Waiting for Rahul?

By Kuldip Nayar

Dongria Kondh tribals walk in front of Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi, center wearing white, in the Niyamgiri Hills near Lanjigarh, in the eastern Indian state of Orissa, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2010. – Photo by AP.

Some 80,000 farmers protested near Parliament House in New Delhi last week against the paltry compensation paid by the government for the land it took over in “public interest”. An 1847 act empowers the state to acquire land in dire eventuality.

The UP government has taken over hundreds of acres to build an express Yamuna corridor for industry. True, the state is paying more or less the market price, as enjoined by a Supreme Court ruling. But the farmers’ contention is that the land is their only asset and if taken away, they are left with only cash which does not provide a living.

Is invoking ‘public interest’ for industrialists justified? Essentially, it raises the old question: how far can land or natural resources be appropriated in the name of development?

A similar situation forced the government to dilute the scheme of a Special Economic Zone (SEZ). Large tracts were acquired “in public interest” and passed on to big industrial or business houses which would put up a factory on a small tract of land and use the rest, hundreds of acres, to establish hotel and entertainment facilities. There was so much protest that the government had to leave it to the buyer and seller to decide. Now that there is pressure on the UP government — one farmer is on a fast unto death — it can consider applying the same formula.

Therefore, the amendment to the Land Acquisition Act was a foregone conclusion. Unfortunately, politics has devalued such an altruistic step. Rising star Rahul Gandhi announced his opposition to the act while addressing the farmers’ rally. The government has promised to follow his advice.

This is not the first time that the government has allowed him to take the credit. Only a few days ago he succeeded in having a project wound up in Orissa where the tribals were up in arms over the installation of a factory next to a mine-mound they worshipped. The centre is probably right in rejecting the project on environmental grounds. But must it seem to be done at the behest of Rahul Gandhi? Politics is very much there because the tribals, once the vote bank of the ruling Congress party, have left it. His address to them in Orissa that he was their “sepoy at Delhi” is sheer propaganda for the Congress which has appointed him the secretary general. It is conceded that development may need to step on the toes of environment or natural resources. But such decisions are rarely explained to the public in detail. There are many instances where a party in power for sheer graft has tilted a particular decision. So long as there is no transparency, government action would be seen with suspicion.

At least the farmers in Punjab have a grievance. On reports of rotting food grains, the Supreme Court appointed commissioners to ascertain the fact. They have reported that as much as 50,000 metric tonnes (MT) of grain have already gone bad. They dubbed the negligence by officials as genocidal and recommended that responsibility and accountability be fixed at the highest level.

They also warned that this is just a third of the wheat lying in the open since 2008-09 in Punjab, and the entire lot could have become unfit for consumption as the Food Corporation of India norms allow grain to be exposed to nature for only a year. In Haryana too, 31.574 MT of grain have been lying in the open since 2008-09.

The rice grown in Punjab last year has not yet been picked up; godowns are packed to capacity. The new crop is still to arrive. Agriculture minister Sharad Pawar, ordered by the Supreme Court to distribute for free the rice which is lying in the open, dilly-dallied before the court snubbed him. Pawar’s heart is more in cricket than in his ministry — a sensitive person would have resigned long ago.

The mishandling of food grain is only one example. The shame of the Commonwealth Games is another. The government doesn’t seem to be doing anything competently, reflecting some kind of panic in the ruling party. Elections are three and a half years away. No doubt, the party has lost some ground because of its ridiculous stand on the nuclear energy bill.

Yet no viable opposition is emerging. The communists, reduced from 60 to 16 in the Lok Sabha, look like losing even their citadel, West Bengal, in the state election next year. The Bharatiya Janata Party is not gaining either. It will soon be in the midst of the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi controversy — the court judgment is due this month.

In fact, this is an ideal time for the Congress to rise above politics and take decisions that have long been pending. For example, the draconian laws which have shrunk space for democracy need to be withdrawn, particularly the Armed Forces Act which gives security forces the right to kill without accountability.

The 10-year-old agitation in Manipur would end if the 52-year-old act was withdrawn. Even otherwise, the democratic face of the polity has become deformed by giving the armed forces the power to kill on suspicion. The very name of the act evokes anger in Kashmir and in the north-east.

Still, the government continues to make mistakes. It has decided to enumerate castes for the census which started in the beginning of the year. The Manmohan Singh government has undone the work of decades that Jawaharlal Nehru and his successors had put in to efface the curse of caste from Indian body politic. Caste was the British government’s innovation to create dissensions in the country.

One would have expected Prime Minister Singh or the powerful Congress president Sonia Gandhi to take control of the situation. But it is Rahul Gandhi coming to the people’s rescue. Rahul Gandhi is being projected by the ruling Congress as the next prime minister. How will the country run till then?

The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi.

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