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Indian cities dump 'progressive' law to speed up land acquisitions

by Rina Chandran | @rinachandran | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 3 October 2018 10:35 GMT

A worker pushes a wheelbarrow to collect cement at a construction site of a residential building in Mumbai, India, August 31, 2018. REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas

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The rapid expansion of Indian cities has triggered disputes over land, with rights groups reporting violent evictions of poorer communities

By Rina Chandran

BANGKOK, Oct 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - India's fast-growing cities are hurting the poor in their drive to speed up land acquisition for new metro train networks, roads and government offices by ditching vital legal safeguards, analysts and campaigners say.

Several states have introduced amendments that dilute the federal Land Acquisition Act of 2013, which was designed to protect land owners by ensuring their consensus, paying generous compensation and rehabilitating those displaced.

Their alternate acquisition methods often "lack transparency and are regressive", said E.A.S. Sarma, an activist who filed a petition against plans to build a greenfield city the size of Seattle along a river in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.

"The amendments to a mostly progressive law have opened the floodgates to forcible acquisition of land," the former bureaucrat told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The rapid expansion of Indian cities has triggered disputes over land, with rights groups reporting violent evictions of poorer communities.

India's urban population is forecast to double by 2050, with the area used by towns and cities rising five times by then, according to the World Resources Institute (WRI), a Washington-based think tank.

That would require an average of 15 square km (6 square miles) of land, fitted with infrastructure and amenities, to be readied every day up to 2050 - most of which would come from converting rural land to urban use, said WRI's Rejeet Mathews.

Tens of millions of farmers till smallholdings in India and protests against land acquisitions are common, with a $17-billion high-speed rail link facing delays due to fruit growers opposed to selling their orchards.

The 2013 law can make land acquisition lengthy and expensive, said Mathews, WRI's head of urban development in India, as it offers compensation of up to four times the market value in rural areas and two times in urban areas.

"States' finances are limited, while land values keep rising," said Mathews.

"The limited availability of land means haphazard growth and inadequate infrastructure and amenities."

For Andhra Pradesh's new city, authorities used land pooling to quickly consolidate smallholdings where owners get back a share of developed land, while the state keeps the remainder.

While participation is voluntary, campaigners say officials ignored protests of farmers unwilling to give up land.

Elsewhere, authorities are embarking on partnerships with private developers, and cluster redevelopment of slums and tenement blocks, including in Mumbai, home to some of the priciest real estate in the world.

Builders are more amenable to these models because the financial risk is less and they usually get additional development rights, said Mathews.

"The advantage also is that they enable easier acquisition of land, so city agencies can more easily provide basic infrastructure and social amenities," she said.

Officials can ensure greater transparency and clarity, by including economic and social impact assessments, as well as grievance mechanisms in these approaches, Mathews said.

"By improving accountability and including all stakeholders, including the landless project-affected, there can equitable and efficient land acquisition," she said.

(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran. Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)

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