Expert Speak Urban Futures
Published on Jul 16, 2018
Land pooling – a solution to India’s land acquisition woes? Given the pressing need for urban development in India, land acquisition by States has persistently been a key issue. A number of flagship urban development projects have been delayed owing to issues with land acquisition, which often stem from problems with compensation, rehabilitation and resettlement for persons affected. For example, the Ahmedabad-Mumbai Bullet Train project in Gujarat is likely to miss the December 2018 deadline for acquiring land due to farmers resistance and protest, with farmers quoting the lack of information about compensation. The development of the Navi Mumbai International Airport has also been slowed down due to affected families being unwilling to give up their land, citing the unfavorable conditions of their resettlement location and reduced compensation amount. In a country where agricultural land provides a significant section of the population with employment, resistance to land acquisition for development is understandable. Furthermore, States are often unable to finance the necessary compensation for land acquisition. Should land be acquired under the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (RFCTLARR) Act, 2013, States are required to pay close to four times the market value in case of land acquisition in rural areas and twice in case of urban areas. For example, the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC) project has been running behind schedule due to land acquisition issues, with the State of Rajasthan not being able to acquire any land in the first five years since the project was announced, owing to limited funds for land compensation. The current legal framework for land acquisition adds additional complications. The compensation, rehabilitation and resettlement provisions of the RFCTLARR Act are not in consonance with those from 13 other related laws which have been exempted from the RFCTLARR Act. These laws include major infrastructure-related laws such as the National Highways Act of 1956, the Metro Railways (Construction of Works) Act of 1978, the Railways Act of 1989 and the Electricity Act of 2003. The government’s sentiment towards the RFCTLARR Act is also that it is an inconvenient piece of legislation that both impedes the speed and raises the cost of land acquisition: the RFCTLARR has already been challenged at the central level via two ordinances and two amendment bills. With land being a State subject, States too have taken to State-specific legal reforms that bypass the RFCTLARR, many of which drop the need to conduct Social Impact Assessments (SIAs) for land acquisition and change land compensation amounts –  two areas where the RFCTLARR is seen as inflexible and prescriptive by developers, but as key to ensuring people affected get a fair deal. All of this, compounded with the majority of existing civil cases in district courts being land and property disputes, makes for a convoluted state of affairs in governing land acquisition where no one really wins. But, for India to successfully realise its urban aspirations, it is of paramount importance to both increase the ease of land acquisition and adequately address real socio-economic concerns from persons affected. This has proven particularly difficult for States, especially when land acquisition costs factor into the equation.

Potential of land pooling as land acquisition model

It is in light of this current context that land pooling has emerged in India as a viable and popular alternative to direct land acquisition, with States amending laws to allow for this mechanism to be utilised. Land pooling – also known as land readjustment or land reconstitution – is a land acquisition strategy where ownership rights of privately held land parcels are transferred to an appointed agency, with these land parcels being pooled as a result. The agency uses some of the pooled land for infrastructure development and sale, while the rights to new parcels in the pooled land are transferred back to the original landowners in some proportion to their original property. From the public agency’s perspective, this is a fiscally conservative scheme: the agency need not pay land acquisition costs, the sale of land will provide some revenue, and compensation comes from landowners now owning land that has increased in value following development. With such schemes also seeking the voluntary consent of landowners and being packaged with other forms of compensation (e.g. annual payouts for crop loss), land pooling looks to fast-track the traditional land acquisition process while still addressing social concerns. It also allows for irregularly shaped and small parcels of land to be reconstituted as more appropriate plots for developmental use, and ideally places emphasis on being transparent with landowners in the entire process. Land pooling is not new to India. It has been utilised in Gujarat under the mechanism of Town Planning Schemes (TPS), where the area of a single TPS can range from 100 to 1,200 hectares and cover 100 to 2,000 individual parcels of land. The TPS has allowed for a 76-km long ring road to be built in Ahmedabad and is also key to amassing the land needed for developing the Dholera Special Investment Region. In Andhra Pradesh too, land pooling has been done on an exceptionally large scale for the development of its new capital city of Amaravati. More than 33,000 acres of land were acquired from thousands of landowning farmers, and over 59,000 plots have been returned. The Delhi Development Authority (DDA) is also in the process of issuing a land pooling policy geared at catalysing housing development. While land pooling offers a much more participatory vision of development than direct land acquisition, compensation and resettlement under land pooling is still a source for concern for the people affected. For example, some farmers in Dholera have resisted pooling their land, arguing that to restart farming on their reconstituted plots incurs high costs as new farm equipment must be bought. Whether or not proper consent for land pooling has been given by landowners is also debatable, with the speed needed for development often pressuring agencies to make land pooling compulsory. This has been the case for the Navi Mumbai Airport Influence Notified Area (NAINA) development, whereby land pooling was made mandatory instead of voluntary owing to delays. More must also be done to ensure that compensation and resettlement provisions extend to tenant farmers and agricultural labourers, as compensatory packages are often insufficient for the landless. For example, the land pooling scheme for Amaravati for tenant farmers and landless families only includes a monthly payout of Rs 2,500. Furthermore, being able to pool land is reliant on there being clearly documented land ownership records, which is often not the case. More work needs to be done to both study and fine-tune land pooling and its associated legal framework so that it can be a true alternative to land acquisition in India. The devil is truly in the details – authorities must be clear and transparent with the people affected about how exactly compensation, resettlement and rehabilitation will be done under land pooling, and not let the urgency of land acquisition override social concerns. Done well, land pooling can possibly enjoy greater legitimacy and trust among stakeholders than conventional land acquisition, truly allowing India to have inclusive development where all can benefit.
Kimberly Chia Yan Min is pursuing her Environmental Studies and South Asia Studies at Wellesley College, US
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