THE UPA is in a tearing hurry to convert the whole legal system in the country, before it demits office by 2014, in tune with its globalised outlook and make it irreversible as Sardar Manmohan Singh had set the agenda in 1991. In this context, there is the Land Acquisition Bill on its plate in addition to many others during its 8 years of rule, including the Press and Registration of Books and Publications, Bill.
The bill on land acquisition is intended to replace the piece that British rulers had enacted to consolidate its grip on the natural resources of this country after occupation. The old colonial piece on the subject is considered by it quite insufficient to provide muscle to the land grab campaign that the nation's corporate capital has lately undertaken in the country with fury, and convert Indian agriculture into a corporate venture in line with WTO undertaking. Through these pieces it seeks to tread where even British colonial masters hesitated to travel.
I, on behalf of Kisani Pratishtha Manch, desire to put across some of the issues in the debate that are on a different plain from both Jairam Ramesh and Medhaji.
First a clarification: the proposed Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation Bill under debate is not the offspring of UPA. It is an agenda of a pedigree common to both UPA and NDA. In fact, it was NDA that did its best to push this corporate agenda ahead in its time, and now UPA is trying to carry it forward with some refinements in the interest of big cats it is serving with zeal for the last 8 years – both foreign and Indian. It was the NDA, which explicitly had introduced the colonial/feudal principle of eminent domain in the proposed law on acquisition. Bureaucracy by then was quite aware that opposition to it is cornering the government on democratic principles and it tried its best to counter it with the proposed law.
Before taking up the official version for scrutiny, one or two things must be said about the position taken by Medha Patekar of NAPM on the land question. She is trying to take on the government from a position that goes ultimately to support the official version. Her averments boil down to some demands for refinements in the proposed law, which any government may not find much difficult to concede in time of need. These are friendly suggestions. That makes her position shaky and illusory on principles.
In fact, Medha is doing nothing fresh but merely trying to utilise the position that Mrs. Sonia Gandhi took at a Nainital conference to take her organisation out for safe sailing when the controversy was raging around SEZ, qualifying the quality and kind of land to be acquired. Many people fell for such a silly differentiation, which the UPA Minister is now countering by declaring land as finite and immovable in his rebuttal on 29th. August, 2012. He cannot say that the land was infinite and movable at the time when Sonia Gandhi prescribed not to acquire agricultural land for industry or may be, at that time she was bereft of saner advice from Jairam Ramesh!
The only differing point for Medha in this debate rests on the question of eminent domain though she is still dithering, as she has been doing earlier. In her rejoinder, she did not meet the argument adequately from J. Ramesh on this principle as was the need to blunt his attack. Apart from her conciliatory approach on eminent domain, Medha must be clear what mode of production entails, which the minister himself tactfully and cleverly avoided to discuss. Perhaps, she understands that the Principle of Eminent Domain was devised to serve this very mode which she too propounds with some ifs and buts as Jairam Ramesh is out to serve.
I may remind her that when she embarked upon organising NAPM for herself in 1993, walking out of Bharat Jan Andolan led by Dr. B.D. Sharma, on account of her personal differences with his team of which she was a leading light then, it was the critical time for a concerted challenge to the government on this question of eminent domain and forestall it to make agriculture as a trading block under Dunkal Proposals that paved way for WTO treaty to mature with agriculture included for globalised trade in 1994. Later again, when Kisani Pratishtha Manch advanced certain minimum formulations for a unified challenge to official positions after Indian government became a happy signatory to WTO obligations, including this principle, Medhaji could not realise the significance of opposing the official move, stuck to her own fancy for industrial mode of development for India and lost her chance to oppose this concept of eminent domain. In her piece on 23 August, 2012 and later in the rejoinder on 29 August, 2012 her position remains shaky on principles and thus could not meet the arguments of official spokespersons on the question under debate. But to a bigger loss.
Now, Jairam Ramesh and his government have to answer certain basic questions on land acquisition. If this country is not supposed to be an aristocracy in disguise that once ruled with the divine right of king, the question arises: what is the source of mandate for this government/state to claim the right of ‘ultimate arbitrator of public good’ as claimed by the minister and his aides, except its coercive power? Are the representatives of the people masters after the polling day and have the right to lord over the real masters in a declared democracy for next five years?
Unfortunately, in India, the rulers have been behaving as an aristocracy ordains. The pelf and privileges of rulers here after 1947 onward belie their pretension of democracy and they are fortunate the people are too considerate to tolerate such smugness of their representatives as Mr. Ramesh displays in arguments on this issue. He is arguing as a master and not as a representative of the people. Is the government treating its citizens as mere urchins for whom it has the right to decide the public good? This claim of being ultimate arbiter of public good squares only with the divine right of king to rule under feudal dispensation, which democracy is supposed to replace. It is absurd for anyone to claim such feudal authority after six decades of rule under democratic law.
If one has not forgotten, the British rulers here after occupation had proclaimed the same type of right to make Indians civilised. Have we then become really independent from such colonial/feudal assertions of our rulers as the official spokespersons have done? Still, it is not a matter simply of assertion; the rulers have exercised this right over peasantry in practice. This is the bigger tragedy. If these protagonists of absolute power seek protection under some fancy interpretations of the Constitution of India, the government will have to face a bigger challenge on this account. Moreover, the institution of state under democracy anywhere has no such authority except its coercive power to seek meek obedience from its citizens, though it is admitted that of late all the rulers world over have grown addict to such absolute power on the pretext of fighting terrorism.
Again, the relevant question is: who owns the land primarily? Land came first or the state? The modern state is the child of industrial revolution having a life span of 300 years at maximum that took shape with the resounding slogan ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’, which in course usurped powers to intervene in the lives of the communities to serve the interests of a hopeless minority even under democracy. But the land, cultivable land too, is centuries older with the hard labour of peasantry to make it worthy of use. Peasantry has earned the right of ownership, individual or in commons, with hard labour of generations and the institution of state was nowhere near to help this process to mature. This is the history, which no one can brush aside as conveniently as the minister in this case has done.
How come the state and the industrialists to proclaim ownership right over the land then, except with the active connivance of the state establishment duly manipulated by money power, including legislature and judiciary? The state is robbing Peter to pay Paul; this is the bare process it has devised. It is now clear that state is not neutral; it is an agent of corporate capital. It does not deserve the sanctity of an institution that is supposed to manage the affairs of the society without favour and rancour. That character of relative neutrality has vanished altogether, especially after World War - II.
State as an institution is partisan and partisan to the exclusion of workingmen. This fact can be catalogued since 1947 onward. The state is no where free and is totally subservient to captains of capital – both Indian and foreign. Events of the last two decades underline clearly this fact of subservience which no one can deny on facts. If one accepts this principle of eminent domain, the dictum of robbing Peter to Pay Paul stands justified. Those who, in good faith happen to believe the professions of rulers on this account virtually go to justify this rule of robbery at social cost. The minister himself admits how this bill will work.
A front page news item carried by The Hindu in its New Delhi edition on 29th August, 2012 quotes Jairam Ramesh saying that ‘current economic worries have forced him to make changes to the bill in order to dispel the impression that it was pro-farmer and anti-industry’ while changing his mind on retrospectively applying the law. Again he says: ”Had the economy been growing at nine per cent per year, I may not have changed my view, but the current economic circumstances dictate the need to make the bill perceptively more investor-friendly” though merely this change of mind by the minister will help industrialists to retain lands as valuable assets lying unused for the purpose these were acquired long back, while the concerned peasants starved.
We know Jairam Ramesh changing his mind so often to favour industry as he did while he was looking after environment ministry. But in this case he marvelled in sophistry, syllogism and hide behind innocence at need. When favour has to done to industrial houses, the same Ramesh is very sensitive to timely economic meltdown and drafting the law accordingly but at the disadvantage of peasantry or for that matter he foresees this meltdown as permanent feature of UPA’s economic policies? Only he can say this with his sleeves rolled up for development.
But, he wrongly equated the poor farmers having no voice of their own with industrialists for a level playing field, who are out for the kill even in foreign lands like the notorious East India Company did to India. Is the minister in Jairam Ramesh legislating for rural development or for cities to thrive in the first instance? Countrymen by now know pretty well that Investor-friendly is a term to hide the serving hands for corporate capital.
The official spokespersons have made much story of development. Suppose, hypothetically we, the people (minus industrialists), say emphatically that we do not want your development. What the state will do then, and what will happen to the principle of eminent domain in that context? In that case this concept turns subject to the will of people and is transitory in nature. With such a nature, does this concept of eminent domain deserve then to be on the statute book according to the yard-stick that Jairam Ramesh himself prescribes about the nature of legislations?
The concept of eminent domain then has nothing as sacrosanct about it as is made out to be, except that certain myths have been floated to justify the absurd. One such myth is the universality of industrial/commercial mode of development and distribution, while the other is about state ownership over land and its resources to the exclusion of community. The third assiduously cultivated myth is that corporate capital is the primary agent of development and provider of employment while the role of state is that of facilitator to such agents of growth. This excludes workingmen, including peasantry from the process of development altogether with a status to that of human resource or corvee, whose masters are owners of capital by grace of the state.
The net result of these absurdities emanating from such myths is the growing pauperisation of productive labour, despite all pandering to the contrary by the mandarins of planning commission. The last two decades of this trail has brought disaster to agriculture in India. It is for nothing that 2, 90,470 peasants as per official record have been pushed to commit suicide during last 16 years, with no abating despite sops. The question is: if one Kanda can be hauled up for abetting suicide of a Geetika, how the law leaves out to haul this coterie who has abetted these peasants to commit suicide during this period due to its contrived development mode? In modern history Red Indians were eliminated likewise in America, now the same process is on in India to grab land and its resources where peasants are destined to ruin. This principle is an ideological base for such a plunder. As per one estimate Reliance is the biggest land owner now despite the law of ceilings in operation. How the state operated to facilitate this and at whose cost? It is perhaps a good subject for some research work.
It is also pertinent to know how the present dispensation, of which Jairam Ramesh is a temporary part, came to decide the priorities in development for public good. Since the day Indian government signed the treaty of WTO the first priority in development is the investment in infrastructure with world class Airports, Gated colonies in seclusion, Five-star hotels, Bars, Night life and Casinos, eight-lane expressways, super highways and the like rather than bread for the hungry millions who are forced to survive on rupees 17 a day and where a mother has to sell her sibling for rupees 20 to ward off hunger or a struggling peasant for adequate irrigation water, patients dying of disease. Such lopsided priorities in development with skewed policies can naturally invite outbursts and nothing else. Will it be possible ever for the official spokespersons to deny that India is free from the process which a book ‘Confessions of an Economic Hit Man’ by an American author describes how U.S corporate capital with active connivance of White House has unleashed a strategy to control the economies of less developed countries by introducing such absurd priorities in development instead of bread to hungry? No sane man can be a party to such nasty games of imperialist forces in the name of development. Only a gullible can.
Less said the better about safeguards in the laws. The most radical piece of legislation during last six decades was the PESA for scheduled areas to advance the promises made under schedule V of the Constitution, which by now has been reduced to a mere paper by the hard-boiled bureaucracy. Provisions that favour the rich are pulled from British stable while those favouring others go by convenient burial. This is the general principle of governance today. To remain satisfied with refinements promised in the proposed land bill will cheer none. Past experience is a good teacher.