Planning Commission member Mihir Shah, who was recently appointed as member of the National Advisory Council, tells Sreelatha Menon that the land Bill has enough safeguards against exploitation
What changes do you want to bring to the National Advisory Council (NAC)?
I have a definite objective. I have already proposed setting up a working group to bring reforms in governance. This group will suggest reforms to enable smooth functioning of all flagship programmes. We need fundamental changes — whether it is education, health or any other sector. There are instances of schemes in these sectors doing extremely well. For example, the National Rural Health Mission, or the public distribution system in Chhattisgarh, or the implementation of NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) in Andhra Pradesh. We are trying to bring these experiences together, along with experiences of non-governmental sector and suggest a road map for reforms.
In fact, I told the prime minister that there is now a good interface between the government and the corporate sector, but none between the people and the government. The NAC should become that interface.
Most schemes do not reach the beneficiaries. Even in the case of NREGS (National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme), leakage is rampant.
The route by which funds move and reach the beneficiaries is circuitous. There are ways of fixing this problem. At present, there are many stages through which the funds have to pass. We can easily cut down these umpteen stages. As for NREGS, leakage is bound to happen as it is spread everywhere and not restricted to only those places where it is required.
Recently, Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh described NREGS as a “ditch-digging” scheme in a Youth Congress magazine. NAC member and activist Aruna Roy criticised Ramesh’s view and the emphasis on asset creation. She looks at NREGA as means for social protection of the poor. Is there a divide in civil society on NREGA?
Ramesh has clarified that he was misquoted. But, in the case of Roy, it has been a clear about-turn. She talked about asset creation in the NAC till recently and now she has criticised it. But the fact is that people are not happy with just ‘tukdas’ or the kind of protection she is talking about. Their aspirations are higher than that; their needs are greater than that.
She is pointing out at the benefits of NREGA only after I told the NAC it was promoting cash transfer, which the panel is against. NREGA is conditional cash transfer. And, the members are against this concept. It was then that they changed their stance and started criticising asset creation. Otherwise, they were in sync. In fact, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan leader and activist Nikhil De, who worked with us on the NREGA version 2.0, and the members were fine with it.
You are credited with many ideas that have gone into the land acquisition Bill, especially the sliding rate of compensation for land.
As for sliding rate, the intention is to ensure that the farther you go from urban areas, the more compensation you pay. It is the opposite of what is happening now.
But are the states happy with paying more compensation in rural areas, and less in suburbs?
They are, but the matter of distance and rates is to be left to them.
While the compensation package tries to be fair, the basic justification for the land acquisition still remains.
Activist Medha Patkar has questioned states acquiring land for private companies. But the truth is that land market is unequal and state steps in as a protector. Private sector has been swindling states. So, the law will ensure that any person who loses land gets compensation and rehabilitation. We are going even further. We are saying in private transaction too, rehabilitation should be provided for when land is bought beyond a certain threshold — the limit to be decided by the states.
But there is still nothing to link development to the needs of the people?
We have left the checks to the Social Impact Assessment (SIA). It will include ascertaining the public purpose of a project. What is democracy for if not to make laws that ensure social protection and our rights. Capitalists rule our lives. We can bring social protection and use it when required to protect people. That is what laws are for. Activists and political parties can use these to ensure that people are not exploited.
But those who criticise acquisition per se are anti-industry. People need employment from diverse sources. Who can deny that we need industry and urbanisation? I have worked in rural areas, but even I realise that people in villages cannot do without linkages to industry.
Is it possible to restrict the principle of eminent domain to certain situations rather than keep it open?
It is restricted by the new law. When we say you need consent of 80 per cent of the people, a restriction on eminent domain is automatically present. Then, when we say public purpose, this is also a restriction. Relief and rehabilitation as well as the SIA are all restrictions. Aren’t these?
We all know how public hearings are conducted. Forces and police are present and only selective people are called, while others are prevented.
Yes, we know that. So, technical institutions like the Tata Institute of Social Sciences would conduct the SIA. Identifying people who need compensation would be decided by the SIA. Of course, the land Bill can still be strengthened. But, would you rather prefer the status quo?
You have been working on the 12th Five-Year Plan. What is the change you are awaiting the most?
There are two things. First, reforms in the water sector with emphasis on participatory water management. It would lead to much work on groundwater, including aquifer mapping and a legal framework for groundwater. But the more dramatic change would be in the field of health. The Five-Year Plan would lead to the strengthening of the health sector by introduction of universal health care. Of course, this would require a lot of work. It is not just about free drugs. In fact, that is the easier part. We don’t have human resources and capacities to fulfil the commitments we want to make. So, that would be difficult.
|The interview carries several mistakes that have created misunderstanding and confusion regarding my views on several crucial national issues and constitutes a misrepresentation of what I stand for. Here is a point-wise clarification of what I said on some of the most important issues that were not fairly presented:
- I have been working in many respects towards reforming the interface between the state and the rural poor, something the reforms since the 1990s have tended to neglect, focused as they have been on reforming the interface between the government and the corporate sector. I hope to carry forward this agenda through the National Advisory Council (NAC).
- Some of the corruption under the MGNREGA has occurred because the scheme was extended to areas where there was no demand for it and because there was pressure to spend. So, false entries were made in muster rolls and work was done by using machines.
- I am very happy with the renewed emphasis on asset creation within the NAC, especially among MGNREGA architects, such as Aruna Roy, who were earlier more focused on its rights and social protection aspects, which are, of course, extremely important. But MGNREGA 2.0, which I was asked to draft, gives greater focus to improving productivity and creating durable assets.
- I do not say things like “private sector has been swindling the states” or “capitalists rule our lives”. This is a complete fabrication.
Dr Mihir Shah
Member, Planning Commission, New Delhi
We apologise to Dr Shah for the errors -- Editor