Congress scion Rahul Gandhi and BJP leader Rajnath Singh have been in news recently for their “arrests” while participating in the ongoing farmers’ agitation in western Uttar Pradesh (UP), bordering national capital Delhi. The farmers are protesting the land acquisition of a leading industrial house which, in partnership with the Uttar Pradesh government, is constructing the “Yamuna Expressway” in between NOIDA (a Delhi suburb that belongs to Uttar Pradesh territorially) and Agra. Incidentally, the industrial house requires land from the farmers for not only building the highway but also establishing clusters of urban centres on both sides of the proposed highway. And interestingly, Uttar Pradesh, along with Haryana, happens to be two states in the country where compensations to the farmers for parting with their lands happen to be the highest.
It is said that land along the way had been acquired from farmers through negotiated settlements at prices ranging from Rs 40 lakh to Rs 80 lakh per acre. The UP government has also a policy of giving farmers an annual payment of Rs 20,000 per acre for 33 years, apart from a one-time settlement price for land surrendered. Also, a small portion of the developed land is to go back to the farmer’s family for housing purposes. And yet, the farmers are agitating, that too after receiving compensations a long time back, demanding more. In all probability, they will succeed now that Rahul Gandhi, whose words are literally laws of the country these days, is supporting them.
But then, what is happening in UP is nothing new; farmers’ agitations against the land acquisitions by industrial houses are taking place all over the country. We have seen them in Singur (against the Tatas) and Nandigram in West Bengal; Jagatsighpur Kedrapada and Puri in Odisha (against the POSCO, Tatas and Vedanta); and Raigad in Maharashtra (against the Reliance industries). The list is illustrative, not exhaustive. Of course, here, the cases are little different in nature from the usual syndromes of displacement vs development (where huge industrial or developmental projects need to displace human settlements and forest lands). Here, what is surrendered is usually the agricultural land. The critics, thus, have a point when they say that the way agricultural lands are being acquired for housing projects and other infrastructural activities, a day will come when there will not be enough land for agriculture and horticulture, causing acute food crisis for India’s rising population.
Interestingly, there is now a business trend which suggests that land is the ultimate guarantor of profits. Making money from land is proving easier than trying to become competitive in manufacturing various products and exporting them. No wonder why almost all the leading industrial houses of the country today are simultaneously trying to be big land lords. Tatas, Ambanis, Birlas, Mafatlals, Wadias, etc., are all property tycoons today. Then, of course, we have very big developers such as the DLFs, Ansals, Rahejas and Saharas. In fact, with the swift economic recovery in India, real estate players seem to be back to their mantra of buying land at whatever price it takes. And in the process, they also end up ensuring that they bid up realty prices further. This is because land bought at such high prices becomes one of the biggest components of their costs for making homes. And guess who ends up paying the price for such hefty purchases of land? House buyers of course!
However, the matter is not that simple. If you go by the normal market laws, when buyers find it highly expensive to buy something, sellers eventually bring down the prices. But that is not happening in the real estate. For instance, in Mumbai and Delhi suburbs, one often sees many unsold flats. And yet, the cost does not come down. Why does this happen? It is simply because there happens to be a grand nexus between politicians and builders. The politicians do have many benami lands with the developers, who also finance the former in a big way during elections. They consider land to be a huge asset; it is bound to retain its utility, given the fact that in a rapidly developing country such as ours every bit of development—infrastructure, housing, new factories—needs land. Concentrating all the levers of land power in a few hands is thus something that suits both the politicians and businessmen. The idea is simple. If business is not picking, then lie low for the time being; things are bound to improve one day. Land thus becomes a huge investment for future.
I have learnt this lesson from my village in Odisha. Decades ago, Singhanias, with the help of the then Congress government in the state, acquired thousands of acres, often through coercion, from my village and the adjoining ones. They wanted to set up a synthetic factory. But they did not stay there long and sold everything to the Reliance, which did develop a polyester unit. But few years later it closed the factory, thus negating the very understanding on the basis of which the state government had helped in procuring land. Now nothing happens there. But the Reliance has a huge contingent of private security personnel there to guard the acquired land mass. Many villagers, who had surrendered land to get small jobs in the factory, are now sitting idle. They do not have land to return to their traditional agricultural vocations. In fact, they no longer even have cattle to breed, their other vocation, since almost the entire gazing land of my Panchayat is now under the control of the Reliance.
By the way, I am not one of those opposed to development. In fact, when Reliance was running the polyester factory in my village, I had noticed the benefits all-round. But now that things are different, people are suffering. And that is because, they have parted with most of their land, which, in any case, was not needed by the polyester company. The lesson that I have learnt from my village is unmistakable. Most of the land-related problems and agitations are essentially due to the fact that most of the acquired land can hardly be used for the purpose they are being acquired. The ratio between the land acquired and its usage is very vast. For producing polyester, the factory in my village did not require thousands of acres. For rolling out “Nano”, the Tatas did not require so much land in Singur. For constructing the expressway to Agra, the JP group perhaps does not need so much land that it is asking from the Mayawati government. For developing “a real world-class university” near Puri, the Vedanta group probably does not require thousands and thousands of acres land adjoining the world-famous Konark temple.
Viewed thus, critics do have a point when they say that the real face of this land grab is actually the vast housing market in India in the coming days. Once these conclaves come into picture, the industries will shift their focus on real estate. Now the question is, should the government promote and support these developers or business houses and effectively become a real estate agent? One understands that the central government is planning to bring out a law that the state will only help the private enterprises in acquiring 20 per cent of the required land of a project to ensure contiguity so that at least 80 per cent of the land is acquired by direct negotiation between industry and farmers. I think, it is a move in the right direction, provided of course, the land acquired is as per needs, not greed, of the concerned corporate house. Otherwise, people will agitate and succeed as they did in Nandigram, Singur and Raigad (here Mukesh Ambani-led group Reliance Industries could not acquire more than 13 per cent land of his proposed SEZ of 35000 acres).
By Prakash Nanda