* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.Across India, land banks raise questions of ownership, rights and land use
By Arpitha Kodiveri, Hans Kelsen Fellow and doctoral researcher at the European University Institute
Land banks for industries have been built across the eastern Indian state of Odisha in an apparent effort to provide land quickly to industries and to improve the state’s rankings in the Ease of Doing Business Index. A cursory glance of GOiPLUS, the online portal that carries the database of land banks across the state, shows the land banks held by the Odisha Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation (IDCO). They are mostly close to water and mineral sources.
As land conflicts challenge industrial expansion in India, land banks are seen as a way to manage these conflicts. But this is done without following due process requirements laid down in laws such as the Land Acquisition Act, 2013 (LARR) and the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA).
The use of land banks in India has not always been about administrative action asserting eminent domain. A report submitted to the Planning Commission by a working group headed by economist Bina Agarwal in 2011 suggested that unused land that was cultivable could be placed in a state land bank. Authorities could then distribute this land among the landless communities.
Government think-tank NITI Aayog has also suggested that land stuck with government agencies could be allocated for affordable housing in urban areas. But a departure in the use of state land banks from an instrument for distributive justice to one where land is speedily handed over for industry is evident across India.
The problem is arguably worse in forest land. Historically the rights of local communities over forest land have been violated. The Forest Rights Act, 2006 sought to correct this historical injustice by recognizing the rights of forest-dwelling communities to their lands and resources. But implementation has been poor in most states, and the risk of acquisition for industry remains high.
A recent notification by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change suggests banking forest land for compensatory afforestation, a scheme where if forest land is acquired for a development project, an equivalent area of non-forest land or twice the amount of degraded forest land will be earmarked for plantation of trees. But there have been several cases of land banks for compensatory afforestation being created on commons, thus violating the rights of communities a second time.
To acquire forest land, the consent of the local community is required under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. But since the landmark Supreme Court judgement in the Vedanta case in 2013, where the mining conglomerate was prevented from mining the Niyamgiri hills, there have been few instances where local communities’ rejection of a proposed acquisition has prevailed.
While local communities report of surveys being conducted without their knowledge, officials maintain that the land being identified for land banks already belongs to the state, and was being banked so that the cumbersome process of acquisition under the LARR and FRA can be avoided.
Across India, land banks raise questions of ownership, rights and land use. Land banks are little more than mechanisms for creating enclaves for industries, while millions of rural and forest-dwelling communities continue to be displaced for such development without access to land for livelihood, resettlement and rehabilitation.