SOME 80,000 farmers thronged near Parliament House in New Delhi last week to protest against the paltry compensation paid by the government for the land it took over in “public interest.” An act as old as 1847, empowers the state to acquire land in dire eventuality.
The UP government has taken over hundreds of acres to build an express Yamuna corridor for industry. True, the state is paying more or less the market price, as enjoined by a Supreme Court ruling. But the farmers’ contention is that the land is their only asset and if it is taken away, they are left with only the cash which does not give a living to their generation depending on farming for livelihood.
Is invoking “public interest” for industrialists justified? Essentially, it raises the same old question: how far the land or natural resources can be appropriated in the name of development? With the emphasis on growth, the question has assumed importance for the government and the people.
It is a similar situation which forced the government to dilute the scheme of Special Economic Zone (SEZ). Large tracts were acquired “in public interest” and passed on to big industrial or business houses which would put up a factory on a small tract of land and use the rest, hundreds of acres, to establish hotel and entertainment facilities. There was so much protest that the government diluted the SEZ formula and had to leave it to the buyer and seller to decide. Now that there is pressure on the UP government—one farmer is on fast unto death—it can consider applying the same formula.
Therefore, the amendment to the Land Acquisition Act was a foregone conclusion. Unfortunately, politics has devalued such an altruistic step. Rahul Gandhi, the Gandhi family’s rising star, announced his opposition to the Act, while addressing the farmers’ rally. The government has promised to follow his advice.
But this is not the first time that the government has allowed him to take the credit for “doing good.” Only a few days ago did he succeed in having a project wound up in Orissa where the tribals were up in arms. They were against the installation of a factory next to a mine-mound which they worshipped. The centre is probably right in rejecting the project on environmental grounds. But must it be seen at the behest of Rahul Gandhi?
Politics is very much there because the tribals, once the vote bank of the ruling Congress party, have gone away from it. His address before them in Orissa that he was their “sepoy at Delhi” is sheer propaganda for the Congress which has appointed him the secretary general. It is conceded that development may need to step on the toes of environment or natural resources. But such decisions have to be rare and explained to the public in detail. There are many instances to show that a party in power or sheer graft has tilted a particular decision. So long as there is no transparency, the government action would be seen with suspicion.
At least the farmers in Punjab have a grievance. On reports of rotting food grains, the Supreme Court appointed commissioners to ascertain the fact. They have reported to the apex court that as much as 50,000 metric tones of grain have already gone bad. They dubbed negligence by officials as ‘genocidal’ and recommended responsibility and accountability be fixed at the highest level in central and state governments.
They also warned that this is just a third of the 1.37 lakh MT of wheat lying in the open since 2008-09 in Punjab, and the entire lot could have become unfit for consumption as the FCI norms allow grain to be exposed to nature for only a year. In Haryana too 31.574 MT of grain have been lying in the open since 2008-09.
The rice which the farmers in Punjab grew last year has not yet been picked up. All godowns are full to capacity. The new crop is still to arrive in three weeks’ time. Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, ordered by the Supreme Court to distribute free the rice which is lying in the open, dilly-dallied before the Court snubbed him. The basic problem is that Pawar’s heart is more in cricket than in the ministry he heads. A sensitive person would have resigned long ago.
The mishandling of food grain is only one example. The shame of Commonwealth Games is another. The government doesn’t seem to be doing anything competently. It reflects some kind of panic in the ruling party. Elections are three and a half years away. No doubt, the party has lost some ground because of its ridiculous stand on the Nuclear Energy Bill.
Yet there is no viable opposition emerging on the scene. The communists who have been reduced from 60 to 16 in the Lok Sabha look like losing even their citadel, West Bengal, in the state election next year. The BJP is not gaining either. It will soon be in the midst of the Babri masjid-Ram janmabhoomi controversy—the court judgment is due by the end of September.
In fact, this is an ideal time for the Congress to rise above politics and take certain decisions which have long been pending. For example, the draconian laws which have shrunk space for democracy need to be withdrawn. In particular is the Armed Forces Act which gives right to the security forces to kill without being accountable. The10-year-old agitation in Manipur would come to an end if the 52-year-old act is withdrawn. Even otherwise, the democratic face of the polity has got deformed by giving armed forces the power to kill on suspicion. The very name of the act evokes anger in Kashmir and in the northeast.
Still the government continues to make mistakes. It has decided to enumerate castes, the bane of Indian politics, for the census which started in the beginning of the year. The Manmohan Singh government has undone the work of decades that Jawaharlal Nehru and his successors had put in to efface the curse of caste from Indian body politics. Caste was the British government’s innovation to create dissensions in the country.
One would have expected Prime Minister Manmohan Singh or the powerful Congress president Sonia Gandhi to take control of the situation. But it is Rahul Gandhi coming to the people’s rescue. It does not take time to add 2 to 2. Rahul Gandhi is being projected by the ruling Congress as the next Prime Minister. How does the country run till then because as of today the system does not work and the entire apparatus of the government is reeking with inefficiency, ineptness and corruption?