November 29, 2011

life in general & financial markets: a veteran activist's insights into indian govt's handling of land acqusition & other policies

Land acqusition, unemployment, environmental degradation, social justice are critical issues India faces today. Below is an interview of Aruna Roy, a veteran and hands-on social activist, as published on an internet site, which provides useful insights into these issues.

Here is the interview.

28 November, 2011
Magsaysay award winner Ms Aruna Roy has been the member of National Advisory Council (NAC) headed by the UPA Chairperson Ms Sonia Gandhi in both of its Avtars and has influenced several social policies of the country. Ms Roy, also the founder member of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), a people's organisation in Rajasthan recently visited to the proposed POSCO area in Jagatsingpur district in Odisha to observe the protest of people against the land acquisition there. Speaking to Pradeep Baisakh , she shares her observation on POSCO issue, on Land Acquisition Bill, on National Food security Bill and on the performance of MGNREGA in Odisha.
You recently visited proposed POSCO area in Jagatsingpur district of Odisha. Please share with us your observation.
Aruna Roy: The villagers in Dhinkia are completely opposed to the project, and are unwilling to give up any of their personal, or community land. Attempts by the state government for land acquisition are being made in a legal vacuum, as the MoU of the government with POSCO has been lapsed. This makes this forcible land acquisition morally and legally unjustified.
People's democratic voices shouldn't be crushed. People's consent is a must for establishing any industrial project. This is even more important in the context of the proposed new Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation legislation.
Thousands of trees are being felled by the district administration when the project does not legally exist (MoU is yet to be renewed). How far is this defensible?
Aruna Roy: Exactly that we have to say that now there is no legal ground. Reportedly, several thousand trees approximately 40-50,000 trees have already been chopped by the administration. The government is planning to cut lakhs trees like Casurina casuarinas, Jackfruit, Cashew nut and Mangroves. This tree cutting activities will leave the area exposed to cyclones and other environmental disasters in an area with a very sensitive ecology. Felling of trees is completely unacceptable.
We also have observed that people there want to work but there is no Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in the area. MGNREGA has to function as this is the right of every individual. No matter what for the people of Dhinkia have protested, it's still a part of India and people of the Panchayat are citizen of this country.
The Panchayat premises occupied by the police should be vacated. We also have said that the Sarpanch of Dhinkia panchayat, who has been suspended by the state government, should be reinstated. He cannot be suspended for what law requires him to do i.e. for holding Palli Sabhas (General body of the village). This is not a constitutional violation of any sort and this is not corruption.
National Food Security bill does not say about universal PDS. Even the draft recommended by the NAC does not guarantee universal food security despite the people like you, Jean Dreze (Now is no more a member of NAC) and Harsh Mander being the members of NAC?
Aruna Roy: The NAC draft says about 90% coverage. Actually universal PDS is something we all demanded, but somehow in the process of negotiation with the GoI, it got whittled down. This was one of the most painful processes and it has been very difficult to convince government.
The government actually did not look it as the right to food and health issue of people but from the point of view of problems in storage and procurement and from financial point of views. The government bill is quite disappointing and has taken away some of the vital recommendations of NAC e.g. the grievance redressal mechanism. They are for putting in UID and cash transfer in it, two things that NAC totally opposed because they are very dangerous. Recently Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera did a survey and came out with the fact that PDS is doing very well in Odisha and shown signs of revival in other states too. This shows that the system as it is can function.
What's your position on introduction of fortified food? Does not it lead to corporatisation of PDS?
Aruna Roy: It is totally unacceptable. What may be the fortified food and its new definition; you have enough nutritious food in the villages which will cater to the needs of the malnourished children. What's necessary is cooking is done and hot meal is provided. And that is the most important thing.
How do you react to the Supreme Court observation that the current Land Acquisition Law should rather be thrown away?
Aruna Roy: A new land acquisition law is coming which will replace the existing law. We have suggested that the first test of the land acquisition bill and the discussion should take place in Dhinkia Panchayat, because people have been displaced from there. All that is suggesting should now be tested in action. We suggest that there should be public hearing in Dhinkia itself on the project.
You have favoured a direct negotiation by the private corporate with people and acquire land in the new land acquisition law. Do not you think there is risk of people being intimidated and cheated in the process?
Aruna Roy: Now there are so much of private investments coming, if government acquires land for them, then it will go into that business. By effect something like Singur and Nadigram will be repeated. It should limit itself acquiring land for projects which serve public purpose e.g. for government offices, schools, hospitals.
If the government acquires land for the privates, then there will be creation of land bank like in Tamil Nadu and in Karnataka. And when the land bank is traded off, the person who is dispossessed of the land gets very little money than what profits are made there after. So it becomes a business. At one level it's much more difficult for people to oppose the government than to the private industries. The government should rather play the role of a regulator in such cases. It should regulate that no land is acquired below some market price, that anyone displaced in this process should get all rights covered by the Resettlement & Rehabilitation policies or laws.
You must be aware that CBI inquiry is going on in six districts of Odisha on the allegations of corruption in MGNREGA. So much of money is flushed under MGNREA to the state which is siphoned off and distressed migration in the KBK region and beyond is actually on the rise. Is it not wastage of public money when the state government is apathetic toward its implementation?
Aruna Roy: You cannot extrapolate the Odisha experience to the whole country. I think it's the administrative failure that people are not applying for work, people are not getting jobs in time. And if you do not receive application in time and you do not give wages in time, then people will go out looking for work. I really do think that there is a conspiracy in the government in general against NREGA because you cannot siphon off money as easily as you can do in other welfare works. If you look at other rural development work those have come to us, you cannot know where and how crores of money is being siphoned off. MGNREGA is the first programme that tells that the money is siphoned off. It is because NRGEA has made mandatory that the transparency and accountability is put into system.
Especially in the areas where there are Maoist influences or suspected Maoist influences it is more than necessary that this programme functions properly to bring in basic needs to the people and ensure that there is peace. Right to food and right to 100 days employment are guarantees against starvation and deaths.
What suggestion do you have for the Odisha government to improve the performance of MGNREGA?
Aruna Roy: I met the Chief Minister about three years ago. I made a presentation on the operation of NREGA in Rajsthan. I said if you paint the basic information of NREGA on walls, like how many job cards issued, and how many people have been given how much money –so translating the MIS to what we call it as JIS-Janata Information System. So you put it on wall, people will take care of it.
Secondly, work must be given in fifteen days time and give unemployment allowance in case of default. For making this work you need political will from the Chief Minister and bureaucratic will from the Chief Secretary and the Secretary from Principal Secretary, Rural Development. Unless you have a trigger of a dated acknowledgement receipt, followed by work and payment, things will not happen. It also means improving your MIS system, whether it means improving the system of payment, it must be done.
And I think any government that neglects NREGA that does with its own risk. So much money that comes in and this money it will provide even political benefit. But to neglect it, in my opinion, is not only a tragedy for the people but also it is dangerous for both administrative and political system.
Do you basically tell that political and administrative will in the state is lacking on issues relating to implementation of MGNREGA?
Aruna Roy: Well, It seems so.
You are the member of NAC in both of its avtars . Do you think that Ms Gandhi and the central government are using NAC as a ‘safety valve' to manage the rising discontent of people owing to the kind of public (economic) policies being pursued which has widened the gap between the haves and the have-nots?
Aruna Roy: I do not believe in horoscopes. So I cannot predict nor can I read. As an activist we ask and demand for many things. If in the first NAC there had been no common minimum programme which made the commitment to the people of India and for the first time after 25 years poor and issues of poor surfaced in the political discourse. Now, whatever may be the reason for their putting on this, for people like us its important to grab whatever space we have, catch them on their commitment and make them implement it. The NREGA, the RTI, the forest rights bill and the domestic violence bill all came out of it.
There is some polarity on what the government wants and what social policies demands. It which case, it should be boosted by our public demand. Ultimately if we believe violent revolution, then it's different matter. But if people want peaceful change, then we are also limited in the arenas in which we can get it. We have to make wider push as much as we can in whatever space we get. So those of us who have worked in this space that is provided have tried to push the system.
Pradeep Baisakh is a Freelance Journalist based in Bhubaneswar . He has extensively written on transparency law, right to work and food, environment issues, industrialisation and development, women, tribal rights etc. He can be contacted through e mail: .

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