Hands-off and hug advice Stay off firms, give land to poor: Panel

Calcutta, June 15: A panel has recommended that the state government play no role in land acquisition for private industry other than setting up a minimum-price regulator.

The panel also mooted an “own land, own home” scheme which gives Mamata Banerjee an option to chisel her version of Operation Barga that defined the Left Front’s debut in the late 1970s.

Private investors should buy the entire land directly from owners at prevailing market rates, according to one of 31 recommendations submitted by the two-member group to the chief minister today.

However, it appears to have left some room for manoeuvre on multi-crop land, saying that such agricultural plots should not be acquired “to the extent possible”. The leeway mirrors the ground situation in Bengal where most of the land is fertile; agriculture department officials said more than one crop a year is cultivated in over 65 per cent of the 1.7 crore acres tilled in Bengal.

A market regulator has been proposed to set the minimum price at which private investors should directly buy land. If land is acquired for a state-run project, the government should “provide an alternative source of livelihood” to land-losers, according to a recommendation.

The panel, appointed by the Mamata Banerjee government, is headed by Debabrata Bandopadhyay, a retired IAS officer who drafted in 1978 the Left Front’s Operation Barga that gave bargadars (sharecroppers) legal protection against eviction by landlords. The panel includes lawyer Soumendranath Basu.

The “Barga parallel” in today’s recommendations is a scheme to give 6.5 cottahs to each landless and homeless family in rural Bengal. The state has 5.5 lakh such families, excluding those in urban centres.

The panel felt that the proposed scheme — Nijo Bhumi, Nijo Griha (own land, own home) — should be implemented over five years at a cost of Rs 1,500 crore. The question of funds will rise if and when the cash-starved government decides to accept the recommendation.

“If implemented, it will immensely benefit those who have neither land nor home,” Bandopadhyay said.

The tenor of today’s recommendations, which need to be approved by the cabinet to become policy and can undergo modifications if the chief minister so decides, echoes the government’s extreme reluctance to get involved in land acquisition.

The hands-off recommendation on acquisition for private industries is at variance with the initial formula mooted by the UPA government at the Centre in the land rehabilitation bill that is yet to be passed by Parliament. As the most influential UPA ally, Mamata had earlier objected to any government role in land acquisition for private industry.

The UPA draft had suggested a government role in acquiring 30 per cent of the land after the private investor had bought 70 per cent and if the state is convinced that a public purpose is being served. But the Sonia Gandhi-headed National Advisory Council had recommended 100 per cent purchase by the government, following which land can be handed over to investors, to avoid exploitation of land-owners and other stakeholders such as labourers and tenants.

Explaining the panel’s rationale for advising against a government role, Bandopadhyay said: “A private industry will help the private player make profit. That is the entity’s primary objective in setting up the industry. The government should not have to acquire land for such a venture.”

He added that factors like brokerage must be accounted for by the entity while buying land, though the “market regulator” would fix the base price for such purchases.

The 20 sections of the 56-page report list recommendations on a land acquisition policy, rehabilitation, land records scrutiny and a farming policy.

The panel has said procurement of agricultural land that yields more than one crop a year should be avoided to “the extent possible”. “Fertile, agricultural land that yields two crops or more annually should not be procured for setting up industry to the extent possible,” Bandopadhyay said.

The government, the group said, should acquire land only for its own projects. The rehabilitation policy should be drawn up keeping in mind that land is not just property for the owner but also his primary source of livelihood.

“The government, when it has to acquire land, should ensure alternative means of livelihood,” said Bandopadhyay. However, he did not specify whether the panel meant jobs or facilities such as shops through which income can be earned.

Earlier this month, Mamata had promised a government job to one member of each family from which land is taken, besides an annuity payment, when 6,000 acres would be acquired for building embankments along the Aila-ravaged Sundarbans.

The panel has suggested a provision for bank loans for sharecroppers willing to buy land from owners. “Sharecroppers who want to buy land from the owner should have access to bank loan facilities,”Bandopadhyay said.

The recommendations on the farming policy included provisions like a ban on use of genetically modified seeds for preserving food security and restrictions on excessive use of fertilisers for retaining the fertility of farmland.


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