Lawmakers have been tinkering with a new land acquisition regime for a cynically long number of years. However, there is no change at the ground level. The news that a displaced woman in Madhya Pradesh immolated herself last week, starting a Chita (funeral pyre) satyagraha, was buried below the fold in the last page of newspapers. Meanwhile, more and more gross cases of forcible land acquisition are being decided by the Supreme Court and other courts.
The exasperation of the apex court was evident from the language it used in two judgments last fortnight. In a case from Maharashtra, the court said: “It is evident that the act of the state amounts to encroachment, in exercise of ‘absolute power’, which in common parlance is also called abuse of power or use of muscle power. To further clarify the position, it must be noted that the authorities have treated the land owner as a subject of medieval India, but not as a citizen under our Constitution.” (Tukaram Joshi vs MIDC).
The land in question was notified under the Land Acquisition Act in 1964 for industrial development. The land owners were “not merely illiterate farmers, but were also absolutely unaware of their rights and hence too inarticulate to claim them,” the judgment said.
The authorities short-circuited procedures to be followed under law and gave the land to the state industrial development corporation. But, in 1981, there was some heart-searching among the higher-ups, leading to a fresh notification following the rules. In 1988, the land was handed over to the (Navi Mumbai) City Industrial Development Corporation. The land owners have been approaching various authorities for nearly half a century for compensation, but in vain.
When they approached the Bombay High Court, they were in for more shocks. The court said they approached it too late; what were they doing all this time? Where were the documents to claim their title to the land? Thus, the second- and third-generation inheritors of original land owners were forced to move the Supreme Court. The state authorities showed greater sensitivity than the Bombay High Court, and agreed before the Supreme Court that they will complete the due process within this month.
When the land was acquired, right to property was a fundamental right under Article 31 of the Constitution. Later, this right was subjected to a series of messy amendments in the 1970s, which even the Supreme Court fears to unscramble. Issues have been referred to Constitution benches and swept under the carpet. Now, the right to property is an ordinary right under Article 300-A.
The court has made heady declarations on behalf of land owners since then. Edifying to read, but of little use to the victims, referred to as “bhumiswamis” in some judgments.
One passage from the latest judgment: “The right to property is now considered to be not only a constitutional or a statutory right, but also a human right. It is not a basic feature of the Constitution or a fundamental right. But human rights are considered to be in the realm of individual rights, such as right to health, the right to livelihood, the right to shelter and employment. Now, however, human rights are gaining an even greater multi-faceted dimension. The right to property is considered very much to be part of such new dimension.”
Criticising the attitude of the high court, which dismissed the land owners’ petition merely for delay, the judgment said technical considerations like delay should not snuff out substantial justice. “The court should not harm innocent parties if their rights have in fact emerged because of non-deliberate delay. The other side cannot claim to have a vested right in injustice being done.”
The other case decided last week, Jasavinder Singh vs Land Acquisition Tribunal, goes back to 1970 and it highlighted the recurring controversy over the rate of compensation. The original rate awarded for the land absorbed in Ludhiana’s “Hundred Acre Development Scheme” was a princely Rs 10 a square yard. The land owners carried their fight forward through the pyramid of courts for four decades. The Supreme Court has now fixed the rate at Rs 49 per square yard with interest and solatium.
These are a few cases in which the land owners, mostly their descendants, showed exceptional persistence in pursuing their rights. Very few land owners in the regions where huge projects are coming up know their rights or have title documents to assert them. Some judges may, as in the Bombay High Court, shut them out at the threshold itself.
The Madhya Pradesh woman who received notice from the government to vacate her 4.5-acre farmland for a thermal power project, and later harassed by the police, knew the system too well. Violent protests in the interiors of the country may not get noticed or succeed; they might bring mayhem and more misery. Chita provides the proverbial final solution.