This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s Uncommon Ground, where she brings together titans of industry and leaders of civil society to explore eight themes that are highly relevant for our future development. In this episode, she moderates a discussion on equitable development, with Medha Patkar, the face of the Narmada Bachao Andolan and national convenor of the National Alliance of People’s Movements, and Anand Mahindra, Vice-Chairman and Managing Director of Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd. These conversations explore the middle ground between the ideological divisions that often polarise the business and voluntary sectors. In course of these rare dialogues between leaders who have sometimes been adversaries, a number of common concerns emerge.
Rohini Nilekani: Is there a consensus that there will have to be land transfer for industry and industrialisation?
Medha Patkar: There should be some land put to use as far as industrialisation, as one of the many socio-economic, political objectives is concerned. But in the first few decades after independence, there was a national agenda of bringing in industrialisation as supplementary to agriculture. It was never at the cost of agriculture. At least 24 million hectares of the 330 million hectares of India is fallow land that can be utilised for industries. The question is how it should be transferred, who should take the onus and who can give consent to this. If we look at Mahindra & Mahindra’s SEZ in Raigad, the Vadiwale dam is going to irrigate this land, however the canals have not been made in spite of having spent 28 crores on this irrigation project. After these plans are shelved, the land is still reserved and going to be given away. So where do all these farmers go? If this world-class city comes at the cost of their livelihood, why should they be compelled to give up their land to MIDC or SEZ authorities in the name of industrialisation? People who are agitating are given very meagre compensation, and this is happening all over India. Titled land holders are not the only ones who are being affected, but labourers, artisans, fisher communities — people whose livelihoods cannot be replaced.
Anand Mahindra: It would be wonderful if there was so much land available that it could be transferred without having to displace anyone. Unfortunately, we are not like Australia, a country which has a huge landmass and a very small population. More than 60% of the population lives off farming. Inevitably, there will be a point when the ideal land for a particular industrial development happens to be populated by farmers. This is the crux of the matter — under what circumstances and in what manner can land transfer take place so that there is a win-win solution for both parties. With Mahindra World City, we were the first private sector operator in Chennai. My own career came under jeopardy when that project took six years to complete because we acquired 98% of the land through private negotiation instead of going through the state. I do not, as Mahindra & Mahindra, have coercive powers to make somebody part with land unless they see a benefit in it for them, and so we took six years longer than necessary. Today we have a thriving SEZ, thriving employment, which is being showcased by the government as a window into what the world would look like in the future. If a farmer does not want to part with his land, I am telling you and I’m making a commitment here, Mahindra & Mahindra will not go ahead with it. So as far as I’m concerned, this is the ethos of our group, and we have proven it by acquiring 98% of the land in Chennai through private negotiation.
RN: Are Special Economic Zones with all their attendant concessions necessary? What are some of the consequences of this?
AM: First of all, when you look at the trajectory and evolution of any economy, there is an inevitable movement from an agrarian economy to a more industrial economy, and then eventually to a service economy. Farmers themselves, and their following generations want to diversify their livelihood. In fact, in the past five years, there has been a sharp rise in rural income, not simply because of agricultural income going up, but because of diversification of income. Connectivity, mobile networks, and rural roads have helped that to happen. If you talk to people in rural areas, they want to diversify.
MP: SEZ is an issue of inequity and injustice because by creating the special economic zones, industries are getting undue benefits, which just cannot be. If you compare the salaries of the CEOs whom the Prime Minister asked to show little restraint, and the wages of the agricultural workers, it’s 32,000:1. That vulgar disparity is going to grow because in SEZs, the land is going to be given away, along with livelihoods, water, electricity, everything on priority and tax concessions under 21 taxability laws. 96% of India’s workers who belong to these so-called unorganised sectors, who do not have pensions, provident funds, or perks, are the people who deserve this. In order to be equitable, corporates need to take development to them without taking their land away. Involve them as part of the cooperatives and do development with them, allow them to choose which types of industries would benefit their communities. This is not happening at all right now.
RN: What could the Indian industry do to respond to this challenge?
AM: If we say that farmers themselves should take their entire land, find an agency that will develop it, have a say in the plan, that is actually happening. There is a farmer agricultural SEZ that is being put together. Taking the example of Magarpatta, this is one place where farmers have been able to do that. But I’m also not going to come out as an industrialist and say the other model is bad. I believe we can bring value as industrialists because we have a global network to attract, we can partner with the best in the world, and we can provide development of a higher order. There has to be a profit motive after all, because I’ve got shareholders. Why should we exclude that model if I can find a way of making it win-win? Let both models thrive.
RN: If the land has already been acquired, how should one navigate the means of compensation, rehabilitation, etc?
MP: We’ve already presented a national policy on minimum displacement, and in case there is this minimum displacement approved with prior informed consent by the communities, then there should be a just rehabilitation, where an alternative source of livelihood is a must. In places where you cannot offer the same livelihood, it should be with the consent of the affected people, who may choose the alternative livelihood. Fish workers, for example, can never get the sea or the river in lieu of a river or a sea. But agriculturists can surely get land. However, the experience on the ground is different from what is agreed on paper. The people who were displaced by the Tata’s dams 100 years ago in the Pune district still have not been rehabilitated or compensated. Corporate social responsibility should first start with the affected population that companies have displaced.
RN: What is the role of the state? Can corporations be expected to do the work of rehabilitation and re-skilling on their own?
AM: Re-skilling is a major issue. It is obviously targeted at trying to get livelihood in the same area. Let’s not presume that the farmers want to get their livelihood replicated. Very often what the farmer wants is for his children to get a different livelihood. This should be the goal of everybody who sets up an SEZ because I believe we should not presume they want to stay with their old way, they may want to move ahead. In a sense, this is already happening if you look around. One of the wonderful statistics I’ve seen of employment is that 40% of the employment as SEZs goes to women. To me, one of the unintentional benefits of the SEZs is distributed development and I believe that it is going to be a secret weapon against urban migration, and against very concentrated development.
MP: In the new land acquisition amendment bill that is before the parliament, although the affected people will be covered under rehabilitation policy, there is an urgency clause where within 48 hours the land can be acquired. In the Rehabilitation Act there is no guarantee of alternative livelihood. There is no job guarantee, there is only preference of jobs. So that is what is happening in the SEZs. Although development is a desirable change and I am not against it, I am against industrialisation. There should be no reservation of land for SEZs and no tax concessions either.
RN: What are some of the reforms that can happen in India and what needs to be done next?
AM: One of the strengths of the Indian economy, which I was implying when I was comparing with China, is that we have multiple voices. When you have only one voice, you’ll end up with seven SEZs and you’ll end up with concentrated development and no panacea to the social ills. Here we have a number of voices. We have checks and balances. I am delighted that Medha is one of those checks and balances. But I think the key word is dialogue. I believe that development is inevitable and it will involve the movement of a population from a primarily agrarian existence to an urbanised existence. 60% of our population subsisting on agriculture is not a sustainable solution for an economy which is growing, and where agricultural productivity is growing. Mercifully, India is blessed with even more arable land than China. We have 40 million hectares of arable land which is not cultivated. Even at their full potential, SEZs are currently projected to only take up 1% of the land in India. So we are not talking about a resource which is going to be consumed to the detriment of everybody. The key point which has to be talked about, and which we focused on today, is the process. How do you enable this use of land so that it is a win-win for industry as well as local communities? In order for this process to be done in a proper way, I think the focus has to be on dialogue, not on division or divergence. If that dialogue continues, and we do not take polarised stances, I believe that’s the only way in a democracy, we’re going to find common ground.
MP: I think what we have discussed is development, displacement and disparities. One cannot start with displacement or disparities. One has to start with development and positively so. But I think we differ in our development perspective. So the dialogue should be at the widest level of the Indian population, not between activists and corporates alone, on what is our development perspective. Are SEZs in world-class cities our priority and are these inevitable for industrialisation? If not, what are the alternative ways of industrialisation? And certainly not presuming that urbanisation plus industrialisation is equal to development, because the large majority does not agree with that as of now. The second dialogue that is necessary, rather the public debate that is necessary, is on the land use pattern. On the one hand, the builders and corporates are acquiring land, IT Parks are taking over, and they are becoming the new modern landlords, while the landless have still not got land. So that arable, cultivable land which is not yet used should first go to the landless and not to the landlord corporates. This is what we must talk about. The third dialogue is whether people’s right to resources should be transformed into their right to development planning. How can decentralised planning under Article 243, bring in real development planning which will be democratic, participatory, inclusive, and not in the name of inclusive growth that excludes communities. Finally, do we have a moral right to displace people from urban slums or from rural areas, when we have not yet rehabilitated the millions of people affected by big dams, whether in Narmada Valley or elsewhere till date.