Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Land acquisition - Government as a land broker

If you had a chance to venture into the suburbs of major cities looking for a piece of land - you would have had an opportunity to see that anyone without a "proper job" is a land broker. With no proper livelihood or savings to depend-on and the lucrativeness to make easy money by connecting the buyer and seller - this unskilled worker has moved from a productive human being (as an agriculture laborer or a factory worker) to a land broker who just hopes the luck favors him with huge commissions. (Some people make money doing this. But most lose)

Looks now the government is trying to do the same. Believe me - the government isn't smart.

Land acquisition bill tabled in parliament is a hot topic in India right now. The subject has gathered momentum after a farmer hangs himself in a tree, at the venue of an opposition rally to oppose the bill. Ever wonder why the government is involved in Land acquisition? It doesn't have to. It shouldn't. Most of the discussion around this topic has been abstract. We usually don't hear specifics.

Land, labour and capital are primary requirements for a business. The government has to create an ecosystem where these are available in "plenty" for the business to be viable. It helps itself by building ample infrastructure "through out" the country and effectively helping the private local employers to unleash their potential by setting "for profit" industries and factories utilizing them.

India is a vast country with abundant natural resources including land. It is the seventh biggest country in the world in terms of area. The optimum climatic conditions assures most lands are habitable and usable to its full potential unlike countries like Russia or Canada whose vast land masses are ice-cold most of the year. In terms of availability of land, we are no Singapore or Israel either. Then why the fuzz? However what is missing is most of the land mass is underdeveloped - meaning lack of access to roads, portable water, electricity, sanitation and security. For the limited availability of quality land - there is a conflict to get it. The government is trying to get itself involved in the process of "resource allocation". A free market would itself allot the right land, labor and capital. Government intervention just tweaks the natural flow - causing failures. Government is the last entity - that can do efficient allotments. What should instead be happening is - make efforts to make the entire land to be "high-quality" land - by providing the necessary infrastructure like roads, electricity and water. Instead of fighting the disease - the Indian government is fighting the symptoms of the problem.

Land can be acquired for public service or a private service. If roads need to expand or new roads to be laid - the government has to acquire the land for the private sector to construct a road. Public would eventually benefit from this labour. Not many people oppose this including those individuals who give up their land. The private contractor collects toll on the road. That is to only compensate for his contribution to the construction of the highway. There cannot be much difference of opinion. With rapid economic development of the country, a viable and a modern infrastructure is very essential. Roads need to expand to become express ways, railway lines need to quadruple. New water pipelines might need pathways and tunnels. A well planned long term government plan will definitely get cooperation from the people who eventually benefit from this new infrastructure. Compensation for these lands are to be fair and at least the market price, so that individual citizens do not lose a lot because of the acquisition. Acquisitions should be in overall national interest for a common good. It should be planned such that - there wouldn't be "more" expansion that would once again need acquisition for say the next 100 years or so. It should be one time - long term solution. This "can be" enforced by the government.

Some common source of conflicts in land acquisition for roads, is a farmer loses his livelihood by giving up his land. But the neighbour to the property sells the land for astronomical price by citing the existence of the new road. This leads to social problems in the local society. What should instead happen is - just like any expressway in the world - the road needs to be fenced. Access needs to be restricted only to pre-determined points and not all along the highway. This would reduce the property boom caused by these expanding roads. The booms would be restricted to only the authorised points which is relatively better. Even though projects are designed at the top bureaucratic level, during implementation the local politicians or heavyweights can adjust plans based on preferred interest. Some would get preferential treatment over others. These conflicts have to be taken care of humanely and in the right spirit.

Expansion in railways is not that complicated as they already own a significant portion of the land on either side of the tracks. Similarly laying of tunnels for movement of essentials (water, fuel etc) need to be developed without any effect on the farmer's livelihood. Things need to be implemented better and sooner without affecting crop cultivation.

The tussle however is doing land acquisition for the private sector and in already thickly populated urban cities. The plan would require few individuals to give up their land, so that a private entrepreneur can construct a industry/transportation with the motivation for profit. This is not necessarily a government's job. Just like the government is not involved in procuring raw materials for private businesses, it should not be involved in procuring land for private businesses.
This passing of the bill could definitely bring favouritism in allotting land for private people. This will eventually lead to crony capitalism. Going by past performance of our politicians and bureaucrats- there is no trust it will work out. I recently read an article where few houses need ten to twelve thousand acres of land for industrial development. Really wonder what sort of industry is that - how much jobs they can provide the society. There is also a notion that lands can be better utilized than doing agriculture and the farmer is under utilizing the resource, but an industrialist can put it to more use. There is no truth to this whatsoever. It is the small bank of quality land that everyone is behind.

Instead of the government becoming land brokers, it should try to become land developers. It should concentrate on big infrastructure projects in the entire country. It should provide new roads and make nook and corner of the country connected by expressways. We need more roads and lot broader roads. We need water pipelines reach the new areas and become habitable. The landscape of the country would change. Right now - everyone is dumped in cities that gets congested, polluted and exploited environmentally. We need to interlink prominent rivers to fully utilize its water. Only those high-value investments would reap major benefits in the long term.

Ask any entrepreneur who wants to start a business in this country. Is his problem - non availability of land? He might not get it or afford it close to his house. But drive 50-75 kilometers on any direction - he can buy just plenty of land for affordable prices. Getting the machine / workers / produce to that place is his problem. The government should fix that. A viable infrastructure will ensure that people can commute any significant distance to get to work. That is what is needed. It is not uncommon in developed nation for people to commute to work for 100 miles a day. We are just talking about half of it here. In Japan - the shinkansen (bullet train) hits 300 miles per hour. Just imagine these trains crisscrosses our country. You could easily commute between Bangalore and Chennai for work daily.

An RTI petition found out that 80% percent of the projects that are "stuck" in India has reasons other than land. It is lack of funds / infrastructure / confidence or other factors. Lack of land - you should be kidding, aren't you? What really insults people's intelligence is - the government (politicians and babus) would decide who takes what!

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