimidation, that has had disastrous ramifications. The Left Front government in West Bengal that had seemed virtually impregnable over three decades in Writer’s Building, Kolkata was unceremoniously dumped out, following the Singur incident. The government’s surreptitious usurping of land, and bullying tactics to give a huge largesse to Tata Motors boomeranged. Tata Motors had engaged three states in a competitive bid for the best deal; but the project was finally won by a dark horse who emerged suddenly out of the blue. It is another story altogether that then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi lay out a thick red-carpet welcome and gave the company a gigantic windfall.
The fact therefore that India Inc has given a huge endorsement to Modi’s Land Ordinance is hardly a surprise. But herein lies a big catch. Arvind Panagriya, vice chairman of NITI Aayog who is obviously one of Modi’s key economic advisers has himself stated in his book India’s Tryst With Destiny (co-authored with Jagdish Bhagwati) that "with land costs being a tiny proportion of the total costs, industrialists have been in a good position to make the deal attractive to the sellers". In other words, as land as a factor of production is just a relatively nominal overhead, big business can easily offer attractive terms. Which is why the pertinent question; why is the Modi government desperately trying to offer a corporate subsidy when the latter’s resources can easily absorb the cost burden? If it is the alleged "process" that seems stultifying, why not first let it get operational before jumping the gun? After all, the Land Act became effective only in January 2014. Bhagwati and Panagriya themselves corroborate the dangers of insidious acquisition; "West Bengal won the contest (Tata-Nano project) by promising the company land at a throwaway price and very substantial other subsidies at the cost of the general taxpayer. It did not finance the extraordinary cheap land by a subsidy. Instead it forcibly acquired the land for a pittance in the most opaque manner". Transparency was clearly avoided like the plague; the consequences were foregone. Why is Modi ignoring Panagriya’s ominous advisory?
As things stand today, the state itself stands guilty of possessing significant land banks acquired for either public or social purpose that remains totally unutilised. Just imagine the farmers’ loss of capital appreciation, especially during the last decade when the India growth story has kept global investment bankers increase their risk appetite for our country. The Land Act of 2013 correctly opines the return of unutilised acquired land, within a period of five years. Modi government’s irrational obstinacy on these seminal issues of basic farmer rights is perplexing. It defies horse sense. Evidently, land acquisition is not the stumbling block to industrial expansion.
Rahul Gandhi has thrown the gauntlet; it is now for PM Modi to respond. While it is true that pompous rhetoric and elegant dreams can be sold during election campaigns, in the modern technology driven media age dominated by easily retrievable Google archives, words once uttered, like toothpaste out of a tube, cannot be withdrawn. 70 per cent of Indians still live in its 600,000 villages, which contributes a diminishing 14 per cent of India’s GDP. An agrarian policy is long overdue. Over the next few weeks they will be looking upwards towards the sky for heavenly benedictions. And at a suited-booted Modi as well.