Intergenerational equity key in land acquisition
Post-Covid, India needs a significant boost in investment to come out of the economic devastation caused by the pandemic. In the past, delay in land acquisition and associated involuntary displacement have led to project delays and failures. In recent times, corporate houses and governments have handled displacement much better by clearly identifying failure to carry out resettlement of affected families as a critical project risk. Many new highway and railway projects have gained momentum as a consequence. In the private sector too, there have been some successful resettlements. These show that if project promoters can work on a participatory model and focus on benefit-sharing, investments can fructify, adding to employment and growth.
Rehabilitation and resettlement of the population affected by displacement has evolved in India over time. It is now clearly understood that the colonial construct of an eminent domain, the power of the state to appropriate property within the state for a public use, cannot be invoked in a coercive manner.
Anti-displacement movements against the missile test range in Baliapal in Odisha, the movement against the Sardar Sarovar project, the Singur agitation, etc., have shown that all stakeholders have to agree to a peaceful negotiated settlement based on a realistic understanding of the market value of land. There must also be adequate benefit sharing. Promoters, who are going to make millions, cannot get away by just paying a paltry amount for the land. Undoubtedly, a patch of land, inherited by a family, can be exchanged for money and a job by the current generation. But once it is given away, the family has nothing to pass forward to the next generation. Companies can persuade families to give up land by offering an attractive price, good enough to create greed. Money will be expended in a few years and no company will commit to employing successive generations who will be landless. Unfortunately, most of the land needed for industries and infrastructure projects are in the possession of the poor and vulnerable sections of our society. Their ability to negotiate a good deal is limited. Besides, many of them lack the skills to earn a living in a market-driven situation without compassionate hand-holding. So, a welfare state must protect their best interest by policy mechanisms.
The concept of intergenerational equity is widely used in the context of global warming, climate change and environmental justice. It is now acknowledged that the next generations have a right to inherit this planet in a form in which human civilisation can continue to flourish. The current generation has unrestricted control, but not rights over natural resources. Our rights are limited by the moral imperative not to degrade the environment so fundamentally that the next generation will find it difficult to survive. The same concept applies to family land and assets. They have been inherited and have to be passed on. This has happened for generations and must continue to happen in the future. In the professional classes, each generation invests in producing the next generation of professionals who have the knowledge and skills to make a living. Education and professional training mitigate the risks of loss of livelihood.
Agencies carrying out displacement must desist from taking advantage of vulnerability by buying them out or worse, use the state’s coercive resources to grab land. There must be a compassionate and honest delivery of intergenerational equity and justice. That must be the focus of all policies and practices of involuntary displacement.
One of the successful cases of involuntary displacement is the acquisition of land for a steel plant at Kalinganagar in Odisha by the Tatas. This is one of the largest successful displacements in the last two decades. Even in Kalinganagar, the initial attempts led to violence, with the deaths of 13 Adivasis in police firing. This was post-Singur and another disaster was looming large in India’s investment scenario. But once it was decided by both the state government and the company that the displacement had to be carried out peacefully and the guidance of development specialists was taken, new methodologies opened up. The vulnerable population could be ring-fenced to deal with immediate loss of livelihood and community assets, and the trauma of losing house, hearth and community life. Besides jobs being provided to affected families, an attempt was made to get children of these families trained as professionals and blue-collar workers. The entire education, whether in a private or a government institution, including tuition fee and hostel charges, were fully paid for directly to the institutions. All that these children required was an offer of admission. Children from displaced families went to medical and engineering colleges as well as diploma schools and were given a head-start with the hope that they would secure a job on merit and look after the next generation. This was neither mandated in the state government policy nor in the one agreed to by the company with the government.
In all large projects, promoters must be committed to eliminating childhood poverty by ensuring food, nutrition and education. If this kind of a progressive approach is not taken, the next generation will most likely be worse off than the current one and become landless and poor. They will then need state support for livelihood, food security, etc. Therefore, without consideration of the concept of intergenerational equity, displacement will limit benefit sharing to the current generation.
Intergenerational equity is now understood as a core principle in the discourse on environmental justice and sustainability. The time has come for the concept to be applied more widely to other areas of social policymaking. This is more so when it comes to social development involving more vulnerable sections of society. The consequent policy changes may often be incremental. But such a focus will bring in clarity and easier resolution of opposition to involuntary displacement, which has become a major reason for project delays and project failures. There is now a consensus that when it comes to involuntary displacement, the scope of use of state coercion is minimal. The government will have to play the role of an honest broker and give the displaced families a good deal that will pass on to subsequent generations.
Assistant Professor at XIM University, Bhubaneswar