On 11 October, the Union Cabinet approved the National Policy on Rehabilitation and Resettlement (R&R) 2007, to replace the National Policy on Resettlement and Rehabilitation for Project Affected Families, 2003. In the last year or so, as intense protests broke out all over the country against the Special Economic Zones (SEZ), the central government had tried to assuage the wrath of the protestors by declaring that a R&R policy would be announced soon - 'within a month' in fact. The one month stretched into many, and even now, when the much awaited policy has been approved, it has still not been made public!
A new R&R policy was among the key instruments taken up by the National Advisory Council (NAC) headed by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Chairperson Sonia Gandhi to address the issues of the 'common man'. While the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the Right to Information Act became a reality, the NAC was rendered defunct after the resignation of Gandhi in March 2006, and the R&R policy fell aside. It is the protests against SEZs that provided urgency to the issue of a new R&R policy. The SEZs - new flagships of the UPA's version of shining India - faced a real threat of being derailed due to the ferocity of the protests. The promised R&R policy was aimed as much at the protestors as it was at the industrialists queuing up for creating new SEZs.
Possibly the most important promise is the decision to bring a legislation on the lines of the new policy. This addresses one of the key criticisms of the rehabilitation regime in the country - that land is acquired through a law (the Land Acquisition Act), but there is no law conferring the explicit right to rehabilitation. While in general Article 21 of the Constitution has been invoked to assert the right for rehabilitation, the Courts have upheld that compulsory acquisition of land is not a violation of the Right to Life. A nationally applicable law that ensures the right to rehabilitation, drawing upon Article 21 and the Right to Life with dignity, is an urgent necessity.
However the problem is that if the legislation is based on the new policy, then its many shortcomings will also be translated into law. It is precisely to prevent such an eventuality that the new policy needs to be discussed and debated widely first, before the government attempts to bring out legislation.
Another important provision in the new policy is that projects displacing people above a threshold number will require a Social Impact Assessment (SIA) that shall take into account "the impact that the project will have on public and community properties, assets and infrastructure". This will be reviewed by an independent multi-disciplinary group and the project will have to seek a SIA Clearance based on this, and will have to follow all conditions set therein.
Two other important provisions are that "land acquired for a public purpose cannot be transferred to any other purpose but a public purpose" and if acquired land remains unutilised for more than 5 years, it shall revert back to the government. It has been seen that often projects acquire lands far in excess of their requirement, and use them for commercial or other purposes like development of extravagantly large colonies and gardens. In Gujarat, the Narmada dam project had forcibly acquired the lands of six villages for the project colony in early 1960s. These people were not considered eligible for the resettlement package and have been fighting for their proper rehabilitation till now. Yet, large stretches of these lands remained unused. Now, these lands are being proposed to be handed over to developers for five star hotels, a golf course and other such attractions. The provisions in the new policy would potentially stop such grotesque misuse of the Land Acquisition Act, more so if it required the return of unused land to the original owners.
Among the objectives of the policy is one that is of fundamental importance - to minimize displacement of people and to promote non-displacing or least-displacing alternatives.
In spite of these important improvements, the policy has serious limitations. Take the case of the objective of minimising displacement of people. To achieve this in any meaningful way, it has to be effected at the project conception stage itself, where a consideration of minimising displacement could even lead to a change in the choice of technology itself, not just in the size of project. It is not clear how the policy will ensure that these criteria have been followed in the project conception, preparation and design.
Another problem is the many loopholes in the policy. For example, the resettlement provisions include "land-for-land, to the extent Government land would be available in the resettlement areas; preference for employment in the project to at least one person from each nuclear family subject to the availability of vacancies and suitability of the affected person.." Such clauses like "if available", "as far as possible" have been used widely and extensively by project authorities in the country to evade responsibility of proper rehabilitation, and such ambiguities and escape-routes have no place in a policy that deals with the very Right to Life itself.
The policy has important provisions for grievance redressal mechanisms like Project/District R&R Committees, an Ombudsman, a National Monitoring Committee, a National Monitoring Cell and a National Rehabilitation Commission. But there is nothing in the policy that clearly says whether any of these committees and commissions have the power to stop construction on the project and related activities, stop all expenditure (except possibly salaries) in the event of a failure or slippage of resettlement.
Experience in the country has shown that the most effective, and in many cases, the only way to ensure implementation of R&R provisions is under the threat of stopping work on the project.
Broader questions - a reiteration
In the ultimate analysis, an R&R Policy has to be part and parcel of a broader development policy that is committed to ensuring justice, equity and sustainability along with economic benefits. Thus, the policy has to be evaluated on the following broad parameters.
Do the potentially affected people have a meaningful say in the project decision making process? Internationally, the idea of Free and Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) is increasing becoming the new desired goal, especially where the affected people are tribals. Does our policy at least ensure that the affected people have a rightful part in the decision making related to the project?
Does the development planning process attempt to minimize or avoid displacement? Is displacement a factor in the decision making? Does the planning process require the feasibility of resettlement to be established before giving a go-ahead to a project?
Do the development policy and the R&R policy require that benefits of the project be shared with the affected people? That indeed, they have the first right on the benefits?
Does the R&R policy require that no displacement or impact can occur without resettlement being achieved first (for example, in case of a dam, no submergence without resettlement), and does it require that work be stopped in case of slippage of R&R?
Clearly, the new R&R policy fails to meet expectations on most of these counts, and meets them only partially on some.
The new policy's stated aim is to strike "a balance between the need for land for developmental activities and, at the same time, protecting the interests of the land owners, and others . whose livelihood depends on the land involved." It is doubtful if this balance has been stuck. Many of the important recommendations made by displaced people and their organisations seem to have been ignored. There is real danger that the policy will again end up paying lip-service to the affected people with the mistaken hope that this will pacify the protests against large scale displacement taking place all over the country.
As things stand, the country is likely is loose the opportunity once again, to put in place a progressive, just and equitable R&R policy that is a part of a larger developmental policy. However, one hopes that it is not too late, and these serious shortcomings - that question its very credibility and utility - are addressed before the policy is transformed into law. In the meantime, we are still waiting for the government's first step -- making the policy public.