If you think it’s the latest bite from a UP farmer denouncing the ‘forcible’ land acquisition in Bhatta-Parsaul and other areas in Greater Noida, one of the hottest locations in the National Capital Region (NCR) for upmarket commercial-residential development, you are grossly mistaken. Still, this famous quotation from Pearl S. Buck’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Good Earth (published in 1931) seems to highlight the plight of the farmers in new-millennium India. The only difference is – it is not sold willingly in most of the cases, but acquired by the state government for peanuts.
Of course, it is easy for the authorities to implement a totally commercial realty development model ‘in the garb of the much-touted Yamuna Expressway that will link Delhi and Agra. But in addition to the infra project, developers are building numerous luxury townships, as well as a Sports City with Formula One race-track which understandably require acres and acres of fertile farm land.
Contrary to the Uttar Pradesh government’s assertion of ‘proper settlement with land owners,’ farmers allege that their land has been taken at throwaway prices by invoking the ‘emergency use’ Section under the Land Acquisition Act, 1894. Also, in several cases, land owners’ names had been altered in the revenue registry.
Protests over the land acquisition rapidly spread to Agra, Mathura and Aligarh where farmers clashed with the police and torched vehicles, even as the death toll rose to four in the violence-hit Greater Noida. The ‘Noida Extension’ fire also escalated to the city. Hundreds of farmers from Sorkha, Sarfabad, Jahidabad, Akrala and Salarpur stormed the sites of key real estate players in Noida and stopped construction of about 20,000 units.
When compensation is a ‘raw’ deal
But before we go any further, let us take a close look at the projects that call for huge land acquisition. In the last two years, western Uttar Pradesh has seen large areas of land being acquired, especially along the Yamuna Expressway. However, the draft masterplan of the Expressway, reportedly made only in February, 2011, shows that the concerned landowners, indeed, got a raw deal.
Of course, the key feature of the masterplan is a 165 km-long expressway from Delhi to Agra which will reduce travel time to two hours only. According to the draft masterplan, more than 58,000 hectares have been earmarked for development and from 2009 till date, the government has acquired around 12 per cent of this land for a sum of Rs 5,720 crore which is currently valued at Rs 78,000 crore or more.
The Uttar Pradesh government has given the land rights to develop 6,000 acres to the Jaypee Group in exchange for constructing the Yamuna Expressway. Of the 6,000 acres, 2,500 acres is prime land, as it is right along the expressway. The group has also been given an additional 2,500 acres, which is the site of the upcoming Formula 1 race track and a part of the sports city that the Jaypee Group is developing. Again, this is prime land, but was sold to Jaypee at just Rs 1,200-Rs 3,200 per square metre while the farmers were paid around Rs 650-Rs 850. But the developers are selling it at a premium – a whopping Rs 14,000-Rs 18,000 per square metre.
Politicians eye vote banks; Judiciary in rescue act
With Uttar Pradesh always playing a key role in national politics, the recent impasse was expected to capture the immediate attention of political parties, who could have chipped in to ensure effective measures. Yet, most of them have disappointed people. Even in the face of spreading protests, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati has refused to re-negotiate or relook at her land acquisition policy.
Rahul Gandhi, heir-apparent of the ruling Congress party at the Centre, has taken up the cudgels though, and was briefly arrested on May 11 after he joined the farmers’ stir. Lending support to Rahul’s campaign against Mayawati’s ‘strong-arm’ tactics, Congress president Sonia Gandhi said that she felt ashamed over atrocities meted out to farmers in the state.
However, political parties like Congress, BJP, Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal and Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party are leading the anti-Mayawati campaign with an eye on the vote-bank politics. They are simply seeking to polarise state politics on the issue of land. But it is the Indian judiciary which has come to the rescue in the hour of need.
In two separate rulings issued on May 12 and 13, the Allahabad High Court has quashed land acquisitions by the Greater Noida Industrial Development Authority (GNIDA) in the Shahberi area. The court has annulled the acquisition of nearly 156 hectares of land in Shahberi village and another 72 hectares of land in Surajpur village.
In both these cases, the state has invoked emergency powers under Section 17(1) of the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, which dispenses with the right of the landowner to be heard by the land acquiring agency. The authorities, however, argue that the land was needed on an urgent basis for planned industrial development.
GNIDA now says that it will raise the compensation substantially to accelerate a fresh round of acquisition. Farmers will also get a larger chunk of developed land in lieu of their acquired farmland.
Meanwhile, encouraged by the court’s orders, thousands of villagers hailing from Bisrakh Patwadi, Khairpur, Iteda, Milak Lacchi and Sadullapur have sought legal help. Around 5,500 cases have been filed for de-notification, as farmers are seeking their land back.
What’s on the cards now?
There is further good news for land-owners, though. They may not be plagued by the land sharks any more as in an unprecedented U-turn, the surface transport ministry has decided that infrastructure developers will only get land for paving expressways and not for real estate development along the corridor. Earlier, the ministry facilitated land acquisition for both.
The UPA government has also decided to introduce a new land acquisition bill in the next session of Parliament. The government will hold consultations with all the stakeholders concerned, as well as with Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council (NAC) and the Trinamool Congress, which is opposed to certain provisions of the legislation.
An NAC working group on Land Acquisition and Resettlement and Rehabilitation has recommended in a discussion paper that the existing Land Acquisition Act of 1894 be repealed. It also suggests that project-affected persons should be compulsorily compensated with agricultural land as an alternative to the land acquired. “NAC reiterates that mandatory provisions for land for land are non-negotiable, and central and critical for a just and humane rehabilitation law,” it has said.
The future: Landlocked isolation or sustainable growth?
With public awareness on the rise and effective laws in place, rural India may soon regain its traditional hold on the good earth. But the bottom line is – will that serve the interest of a fast-developing nation?
Ask the experts who have worked extensively on land acquisition or social activists involved in these issues and they will tell you more about thousands of land war rocking the country almost every day. Whether it is a mining project in Orissa or a nuclear power plant in West Bengal, the sons of the soil are rarely prepared to give up on those land pieces which they have owned and farmed for generations. At the very least, they need adequate compensation and a sustainable rehabilitation package, the lack of which may lead to social unrest, violence and political anarchy. On the other hand, one cannot totally do away with land acquisition if growth has to be mobilised and infra projects are to be implemented. In other words, development cannot be limited by landlocked isolation where you cannot grow because you have no space to grow. So, the only solution is to try and ensure development for the greater common good.
Five years ago, I had been working as a corporate communication head and did some PR work for an NCR-based real estate company. It was 2006 and even then, big-time realtors (or should we say land sharks) were rapidly building vast land banks across Greater Noida. Huge commercial complexes, as well as luxury living space, were indiscriminately built without the least concern for a fast-disappearing agri space. But what alarmed me most was the seeming unconcern of the authorities and the land-owners at that time.
Of course, big money was flowing in. I had seen some of the latest cars gathering dust next to unkempt tool sheds, four-wheelers that you would rarely find in middle-class localities across Delhi, Mumbai or Bangalore. But you can’t call it growth – almost all other civic amenities like roads, public transportation, hospitals and schools were missing then.
It’s quite likely that the rural populace followed its urban brethren, keen to make some quick bucks. I still recall the 20-plus youth who told me at that time: Have land, will sell. Don’t need future plans if it gets me money now. I do fervently hope that he has not sold indiscriminately or has been duped just because he was in a hurry to get rich. And the same goes for the authorities as well. They should consider and comprehend the real significance of ‘public good’ before giving the go-ahead for land acquisition. Otherwise, it will be the same old tale of misuse by the politician-babu-corporate nexus over and over again.