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Another land row

Print edition : Jan 26, 2007 T+T-

Rumours of land acquisition for an SEZ project, fuelled by vested interests, cause violence at Nandigram.

SUHRID SANKAR CHATTOPADHYAY

BEFORE the dust raised by the agitation against the State government's acquisition of land for the proposed Tata Motors small-car project in Singur had settled, violence broke out over the issue of farmland in yet another district of West Bengal. This time it was at Nandigram, in Purbo Medinipur (Medinipur East) district. Trouble started on January 3 when village residents reacted violently to rumours that the process of land acquisition had already begun for a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) to be set up by the Salim Group, an Indonesian conglomerate, adjacent to a proposed `Chemical Hub' at Haldia. They vented their ire on local Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) workers and the gram panchayat office and torched the CPI(M) office there and a police vehicle. They set up roadblocks and dug up pathways to make the place inaccessible. A large number of local CPI(M) supporters fled to a nearby camp, which was subsequently attacked.

From that point on, Nandigram became a war zone, with periodic clashes between two groups of armed villagers, one supporting the CPI(M) and the other a motley crowd of Trinamul supporters, naxalites and Jamait-i-Ulema Hind adherents united under the banner of the recently formed Bhumi Uchhed Pratirodh (Land Eviction Resistance) Committee. The clashes were a grim reminder of the Keshpur incidents of 2002 in the same district, when violence and counter-violence tore rural life apart. According to official estimates, six persons lost their lives and many people were injured in Nandigram.

While the Home Department admitted some lapses of police intelligence, the media hostile to the State government and, of course, Trinamul supremo Mamata Banerjee - on the path to recovery from her prolonged fast - and her new-found sympathisers, the naxalites and the fundamentalist Jamait-i-Ulema Hind, tried to project the incident as a spontaneous popular outburst against the CPI(M)-led Left Front government's "arbitrary land grab policy". However, on closer scrutiny, it has been detected that it was a pre-meditated attack by disparate elements who had reportedly been collecting arms and ammunition for over a month. In fact, some people, allegedly skilled in the use of arms and explosives, had entered Nandigram surreptitiously through different routes from places in Orissa and Bihar, besides Kolkata. They set up bases in what until then were the sleepy villages of Sonachura, Garberia, Mirzachowk and Osmanchowk.

The Opposition parties did not set aside their differences even as Nandigram bled. Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi made himself very visible in the area, riding pillion on a motorbike to the affected villages. But that did not impress BJP president Rajnath Singh, who, during his temporary halt in Kolkata en route to Assam, accused the Congress of being primarily concerned with votebank politics and left the task of visiting the site to his colleague and former Union Minister Sushma Swaraj.

On one point, however, they were all united - much to the chagrin of the bandh-weary common people of the State. The Trinamul Congress and the Congress called a 12-hour and a 24-hour bandh, respectively, on January 8. Naxalites supported the bandh.

Ultimately, it was Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee who administered the soothing balm. At his instance, an all-party meeting was held at Nandigram, where several important decisions were taken to restore normalcy. Bhattacharjee admitted that the administration had committed a blunder in allowing a Haldia Development Authority notice to circulate, which was the cause of the rumour that led to the mayhem. "I have asked the District Magistrate to tear up that notice. A political process to defuse the tension has already begun. There will be no hurry, and all steps will be taken in consultation with the panchayat bodies and the concerned villagers," he said. He promised that as far as possible, homesteads and places of worship would be left alone. "We shall proceed only after preparing a total land map in consultation with everybody. For this the process may be delayed for some time," he said.

The situation, as on January 11, according to Raj Kanojia, Inspector-General of Police, Law and Order, was well under control. The State government has announced that it will soon come with a new SEZ policy for West Bengal, quite distinct from the Central one.

The irony of Nandigram came into sharp focus when two senior Congress leaders, Manash Bhuiya and Gyan Singh Sohan Pal, requested the Chief Minister on behalf of the Congress Legislature Party to stop the land acquisition process at Nandigram. The Chief Minister explained in reply that since the process had not even started, the question of stopping it did not arise. What had really happened was that a letter had been sent by the Haldia Development Authority to the Block Development Officer (Nandigram), requesting him to take preliminary steps for earmarking the areas that might be required in preparation for the SEZ. This innocuous step led to wild rumours, fuelled by interested parties, that the entire Nandigram block would be acquired for the proposed SEZ, including all the mosques, temples, schools and, of course, homesteads, and handed over to the Salim Group, rendering around two lakh people homeless. This was not true. However, the State government can be faulted for neglecting to educate the local population on the law and procedures for land acquisition.

In fact, there appeared to be a lot of confusion about land acquisition proceedings at many levels. Even former Prime Minister V.P. Singh reportedly finds fault with the acquisition of arable land for industrial purpose. Some people even question the legality of the government acquiring land for a private company to set up an industry. Many others consider public purpose to be synonymous with government purposes. Even an eminent social activist like Medha Patkar considers the State government's acquisition of land in Singur to be "illegal". It is, therefore, necessary to set down in brief the principles and procedures of land acquisition.

The law of land acquisition derives its legitimacy from the juridical principle of the power of Eminent Domain of the state - a power by which the state enjoys "sovereign control over all property in a state, with the right of expropriation". The Land Acquisition Act of 1894 confers upon the Central and State governments this power to acquire land "for public purposes and for Companies and for determining the amount of compensation to be made on account of such acquisition". Since this Act finds a place in the Concurrent List of the Constitution (entry 42), the various State governments have made necessary amendments, the latest being a large-scale amendment in 1984 by the Central government.

The process of land acquisition starts with a government notification under Section 4, with due publicity of the government's intention to acquire a certain land in a locality. This is followed by a public inquiry under Section 5A to hear objections; then comes a formal declaration (Section 6) of land acquisition by the State government.

Thereafter, the Collector is authorised to invite claims to compensation and, after due inquiry, make an award of compensation under Section 11.

Although the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 has a separate and slightly different provision for acquisition of land for private companies, the substantive provisions and principles are practically the same; the difference is only in procedural matters. As for what constitutes a "public purpose", a Supreme Court ruling has succinctly elucidated the matter as follows: "There is no denying the fact that industrialisation of an area is in public interest and starting of new industry is in public interest. Whether the starting of an industry is in public interest or not is essentially a question that has to be decided by the State government and the declaration is not open to challenge. Unless it is shown that there was colourful exercise of power, it is not open to the court to go behind the declaration." (Judgment of the Supreme Court in Jage Ram vs the State of Haryana, 1971.)

This should have set at rest all controversy about the State's legislative power to acquire land even without the consent of landowners and interested persons. But the Left Front government, which is the only State government to have included sharecroppers (bargadars) in the category of persons interested, has attempted to obtain land by consent as far as possible by resorting to Section 11(2), which provides for consensual agreement with landowners. However, this procedure does not take away the power of the state and the Collector to acquire land from a few recalcitrant owners in case their obduracy stands in the way of achieving a major "public purpose".

In the case of the Singur project, the State government had paid money as compensation for lands through the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation (WBIDC), which is wholly owned and controlled by the State. The relevant provisions of the statute, read with the rulings of the Supreme Court, therefore do not leave any scope for doubt about the legality of the acquisition of land in Singur. As for the quantum of compensation, there is near-unanimity that it was the best deal for the people losing land for such projects across the country.

The explosion in Nandigram and the raging controversy in Singur will not be easily understood by people outside West Bengal unless they are already aware of the general status of land use in West Bengal. The Government of West Bengal recently brought out a comprehensive "Status Report on Land Use" on the basis of data collected by the Department of Land and Land Reforms. The total area under different categories of land use in the State in 2003-04 was 8.687 million hectares.

The share of the net sown area reported is about 63 per cent in the State (46 per cent in India). Interestingly, the extent of land currently under non-agricultural uses is higher in the State than in the rest of the country. The comparative data show that the share of land under non-agricultural use in the State in 2003-04 was 18.5 per cent, as against 7.7 per cent for the rest of the country. The share of fallow land, unculturable land and pastures in the State is only 1 per cent (17.6 per cent in India) and it is classified in four categories: fallow, culturable wasteland, permanent pasture and other grazing land, barren and unculturable. This small area is concentrated mainly in the districts of Birbhum, Bankura, Paschim Medinipur (West Medinipur), Darjeeling and Bardhaman (mainly the coal-mining blocks).

The State government report says that the challenge is to achieve the objectives of protecting and consolidating agriculture, diversifying agricultural production and enhancing rural development, while moving towards industrialisation and infrastructure development. At the same time, the State government has to take into consideration new pressures for urbanisation and the development of urban environments. The State government has made it clear that the main sources of new demand for land at present are industry, housing, urban spaces and infrastructure, and the provision of land for each of these purposes will require conversion of land from other uses. However, the State government will take into consideration certain factors when proposals of such land conversion come up.

In the case of agricultural land, the factors to be considered are the number of crops grown on the land, irrigation facilities, current levels of employment and income generation and the productive potential of land. When users belong to the working poor, full and just compensation must be provided for any land that is converted for alternative purposes; the benefits from the alternative uses to which the land will be put, particularly with regard to employment and income generation, will be passed on to the present users.

The State government must identify vacant land first. In fact, the State government has initiated action to create an inventory of land that is not currently in use.

The increased demand for land for industrialisation will naturally put pressure on agriculture. The State government maintains that it can afford to convert land to non-agricultural purposes only if it is able to enhance agricultural productivity; implement an agricultural policy that will protect and extend the achievements of the State with regard to rice production, thus ensuring food security; and improve food productivity to pave the way for the diversification of crop production.

The State government recognises that a rational land use policy requires a modern and scientific database. "The new demands for land in different spheres of development have brought to the fore the need to reform and update the systems of land statistics in West Bengal. The government intends to revamp the statistical system with respect to land use and to undertake a three-pronged medium-term and short-term programme in this regard," the report states. The programmes are as follows:

1. The government will establish an information system on the land based on annual plot-by-plot verification of land tenure, land use, irrigation and cropping. It has been estimated that such a database can be built over five or six years, and the government will organise the administration and the arrangements for a changeover to such a system of consolidated land records in the near future.

2. The government has initiated a programme to create, in the short run, a land bank. District administrations have been asked to provide information on vacant land in the state sector in the first instance, and on significant and unused tracts of land in the private sector in the next instance. The objective of the State government is that in future when land is required for industrialisation, housing and infrastructure development, the government will be able to specify land identified through rational criteria as being available for industrialisation.

3. The Government of West Bengal will begin an exercise to evaluate scientifically the demand for land in the State for different development activities. Evaluation will be made, in particular, of the demand for land for cultivation and related activity, urbanisation, housing, physical infrastructure, and industry for over a five-year and a 10-year period.

Although the sagacity of the Chief Minister has cooled tempers all round, some alarmists have already started prophesying doomsday for the Left Front government's industrial programmes. It is, however, a little too early for them to start composing a requiem. The Salim Group's representative in Kolkata has publicly stated that the group is not pulling out. Perhaps a fitting reply to these prophets of doom was a visit by a new group of investors from West Asia who have shown an interest in promoting the private port project in Kulpi, which had been languishing for quite some time.

A positive fallout of this controversy at the national level is the reported announcement by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that a fresh look will be taken at the land acquisition policy, including legislation, packages for compensation and advance plans for rehabilitation.