Last week, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee set a truly rare example by returning hundreds of acres of illegally acquired agricultural land in Singur by the previous Left Front government for Tata Motors to the farmers in a quickest possible move within days of the Supreme Court judgement. But not many states have acted in a similar fashion to right the wrongs despite judicial orders. In fact, several states, including Maharashtra, Karnataka, Haryana, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttarakhand, and Uttar Pradesh have been rampantly allowing conversion of farmland and small holdings of poor people for residential and industrial uses showing little respect for law or concern for poor farmers for the benefit of business houses and highly politically-connected individuals. In fact, Mamata Banerjee’s matured political action not only made the once forced land-losers of Singur extremely jubilant but even the Tatas accepted the court verdict with grace, probably thanking the providence for the early legal settlement of the issue, saving the country’s largest industrial house from more embarrassment and losses.
Unfortunately, the country is yet to witness a similar action by governments of other states to proceed against their previous administrations for illegal agricultural land acquisition to enrich businessmen and politically hi-profile individuals or prevent themselves from indulging in such immoral and unlawful practices. On the contrary, some of the state governments have gone to the extent of easing the land acquisition laws to accommodate business land sharks to make money at the cost of poor farmers for whom political parties often shed crocodile tears before elections. Little is known about the aftermath of another landmark Supreme Court judgement earlier this year that provided huge relief to farmers by squashing illegal and deceptive licensing of 280 acres of land at Rohtak in Haryana to a less-known Uddar Gaggan Properties Limited in 2006 by the previous state government under the then powerful Congress Chief Minister, Bhupinder Singh Hooda.
Incidentally, the original land acquisition act promulgated by the British Raj is over a century old. It was enacted in 1894. Even the Fundamental Right to Property of citizens of free India, under Article 31 of the Constitution, that had gone through several amendments, does not appear to be truly fundamental if considered under various cross sections of the British-Raj act. The land acquisition purely for “public purpose” often serves private purposes as it was in the case of the Singur agricultural land. Under the 1894 act, which is still in vogue, the Haryana Urban Development Authority and the state industrial development corporation enjoyed powers to acquire land through notifications under Sections 4 and 6 while the licence is awarded under Section 9. There have been several occasions when businessmen or realtors fail to buy land directly from owners they either use the government to acquire the land for them or scare the landowners of such a probability to grab land cheaply from the owners. To break the resistance of farmers, the state government is used to impose Sec 6, under which the state declares its intention to acquire specific plots of land.
In its judgement on the Rohtak land case, the Supreme Court said: “Here is a case where artificial reasons were created, the records were fudged with the aid of the Deputy Commissioner, Rohtak, to mislead the fact that the possession of acquired land was not taken while announcing the Award. The responsible officers of the State Government, in their anxiety to help out Uddar Gaggan, have completely overlooked the interest of landowners or of the general public to whom thousands of plots could have been allotted at a fairly low price through the aegis of HUDA”. The Supreme Court was very caustic in its remarks about the illegal Haryana land deal by the then state government. The judgement spoke about “the unholy nexus to promote the private interests” of builders by “transfer of resources of poor for the benefit of the rich” through “gross abuse of law” and “clear fraud”.
There have been several media exposes from October, 2012, on fraudulent land licensing in Haryana to favour greedy and politically connected businessmen, involving such powerful real estate promoters as DLF and its associates like Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra and Uddar Gaggan that was brought to the notice of the Supreme Court, almost three years after West Bengal’s Left Front government’s Singur land deal with Tata Motors. Yet, nothing much seemed to have changed the fortune of those powerful Haryana promoters such as DLF, Uddar Gaggan, and Robert Vadra. The case of Vadra’s controversial land acquisition in Rajasthan has made little progress despite an initial initiative taken by the BJP government there under Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje.
It may not be out of place to mention the goings-on in Maharashtra and Karnataka, where the state governments have further eased the acquisition of agriculture land. In Maharashtra, the BJP-Shiv Sena government has substantially relaxed the rules for industrial expansion on agricultural land as part of its “Make in Maharashtra” push for business. Reportedly, it increased building rights on farmland by dropping the requirement to convert agricultural land to non-agricultural use. On the other hand, the Karnataka Legislative Assembly passed a land reforms bill to make it easier to divert agricultural land for commercial and industrial purposes while introducing a 10-year deadline for industries to use land awarded to them following conversion of agricultural land.
The Congress government modified section 109 of the Karnataka Land Reforms Act 1961 in such a manner that permission granted to acquire land for non-agricultural purposes under the law can also be deemed as a clearance given under section 95 of the Karnataka Land Revenue Act 1964. The state government notification allowed industries nine times the earlier building rights on agricultural land. To exploit this additional space, they merely need to pay a fee worth 30 percent of the land rate to the district collector.
Sadly, most political parties forget that India’s economy can’t afford an unbalanced growth with agriculture, industry, and real estate development operating at cross purposes. Instead, they should judiciously move forward together. In such an atmosphere, Mamata Banerjee’s action to immediately return the illegally acquired agricultural land at Singur to farmers after the Supreme Court judgement while inviting industrial investment in legally-held government land in Bengal from the same platform is truly laudable.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)