An Act undone

Telangana and Andhra Pradesh use devious means to undermine the Land Act of 2013 in order to enable legalised land grab.

Published : Aug 02, 2017 12:30 IST

A march by CPI(M) activists demanding justice for those affected by land acquisition for NIMZ in Medak, in May 2016.

A march by CPI(M) activists demanding justice for those affected by land acquisition for NIMZ in Medak, in May 2016.

ON April 30 this year, Telangana undid one of India’s landmark pieces of legislation in less than half a day. In a rare joint session of the Assembly and the Legislative Council convened hurriedly on a Sunday, Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao rose to object to the fundamental provisions of The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (LARR) Act, 2013, or simply Act number 30 of 2013, enacted by Parliament after almost a decade’s deliberations on the need for a new law to regulate government takeover of private property for public purpose.

Until then, government acquisition of land was governed by the colonial era Land Acquisition Act, 1894. This Act gave the government sweeping powers to take over lands without providing explanations to private owners, fix prices arbitrarily, and evict occupants forcefully if required based on the principle of eminent domain.

Since coming to power in mid 2014, the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS), which heads the government in India’s youngest State, has faced stiff opposition from mainstream parties and civil society groups alike to its ambitious irrigation and industrial projects.

It began on July 30, 2015, when the government issued an order to take over agricultural lands for an expansive “industrial park” in the Chief Minister’s home district of Medak. According to this, a National Investment and Manufacturing Zone (NIMZ) was to come up on 1,000 acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare) of assigned lands—small plots earmarked for landless Dalits and Adivasis—and another 500 acres of farms. The cryptic Government Order, now infamously referred to as GO 123, set up “Procurement Agencies” to buy “lands for public purposes from willing landowners”. GO 123 also created District Level Land Procurement Committees, with the District Collector as chairman, and the Joint Collector, a Revenue Divisional Officer, an Executive Engineer from the Roads and Buildings Department, the District Registrar and “a representative from the Procuring Agency” as members. This was used to circumvent the LARR Act as officials complained that the process had become loud, cumbersome and long-drawn-out.

A year later, Justice Suresh Kumar Kait of the Hyderabad High Court struck down the order as “arbitrary, unconstitutional and illegal”. In his well-reasoned order on August 3 last year, Justice Kait argued that GO 123 had not taken into account several issues, ranging from paying a premium on the revised market value of the land to the question of a fair rehabilitation and resettlement of the villagers concerned in a democratic and participatory manner, which also allowed for monthly compensations for loss of livelihood for agricultural workers, artisans and other communities dependent on those lands.

The government challenged this almost immediately and proposed several measures. The proposals included a monthly compensation of Rs.3,000 per Dalit family for 20 years, which would increase on the basis of the consumer price index, or a one-time settlement of Rs.5 lakh. The government also proposed a combined resettlement and transport cost of Rs.1 lakh for every displaced family.

The bedrock of the 2013 Central law is the social impact assessment to elicit how best the community that would be displaced could be reaccommodated through a participatory mechanism of meetings at the panchayat level. The LARR Act also envisaged one job for every displaced landless family and one acre for every landed family at the new project site. These provisions have now been dropped from the State law.

The High Court, in its August 16 order, disallowed eviction of owners until a “compliance report” was filed by the government on the measures proposed by it but allowed it to register the sale deeds of lands taken over under GO 123.

But subsequently, the government complained that almost all its projects had come to a standstill. These included the ambitious Kaleshwaram irrigation scheme, which envisages 18 new reservoirs dotting Telangana from its north to the south drawing water from the Pranahita river, a tributary of the Godavari. Bureaucrats said contractors backed out from projects despite the High Court’s order.

The dubious ways used by the government to force villagers to sell farmlands have been well documented (“A fight for their land”, Frontline, September 2, 2016). GO 123 is in English, making it beyond comprehension for most villagers. The order stated that owners would forsake the right for a higher compensation in any court of law. This made the sale under GO 123 final, with a one-time settlement towards land value, rehabilitation and the “perceived loss of livelihood”. In effect, the very purpose of Act 30 of 2013 was undone through GO 123.

The government’s patience grew thin following widespread protests led by mainstream parties with support from the Telangana Joint Action Committee (TJAC). The TJAC is led by the respected and popular retired political science professor of Osmania University M. Kodandaram. It was the fulcrum for the last phase of the separate Statehood movement, culminating in the formation of Telangana in 2014.

Mainstream parties have almost been reduced to nought in the Assembly and the Legislative Council because of steady poaching by the ruling party. With 63 seats, the TRS had a wafer-thin majority in the 119-seat Assembly on June 2, 2014. Today, it has well over 90 seats, after heavyweights from the opposition were offered key Cabinet berths. Speaker S. Madhusudhan Chary of the TRS, who has the sole prerogative as per law to dismiss a legislator who has shifted allegiance, has not acted against any of the defectors.

On May 17, Telangana notified the amended land acquisition Act following presidential assent. The amendments exempt virtually all categories of land acquired for public purpose from the Second and Third Parts of the 2013 Act. Part Three disallows acquisition of multicropped farmland, except for exemplary “emergency” purposes, in order to safeguard food security. The amendments also enable the District Collector to effect a sale deed with the “consent of the interested person without making an enquiry”. In other words, without the deliberations as laid out under the social impact assessment (Part Two) clause of the 2013 Act, the amendments allow the government to provide for a one-time settlement “in lieu of rehabilitation and resettlement”.

The presidential assent, however, came after months, with the Union Law Ministry suggesting the vital change of making the law applicable retrospectively to insulate the government from any further legal wrangles. The amendments have been effected retrospectively from January 1, 2014, the day the Central Act became executable following the framing of rules. Telangana framed rules in mid July giving teeth to the amendments.

Chandrasekhar Rao has also reneged on his promise to close down opencast coal mines, which he made during the campaign for a separate State. They dot northern Telangana’s tribal and forest belt in the Singareni Collieries region. Instead, 20 new opencast and 11 underground mines have been proposed citing exponentially rising power needs. Villagers have been demanding that mines be dug underground entirely if there is such a dire need, as a lot of the land is fertile and the existing opencast mines have led to disastrous health consequences, apart from poisoning surrounding farmlands. But the government has argued that the coal in Khammam and Adilabad districts are half a kilometre below ground, making it infeasible to dig underground tunnels. Besides, it says, the cost of underground mines is prohibitive.

Andhra Pradesh experience Telangana’s amendments come after Gujarat’s and Andhra Pradesh’s, which have undermined the LARR Act. Chief Minister Nara Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party (TDP) eagerly canvassed for Ramnath Kovind’s victory in the presidential election hoping that its unflinching support for ally Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate would pay off with an assent for the new law passed by the Assembly on March 28 this year.

Andhra Pradesh’s amendments almost mirror those of Telangana except for the provision of a payment “equal to 50 per cent of the compensation” for acquired lands as “lump sum compensation” to each affected family towards rehabilitation and resettlement. In other words, rehabilitation and resettlement would be limited to a single monetary compensation equal to half of the value of the land being acquired. There would be no other relief such as mandatory employment for affected families, transport allowance, location of suitable sites for alternative housing and creation of commensurate public infrastructure that would be wiped out in the process of land acquisition.

The Andhra Pradesh government has exempted “industrial corridors” and “infrastructure projects, including those in public-private partnership, but where the land vests with the State government” from the social impact assessment and food security clauses of the Central Act. It also exempts all such acquisition from land registration charges. The only redeeming feature of Andhra Pradesh’s amendments is making offences under this Act cognisable under the country’s criminal statutes.

Land Pooling Scheme for Amaravati Chandrababu Naidu has been arguably the most innovative of Chief Ministers when it comes to circumventing the LARR Act. The Land Pooling Scheme he initiated for the construction of Andhra Pradesh’s new capital, Amaravati, attempts to mirror some aspects of the 2013 Central law, such as land for every acre of farmland acquired and rehabilitation of affected families within the capital region, but there has been no single payout based on the market rate plus markup value for the lands under consideration.

Indeed, there has also been no social impact assessment or considerations of food security. The 217 square km of lands acquired for Amaravati lie along the banks of the Krishna and are among the most fertile across India. They are home to multicrop farms with two or three harvests a year, supplying agro-based produce for both domestic and international markets, and employing millions in the Krishna and Guntur districts of Andhra Pradesh ( “Capital punishment”, Frontline, September 4, 2015).

Over and above these lands, the Andhra Pradesh government has sought diversion of another 12,444 hectares of forests, that is about 125 sq km for “Capital City Infrastructure Projects”, according to its April 2015 proposal to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. Denotification of forest lands requires approval from the Central government following the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. But none of these proposals seems to suggest that it is essential for any “national security/defence” related purposes.

A June 30, 2017, report in Economic & Political Weekly on Andhra Pradesh’s proposal lists one of the several land uses as a biodiversity park. The proposal has various other parks too. “In close to 40% of the forest that has been requested, the State government wants to come up with a Cultural & Creative Industrial Park in one block and a Cultural theme park in another; Heritage, Adventure Eco Theme Park and Institution; Aerospace & Green Mobility Industrial Park; Integrated Cut Flower & Spice Park; and Integrated Infrastructure Park.”

There are several other massive land acquisition plans under way in Andhra Pradesh. Leading them is the half-a-century-old Polavaram irrigation scheme on the Godavari river, located on the border of Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, which was designated a national project in 2014 following the State’s bifurcation and is now entirely funded by New Delhi. A January 22, 2017, report in The Economic Times quotes sources in the Polavaram Project Authority as admitting that nearly two lakh people, that is, 51,047 families in 216 villages living in the proposed area, would be displaced. Andhra Pradesh’s amendments to the LARR Act make it possible to do the bare minimum—a one-time compensation for generations of affected families.

One of the main enablers of legalised land grab has, however, been the Special Economic Zones (SEZ) Act, 2005. Enacted by Parliament much before the protests against the scrapped Tata Motors small car plant in Singur, West Bengal, began, the SEZ Act was intended to create industrial infrastructure, boost exports and provide employment as the state steadily shifted to private-capital-driven economic solutions. Successive Congress and TDP governments in Andhra Pradesh enabled a corporate land grab arguably unmatched elsewhere in the country.

In replies filed at the Supreme Court by the Union Ministry of Commerce in March this year on a petition filed by a group of farmers displaced because of SEZs in 2016, the Central government said that Andhra Pradesh had 24 notified SEZs with a total land bank of 9,308 hectares, that is 93 sq km, as of January 31, 2017. Out of this, 3,324 hectares (33 sq km), that is, over one-third of the land, lies in “non-operational” SEZs. To put this in perspective, the proposed new Andhra Pradesh capital has been planned to expand over 217 sq km. In other words, the SEZ land bank of Andhra Pradesh constitutes nearly half of what is required to build a new capital. And yet, only one SEZ of 20 hectares located in Visakhapatnam district was denotified between 2014 and 2016. All the others lie in private hands, while the government cries foul over lack of land for “urban infrastructure projects”. The situation is not any different in Telangana. There is a total of 2,054 hectares (20 sq km) of land in SEZs in the State, out of which 621 hectares (6.2 sq km) are located in “non-operational” ones. Chandrasekhar Rao has said he intends to “take back this land for other development projects”.

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