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Return unutilized land acquired for "public purpose" to tribals: High Level panel to Government of India

Prof Virginius Xaxa
By Our Representative
The Government of India (GoI), in a Cabinet decision, may have moved to come up with an ordinance to amend the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (LARR) Act, 2013, in order to clear “hurdles” on way to land acquisition for industrial and infrastructural projects. However, a still unreleased report by the High Level Committee, set up under the chairmanship of Prof Virginius Xaxa, submitted to it in May 2014 had required the GoI to further strengthen the Act by giving the right to tribal communities to say ‘no’ to acquisition of their land and to access and manage forests.
The committee's report runs into 400 pages, and deals with all aspects of socio-economic status of the tribals in India, providing inter-state comparison about their land ownership, health and education facilities, and displacement due to projects since Independence. Prof Xaxa is presently with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati campus and has been working with the government, including as a member of the National Advisory Council.  
While calling the LARR Act “progressive”, as it allowed, for the first time, to legally mandate rehabilitation of projected affected persons (PAPs), the Xaxa committee report especially underlines, the Act “fails to address the need for minimizing of acquisition of land and resources”, as it not only “seeks to address concerns of those whose livelihoods are affected”, but “simultaneously aims at facilitating land acquisition for industrialization and urbanization” in keeping with “the broader liberalization policies.”
The Xaxa committee, which submitted its report to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, said, “There is no mention (in the Act) of the need to protect tribal land and community resources”, insisting, “Hence, a suitable provision is required to be incorporated in the Act, to safeguard tribal land and community resources in Scheduled Areas and disallow acquisition by a non-tribal, including private companies.”
The committee also opposes the definition of ‘public purpose’ in the Act, calling it “very wide”, saying that it will “only lead to greater acquisition and displacement in Scheduled Areas”, even as wanting the GoI to ensure that the “exercise of ‘eminent domain’ and definition of ‘public purpose’ should be severely limited.”
In fact, the committee wants “Government agencies acquiring land with the ultimate purpose to transfer it to private companies for stated public purpose, should be kept outside the ambit of the new law, as the public-private partnership (PPP) mode of acquiring land is simply a backdoor method of alienating land in violation of the Constitutional provision to prohibit or restrict transfer of tribal land to non-tribals in Scheduled Areas.”
The committee says that other states should replicate the “stringent provisions of the amended Andhra Pradesh Scheduled Areas Land Transfer Regulation, 1959”, particularly the provision that “facilitates the formation of Registered Scheduled Tribe Co-operative Societies, which could take up mining activities in Scheduled Areas.” It underlines, “Gram Sabha consent should be mandatory for acquisition of land by the Government for its own use as well.”
The committee further says that there is “plenty of unutilized tribal land available with Central/State/PSUs”, and the Central/State Governments are not using these “for the purpose for which it was acquired”. It recommends, “Governments should be legally mandated to return such land to the original landowner/successors or use the same for resettlement of displaced tribals. This should not be left to the discretion of the State Government.”
Seeking rejection the Vijay Kelkar Committee on Fiscal Consolidation (2012), which wanted that “unutilized and under-utilized land resources” be used for “raising resources” to “finance infrastructure needs particularly in urban areas”, the committee says, this should be “roundly rejected, and unused land should be returned to the loser of the land and to the community.”
In fact, the committee states, “There has been inadequate recognition at the policy level that land represents an inalienable resource, passed on from generation to generation in tribal communities, who otherwise have no education and skill development. Studies have documented that those displaced persons (DPs) who got jobs in lieu of land and whose children did not receive education or training were worse off after the job-holder retired from service.”
In this context, it recommends that “the objective of resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) should be to ensure that the socio-economic status of tribal DPs/PAPs after displacement should improve positively rather than deteriorate further”, and for this, “loss of land and common property resources (CPR) can be compensated only by proper R&R which envisages restoration of livelihoods, health and education facilities and skill development for the whole family and community of tribal Dps/PAPs.”
It wants that “there should be provision of ‘land for land’, in acquisition of tribal lands”, as against “cash for land”, as it has happened with Madhya Pradesh oustees of the Narmada project. It says, “Compensatory land provided must be made cultivable with irrigation and agricultural inputs. Rehabilitation should be treated as a continuous process to be monitored by the Project Authority and State until the alternative livelihood becomes economically viable.”

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