Land acquisition: the movie

Written by  //  August 20, 2010  //  Law & The Judiciary  //  Comments Off on Land acquisition: the movie

If there’s a current social issue that’s crying out for a movie of its own, it’s surely the compulsory acquisition of land for companies.  Nandigram.  Singur.  Mamata Banerjee.  The tension!  The drama!  Although the Indian experience is sui generis in many respects, for a little inspiration screenwriters should watch “The Castle” – a 1997 Australian film in which a salt-of-the-earth family challenges the acquisition of their family home by a private consortium for the extension of an airport.

Some aspects of the film will resonate here, such as the paltry compensation offered and the use of goondas to pressure the family to shut up, take the money, and move out.  Other aspects will need a lot of tweaking: for example, there are no violent agitations in ‘The Castle’, only remarkably expeditious hearings in various courts.  And of course the Aussie humour will need translating (‘Compulsorily acquired?  You know what this means don’t you: they’re acquiring it compulsorily!’).  The real challenge will be to find the Indian Eric Bana, who in his feature-film debut plays a sweet-hearted amateur kickboxing fanatic.  Suggestions are welcome.

Now, to keep things simple and punchy the film should probably end in late 2008 when Tata was booted out of Singur.  That’s because, at least from a narrative point of view, nothing much of note has happened since.  Though agitations against land acquisition continue, their intensity and frequency appear to have dimmed (or at least are less frequently reported).  One reason why is that land acquisition for companies in West Bengal is, for now at least, politically impossible.  Another reason may be the nation-wide ban on land acquisition for SEZs imposed in January 2007, which still stands (at least on paper).

The Bills introduced at the end of the 2007 to amend the Land Acquisition Act and to create minimum legal entitlements to rehabilitation and resettlement benefits have lapsed.  They are unlikely to be re-introduced, at least in their current form: Mamata Banerjee has reportedly refused to countenance the acquisition of land for companies in any circumstances.  The proposed amendment to the Land Acquisition Act would limit governments’ role to acquiring 30% of the land required for a company’s project if, and only if, the company had already acquired at least 70% of the land.

The merits or otherwise of the 70:30 rule is a difficult question which will be the subject of future posts.  More generally, future posts will try to bring to the forefront the competing moral and economic arguments on the propriety and efficiency of land acquisition for companies.

What seems all but certain, however, is that the phenomenon is here to stay, given the immense pressure on land, the prevailing model of development, and – needless to say – the money at stake.  Give it a few years, and there’ll be plenty of material for Land Acquisition: the sequel.

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