Four furlongs to the promised land

The recent developments around the Lokpal Bill have captured the imagination of India’s middle class, which clearly perceives poor governance and corruption to be a threat to its global aspirations. The middle class has demonstrated that it intends to play a decisive role in determining the terms of the national political discourse.

However, if this new-found energy is to lead to a revitalisation of the Indian democracy, it must satisfy two conditions. First, a recognition that holistic solutions can only emerge if the problem is addressed in all its complexities, rather than merely seeking symptomatic relief. Second, taking on board the pent-up frustration in the other India, which has silently suffered the consequences of misgovernance for long. The issue of land administration in India provides an eloquent illustration of such deep-rooted misgovernance and corruption.
There are, at least, four facets of land administration which are relevant to an understanding of the ramifications of poor governance and corruption.
The first is about recording and maintaining land records in a transparent, concurrent and fair manner, which provides security for landholders, sub-tenants and others with traditional rights of usage. The lack of importance accorded to this vital area of governance in most states has been truly breathtaking. The consequences of this neglect have been felt disproportionately by the poor who eke out precarious livelihoods on lands on which they often find it difficult to establish their rights.
There have been significant improvements in some states like Karnataka and Gujarat due to a combination of leadership and technology. The National Land Records Modernisation Programme (NLRMP) aims at an ICT-powered, real-time, conclusive land titling system with title guarantee, throughout the country. But whether such an ambitious objective, which requires significant legal, administrative and attitudinal changes, can be achieved against the backdrop of decades of neglect remains to be seen.
The second facet has to do with the administration of forest lands. The Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, sought to correct historical injustices by conferring tenurial and forest management rights on forest dwellers who were denied the rights for long. However, as the recent report of the national committee on the FRA highlights, the historical baggage of the colonial era forest administration which held that the forest was the property of the sovereign and the forest dweller an interloper, remains to be fully discarded. As a result, the objectives of improving livelihood security of forest dwellers and forest governance have not been achieved. An exercise that aims at establishing legal rights without a firm foundation of land surveys, measurement and demarcation cannot be expected to yield the best results.
The good intention of conferring rights on forest dwellers has in many states been negated by the faulty constitution of gram sabhas under the Panchayat Extension to the Scheduled Areas Act (Pesa), 1996. Most states have constituted gram sabhas at the panchayat level, thus diluting the authority of the real stakeholders in the governance of community resources.
The Pesa and the FRA are two of the most progressive pieces of legislation in independent India, but until their provisions are implemented honestly and without distortion, the forest dwellers will remain poor and marginalised.
The third facet has to do with the mining industry. A large part of India’s mineral endowments is in tribal and forest areas where land administration is the weakest. In non-forest mineral-bearing areas, the quality of land settlement is typically poor and outdated.
In forest lands, recognition of tenurial rights has, till now, been a rare exception. As a result, forest dwellers are easily displaced when mining operations start, often resulting in their extreme impoverishment. These problems are further compounded when the mining is done by illegal operators who have no interest in the welfare of the local inhabitants or the local environment. The government’s failure to rein in the mining mafias in several states has had a devastating effect on local communities.
The fourth facet is about land acquisition, an issue that has occupied much headline space in recent months. Here, too, the issue is essentially about an antiquated approach to the concept of public interest which arms the state with enormous discretionary powers to divest owners of their land. It remains to be seen whether the new enactment can strike a balance between all stakeholders, including those championing the cause of development.
The many tragic consequences of the monumental neglect of land administration constitute an important part of the essence of the failure of governance and the spread of corruption in India. The Maoist threat in many parts of the country is a direct consequence of this neglect. While elements of an enabling policy framework, as manifest in the FRA, Pesa, NLRMP and the draft Land Acquisition Bill, now exist to reverse the situation, there is a long way to go before intentions can be translated into practice. Sustained pressure from an informed civil society will be essential if this is to happen.

Ujal Singh Bhatia is a retired civil servant

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