Official Land Grabbers or Looters?

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(Brig (retd) GB Reddi)

Land pooling is the latest phenomenon in the name of development – special economic zones or industrial corridors, ports, express highways and so on.

Viewed pragmatically, it is large scale official land grabbing or looting in the name of development.

Today, Chinese land and real estate mafia, known as part of ‘Red Mafia’, is reportedly all over the world: in neighboring Pakistan in Lahore, Karachi and other cities; in African nations; in Latin American nations and even the European Union nations. Of course, China’s land thirst and quest is well known in the South China Sea reclamation activities of submerged reefs causing environmental and ecological destruction of marine wealth.

One also had heard Russian land mafia making inroads in Goa in the past.

Even in India, one had often heard of land or real estate mafia’s in cities, towns and rural areas, who thrived on official patronage to make big money – mostly illegal.

For example, the name of Vadra makes headlines for political reasons. So also, Sahara, DLH and many others also hit the headlines and form part of the big real estate league.

Now, the governments are making a bee-line into the land and real estate mafia big league.

And, of course, it is common to hear that governments have no business to be in real estate land and real estate business.

That too, taking away the centuries old fertile farm lands (not replaceable) and displacing villages and rural households (farmers and tribal people) from their livelihoods.

For example, the new state governments – Andhra Pradesh and Telangana (already two years old) – are hell bent upon acquiring large tracts of farm and forest lands under the Land Acquisition Act in the name of creating a grandiose new capital, ports, large projects, SEZs.

What is most important, acquisition of rich agricultural lands without providing alternative living opportunities are truly despicable and most heinous.

Poor animals in the region! No one is bothered about the milk yielding animal population living in the region. The government would close their eyes seeing them off to slaughter houses. What a shame? Has anyone in the two governments ever given a thought to them?

The concept under which the two state governments are acquiring land is known as “Land Pooling Policy”. Of course, it is forced by the state governments. Even if land owners are not willing to part with their lands at the compensation offered, the governments are hell bent upon taking them over with utter disregard to their livelihoods.

Under land pooling systems, landowners voluntarily sign ownership rights over to a single agency or government body. This agency develops the land by building roads and laying sewage lines and electricity connections. Once this is done, it returns a smaller portion of the land to the original owners. But since the plot now has more amenities, its price has probably risen to match the market value of the owners’ original landholding.

For example, for the sake of creating the core of the new capital at Amravati, over 33,000 acres of individual farmers between Vijayawada and Thullur along the banks of the Krishna River has been notified for takeover by the government. It has already become India’s largest experiment in a process known as land pooling, which is being held up as an alternative to land acquisition. Those who own fertile land will get an annual compensation of Rs 50,000 for ten years and a slightly larger portion of land.

In return for one acre of land, one will get 1,300 square yards (about a quarter of an acre) of developed land in the new city. Of this, 1,000 square yards (a fifth of an acre) will be residential land and 300 square yards can have commercial structures such as offices and shops. The individual will also receive an annual compensation of Rs 30,000 per acre for a fixed period of ten years.

The latest is the bid by the Andhra Pradesh government to acquire land for the proposed Machilipatnam Port and Industrial Corridor (MPIC) through land pooling and notification. The state Cabinet had yesterday decided to pool 1.05 lakhs acres of land for MPIC. It is said to displace 22 villages. Readers must reflect on what it is means – nearly 2 Mandals in extent.

Meanwhile, the TS government has readied a land pooling scheme on the Hyderabad city outskirts along the Warangal and Vijayawada highways to develop growth corridors. The government proposes to procure land from owners and develop layouts abutting the Outer Ring Road (within one kilometer on either side) and hand it over to the Hyderabad Metropolitan Development Authority. In return, it will offer 50 per cent developed land to owners under the public-private partnership mode. The minimum cap has been fixed at 50 acres for land pooling and there is no maximum limit.

As per media reports, in the first phase, the TS government has readied, if it procures 400 acres, it would utilize 40 per cent to develop roads, water connectivity, drainage system, power, parks, playgrounds, community halls and common facilities. Of the remaining 60 per cent, the HMDA would hold 10 per cent and the remaining space would be offered to owners. HMDA would pay for the development and the government hopes to recover HMDA’s investment from its 10 per cent land share.

Next, the row  over land acquisition for the Rs 9,800 crores Mallanna Sagar project which covers over 30,000 people spread over 14 villages in Medak district.  No wonder, people have hit the streets opposing the land acquisition. The local environmental groups and the opposition Congress and Left parties are backing the agitators.

And, the justification is that the proposed project is designed to store 51,000 million cubic feet of water and will irrigate 12 lakhs acres in the drought-prone Medak, Nalgonda, Nizamabad, Warangal and Ranga Reddy districts. But 14 villages in the district will be submerged when the project is completed, with the government planning to acquire over 20,079 acres of land for the project.

The villagers are up in arms against the government. They are insisting on getting compensation under the Land Acquisition Act, 2013, instead of the package being offered by the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) government. As per the package, a compensation of Rs 8 lakhs per acre would be given to those evicted from their lands.

“We are offering far more than what the land acquisition act allows,” said the Major Irrigation Minister and KCR’s nephew T. Harish Rao.

The opposition parties have found fault with the project’s design, saying there was no need for building such a large storage reservoir that could leads to massive flooding.

My plea is simple. The governments must first utilize non-farm lands for developmental purposes before they plan to acquire farm lands. Next, paying compensation at current market rates is fooling people downright.

How can any sane person ever expect that those deprived of lands today at current compensation rates meet their both ends meet after 4-5 years with the phenomenal inflation rates likely? Surely, there should be inclusion of annual percentage increase.

What about animals? None has given it a thought including animal rights activists.

Displacements and rehabilitations is quite an extraordinarily complex problem. Unless the whole range of the spectrum is addressed including the psychological fallout, the governments should avoid taking unimaginative policy decisions based on misplaced views on development.

All one can say in the end, God Bless those victims and the ruling parties alike.

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