My latest column in The Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle.

The ideology bogey
Jul 05, 2011

Patralekha Chatterjee
Call someone ideological, and you have effectively done him/her in. In today’s popular perception, an ideological person does not have an argument. He or she only carries baggage — mostly old, mostly junk — and therefore can be ignored. The latest to get the rap for being ideological is Mani Shankar Aiyar, the former sports minister. Apparently, in the run-up to the Commonwealth Games (CWG), Mr Aiyar shot off a great many missives seeking to draw Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s attention to the extravagance and expenses associated with the event. Dr Singh did not quite see things the same way, and in his recent powwow with editors, described the former sports minister’s opposition to the CWG as “purely ideological”. Never mind that Mr Aiyar is an economics topper from Delhi University, did a Tripos in the subject at Cambridge and could possibly have been making an economic argument against the Games in addition to whatever ideological positions he is charged with. Perhaps we have not heard the end of the story, and one eagerly awaits a witty Aiyarism on the subject.
There is a takeaway lesson here that is relevant to one of the prickliest issues of the day — land acquisition for infrastructure and industry. India needs industry and infrastructure. Both need sizeable tracts of land. However, in a country where most people still live off farming, land continues to be a hugely sensitive issue. It is not only its emotive value. Where there is no social security, people do not easily give up their land, often the only fixed asset they have, if they feel they are not getting a fair compensation. Then, there are issues of livelihood. In tribal areas, where property titles are hazy, it gets more complicated. Anyone cataloguing these issues is often accused of being ideological. That label ends the argument and obscures the practical aspects of the issue. These aspects are now critical.
At this moment, land disputes and protests by affected communities have stalled some of the country’s biggest infrastructure projects, putting a big question mark on the future of economic growth, specifically foreign investment. Land is a state subject. Different states have different land-acquisition policies. The Centre is working on a new bill on the issue that will hopefully make things better.
Meanwhile, a furious debate rages on how best to work out compensation for the project-displaced people. The emphasis, so far, has been on how much money should be paid to people whose land is being acquired and how corporates mired in land acquisition troubles are taking a hit. To get things moving, an equally lively discourse is needed on another key question: How should adverse consequences of development projects be addressed?
Till the 1980s, most policymakers and planners across the world believed that the negative aspects of development-induced displacement were far outweighed by the positive side, and that some people would have to make sacrifices for the long-term greater good. Typically, resettlement programmes meant statutory monetary compensation for land acquired for the project. In some instances, development of the resettlement site was also part of the package. But few policymakers lost sleep worrying about the future of the communities likely to be displaced by infrastructure projects.
The situation started changing in the 1990s. The trigger was the growing chorus of protests in several countries where populations had been forced to move. Policymakers were forced to recognise that insufficient attention to resettlement and rehabilitation of affected communities does not pay in the long run. Academia, public interest groups, activists of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and media started debating the pros and cons of development-induced displacement. This led to a growing realisation that fair compensation to the project-affected people for the loss of their land and livelihood meant not just money but also help to rebuild homes and communities and re-establish businesses.
Within Asia, among the first to accept these shifts in the policy discourse were bankers and donor agencies who gave money to fund infrastructure — notably the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the Japan Bank of International Cooperation (now called the Japan International Cooperation Agency, JICA).
A good example of how a developing country can tackle the twin pressures of infrastructure needs and the interests of communities affected by such projects comes from neighbouring Sri Lanka. In 2001, the island nation adopted a landmark policy, the National Involuntary Resettlement Policy (NIRP). An innovative initiative I saw on the outskirts of Colombo a few years ago — Lunawa Environment Improvement and Community Development Project (LEI&CDP) — offers some ideas on how to translate policy into practice. It was originally conceived as an engineering solution to problems caused by regular flooding in the Lunawa catchment area. But its three key backers — the Sri Lankan government, the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, and the United Nations Human Settlements Programme incorporated a strong community-development component in the project design.
LEI&CDP pioneered the use of NGOs to “sell” a package of interventions to communities who were going to be affected by the project to erase the distrust they traditionally harboured towards government agencies. NGO representatives made door-to-door visits to boost the community’s confidence and goodwill towards the project, to reduce fears about displacement in the early days and help formulate the entitlement packages.
Many families who had lived in shanties previously, who had to move to make way for the project, now own their own homes in the resettlement sites. Everyone, including squatters, now have bank accounts that they acquired when the compensation amounts had to be deposited. When affected families were being resettled in new sites, it was ensured that women were joint owners of the property and had a legal claim. One remarkable mechanism used to revitalise the displaced communities was “community contracting” — community-based organisations in the area issued “community contracts” to build drains, service roads, community centres, etc. within the resettlement sites and others parts of the project area. In many cases, individuals and families have become much richer by tapping into these opportunities.
As India finalises a new land-acquisition deal, it is good to draw a lesson or two from the Lunawa project. Investing time and resources in the preparatory phase pays. When there is a trust deficit, NGO partners can mediate between affected communities, the project team and local authorities. None of this reflects an “ideological” position. It is intensely practical.
The author writes on development issues in India and emerging economies and can be reached at patralekha.chatterjee@gmail.com

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