What are the implications of the decision to allow the Cabinet Committee on Investment (CCI) to fast-track clearances for infrastructure projects worth more than Rs 1,000 crore?
One is somewhat nonplussed about the real import of the decision to asset-up a Cabinet Committee on Investment (CCI) which will fast-track clearances for infrastructure projects worth more than Rs 1,000 crore. The Planning Commission envisages investments worth Rs 56,14,730 crore in the Twelfth Five-Year Plan, which kicked off this year. The Cabinet has also amended the Land Acquisition Bill and renamed it (in a real tongue-twister) the Right to Fair Compensation, Resettlement, Rehabilitation and Transparency in Land Acquisition Bill, which obviously defies an acronym.
Is the CCI just another avatar of the controversial National Investment Board (NIB) which was bitterly opposed by Environment Minister Jayanti Natarajan and Tribal Affairs Minister K C Deo, earning the former the most vehement of epithets from chief ministers and industrial and other vested interests? Natarajan is going to be on the CCI, but it is not clear whether she can still put a spoke in the wheel on environmental grounds after the committee clears a project. She had earlier alleged that the NIB was intended only to favour big firms and investors, ignoring the needs of rural people and those displaced or affected by large projects. The new land bill reveals the hand of former Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, now in charge of rural development, who is far more feisty with project proposers.
According to official data, very nearly half of the 183 projects worth over Rs 1,000 crore each being funded by the Centre have been delayed for up to five years, while 37% of the projects faced cost escalations of up to double as on March 31, 2012. The CCI seeks to reduce such inordinate delays, which on the face of it appears unexceptionable. Moreover, it is not an appellate body, so projects will apparently still have to obtain clearances from the environment ministry. However, while the letter of the new policy seems reasonable, in practice it may well serve to whittle down the powers of this ministry.
Earlier, Finance Minister P Chidambaram, who makes no secret of his neo-liberal views, had envisaged quite a different role for the NIB. He had said: “Once the decision is taken by the NIB, no other ministry or department or authority should be able to interfere with that decision or delay its implementation.”
A similar ambivalence prevails regarding the amended Land Acquisition Bill. While the very expansion of its title bears the stamp of Sonia Gandhi and her National Advisory Board, the clause requiring consent from 70% of those who lose their land by acquisition by government for private projects is fraught with hazards. This is exactly the proportion of stakeholders in the Maharashtra government’s slum rehabilitation policy -- introduced in the mid-1990s by the BJP-Shiv Sena coalition -- and it has not worked. Under the new land bill, it goes up to 80% for consent regarding the remaining projects. Moreover, where tillers are working on land belonging to absentee landlords, the farmers are entitled to the compensation.
The basic problem is that the rural poor know only too well that one authority they can least trust to give them fair compensation is the government. More often than not, it represents the interests of industry, mining and big infrastructure lobbies. One has only to read Arvind Adiga’s second, equally acerbic, novel, Last Man in Tower (2011), to realise how predatory these policies can turn out to be in the Mumbai real estate market. When, as the Maharashtra irrigation and Adarsh scandals show, politicians and officials are themselves involved neck-deep in infrastructure and building rackets, how will the poor in rural or urban areas have faith in these very powers-that-be?
An excellent new and penetrating book titled Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India, by Aseem Shrivastava and Ashish Kothari (Penguin, New Delhi, 2012), cites how between November 2004 and January 2006 alone, 80,000 hutments in Mumbai were razed to the ground, often at night. The authors write: “Nearly 300,000 people -- all of them below the poverty line -- lost their homes in a drive to eliminate ‘post-1995’ encroachments as the city progressed on its journey to become ‘India’s Shanghai’, as the Maharashtra chief minister once announced quite proudly.”
Under the new land bill, even the increase in cash compensation for what is acquired -– double the market price near urban areas and up to four times in rural areas -- will not always assuage the doubts of small landholders. Nor will the provision of jobs for relatives of those affected and the allocation of 20% of the land in urbanisation projects (while welcome) prove a blessing unless it is enforced strictly and transparently. One can easily envisage vested interests questioning land titles, particularly if the displaced are illiterate, no matter whether they are enrolled under Aadhar or not.
The two authors extensively expose such policies in the new era of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation (also known, tongue-in-cheek, by the acronym LPG). From ‘Garibi Hatao’ which Indira Gandhi coined in the early-’70s to take on reactionaries in the undivided Congress Party, it has now turned, in the authors’ words, to ‘Garib Hatao’. The estimated number of displaced and project-affected people between 1947 and 2000 ranges between 21 million and 60 million for the country as a whole. The very fact that this is such a huge variance conclusively demonstrates that the poor do not figure in official statistics. In some cases, as is well documented, people are displaced more than once (as, indeed, are slum-dwellers in Mumbai: in the hey-day of demolitions in the 1970s, it was estimated that an average squatter family was displaced five times in a lifetime).
The authors cite the instance of Orissa which, incidentally, periodically makes news for being the state with the highest amount of foreign direct investment, despite it having a huge tribal population living in utter poverty. There are no prizes for guessing that this inflow is due to the huge mining and other industrial projects. Between 1951 and 1995, Orissa acquired 40,000 hectares for industry. “Over the last decade, its land acquisition ballooned to 100,000 hectares,” they write.
In the country as a whole, “between 1986 and 2006, the Ministry of Environment and Forests gave environmental clearance to over 4,000 projects, a rate of roughly one project every two days, over two decades. In just the first two years after the issuance of the new environment assessment (EIA) notification in 2006, it cleared over 2,000, at the rate of two or three a day. The protests over land acquisition and displacement are naturally growing pari passu, in many cases taking the form of left-wing extremism”.
One must remember that the last tranche of these malpractices occurred in an era when the environment ministry was handed over to the United Progressive Alliance’s junior coalition partner -- the DMK (caustically amplified into ‘Delhi Money for Karunanidhi’!). This was presumably under the mistaken impression that environment was a relatively uncontroversial subject and the Congress would have turned a blind eye to the blatant cash-for-clearances indulged in by DMK environment minister after minister, including the notorious A Raja, between 2004 and 2007.
The authors have done well to categorise the displaced persons by caste and community. As many as 40% were adivasis, one-fifth dalits and as many other backward classes, which in itself reveals who is paying the price for the country’s so-called development, which must always be distinguished from its economic growth.
In a debate during the recent Times of India Literary ‘Carnival’ in Mumbai, economist and writer Omkar Goswami referred to how if one takes indices of backwardness and colours districts in the country accordingly, the entire swathe of central India would be red -- also signifying, as Shrivastava and Kothari note, the rise of Naxalism in these regions, comprising one-third of the country’s area. It is a very tight and self-evident fit. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is seldom known to make pronouncements on anything and retains a visage of imperviousness to any concern, has gone on record to state that these red corridors are the biggest threat to India’s security. In the haste to liberalise and make land acquisition easier, and fast-track infrastructure and industrial projects, there is a real danger that every time the poorest of the country’s poor are given a raw deal, they will pick up arms in protest.
Infochange News & Features, December 2012