Underlining the question of farmers’ concerns, right after making good on its promise to waive farm loans, the newly-installed Congress government of Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel in Chhattisgarh has begun the process of returning the land of tribal farmers in the Lohandiguda area of the state’s tribal-majority Bastar district which had been acquired for a steel plant.
Since the beginning of last year, farmers’ protests in different parts of the country have underscored agricultural distress and farmers’ woes. Farm loan waivers by the recently-elected Congress state governments, and now the return of acquired lands, may suggest that the BJP’s main opponent might be making farmers’ questions a major election issue ahead of the Lok Sabha polls next year.
Land had been acquired in 2008 by the previous Raman Singh government of the BJP to be given to the Tatas for an integrated steel plant under a memorandum of understanding. In 2016, the Tatas withdrew from the scene in the face of farmers’ protests although compensation had been paid to farmers.
The Baghel government has paved the way for the return of tribal farmers’ lands on the ground that more than five years had passed since the land was acquired by the state, but had not been put to the use for which it was meant. It is surprising that the Raman Singh government did not take this step, especially after the Tatas decided to call it a day.
Acquiring land from farmers for industrial and commercial purposes on the right terms has emerged as a major constraint. Massive and protracted protests at Nandigram and Singur in West Bengal eventually consumed the Left Font government in West Bengal. Subsequently, the twin villages of Bhatta-Parasaul in the Greater Noida emerged as a major flashpoint in 2011. This had in fact marked Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s first major political campaign.
The 2013 Land Acquisition, Resettlement and Rehabilitation Act passed by the UPA government, by making drastic changes to the colonial-era legislation of 1894, satisfied the farmers but displeased industry and commercial interests, who thought its procedures cumbersome and the terms of trade too weighted in favour of the farm sector.
At the end of 2015, after a year of intensive efforts to satisfy industry, the Narendra Modi government threw in the towel, when repeated attempts by it to alter the 2013 law failed. This was the first major political victory of the Congress in Parliament after its stunning 2014 defeat. Pertinent in the context of land acquisition, in August 2016 the Supreme Court called the land acquisition procedures adopted in the Singur case “illegal”. Of course, the larger question of suitable terms of sale of agricultural land for non-farm use remains.