Saturday, September 25, 2010

In India, the land is for grabbing

With only two per cent of the world’s land mass and eighteen per cent population India is a land-scarce country. This is the reason Indians find the lure of the land irresistible, the mentality is to own it, by fair means or foul, before the competition gets there. Not only individual Indians but also the various departments of the government, Railways, defence establishment, corporates in public and private sectors, infrastructure projects, builders, educational institutions, hospitals and all sorts of non-government organizations are either sitting on huge tracts of land or are out to grab as much land as possible and that by paying much less than what the market decides.

For developing Special Economic Zones, large Indian businesses have purchased tens of thousands of acres of land at highly subsidised prices decided by the state governments. They want to duplicate what was done in China, of course thirty years too late. The world has moved ahead; today employment generation is not so land-intensive as it was back in the nineteen nineties but so what? Then we have the Singur fiasco, in which the Tata Motors finally gave up the small car project after a long battle with the Trinamool Congress. For more than a year the company had been insisting on having no less than 1,000 acres for its factory and that at one place. Maruti Suzuki produces more cars in a

500 acre factory at Gurgaon than the number the Tata Motors had planned for at Singur. But the Tata Motors did not have to revise down its requirement for land, in fact it was able to take on long-term lease from the Gujarat government more than 1,100 acres at Sanand at nominal lease rent.

Similar was the case of the now abandoned gas-based mega power plant at Dadri near Delhi which the Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group (ADAG) had planned and for which the U.P. government had purchased 4,000 acres of land at far less than the going rate in the area. The ADAG wanted to produce 4,000 mega watts of power initially, increasing the capacity to a maximum 8,000 mega watts over time. No justification was ever sought or offered for requiring that much land when the 330 mega watt gas-based Pragati Maidan power plant in Delhi could be built over only 37 acres. At that rate the Dadri plant should not have needed more than 900 acres.

The Orissa government has helped the Vedanta Group buy 4,000 acres for the latter’s proposed university but the Vedanta is not satisfied. It had originally planned for an 8,000 acre university a la Stanford University in California and reluctantly settled for 6,000 acres. The Vedanta and the Orissa government have failed to appreciate the fact that the Stanford University was built in the 19th century in an almost empty California when compared to the bursting-at-the-seems India of the 21st century.

These are only representative cases, the illness is prevalent across the board. The government of India can not afford to continue to adopt a policy of laisse faire; after in-depth consultations with experts in different fields it should lay down guidelines on land use and land holdings for various commercial and institutional activities. Land should be allowed to be bought for legitimate uses but not for the purpose of building land banks.

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