Indian "land bank" aims to protect farmers from forced acquisitions

MUMBAI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A northern Indian state is setting up a “land bank” to allow farmers to voluntarily sell property in an effort to tackle forced acquisitions for industrial projects that often lead to violent confrontations.

The Haryana government on Thursday said it would create a land bank to buy land from willing farmers. Owners may apply to sell voluntarily on an online portal, and the state will then buy the land at an agreed rate if it matches their criteria.

“Under this concept, there will be no forcible land acquisition. This will be a win-win situation for the government, as well as the sellers,” Chief Minister Manohar Lal told reporters, without giving any other details.

Conflicts between farmers and states have risen as demand increases for land for industrial projects to boost India’s economic growth.

A land acquisition law passed in 2013 was meant to protect the rights of farmers, ensuring consensus in any land transaction, rehabilitation for those displaced, and compensation up to four times the market value.

But several states have since introduced laws to speed up acquisitions that dilute several of these protections.

A land bank may aim to protect farmers’ rights, but in practice may only benefit the state and developers, said E.A.S. Sarma, a land rights campaigner.

“In the Indian context, ‘voluntary’ is a misnomer, as most acquisitions are accompanied by a degree of intimidation,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“If a government official comes with the police and asks someone to give up their land, that’s not voluntary.”

Conflicts related to land and resources in India have stalled industrial and development projects worth billions of dollars, and affected millions of people, according to a recent report.

NITI Aayog, a government think tank, had proposed the idea of a public land bank to lease land to landless cultivators.

Land owners can deposit land in the bank and potential cultivators can lease the land they need, paying rent to the agency that will pay the owner, it said in a 2015 paper.

The model does not suit industrial projects, said Sarma, and there have been few moves to adopt the system.

Land acquired for industrial use is coming under greater scrutiny in India, with the Supreme Court earlier this month asking seven states why much of the land bought for special economic zones is lying idle.