Perhaps no other country has as many land-related disputes as India, rendering land acquisition painful. Union Ministry of Rural Development Secretary in the Department of Land Resources Anita Chaudhary responded to questions by Shashidhar Nanjundaiah and Kanishka Gupta*.Setting limits for states to acquire land has been hailed as a reforms-friendly move. However, merely empowering states with no mandate has not worked uniformly. Are there any checks and balances to this?As you are aware, land and its management falls in the state list. Government of India (GoI) intervenes only in case of land acquisition. As far as setting limits, in respecting the spirit of the states’ autonomy, it is better that the states fix their own thresholds and limits based on local circumstances, instead of having national uniform limits. Local conditions may change from region to region or over time. This flexibility has been there historically, which we have not tried to disturb now.How does the centre coordinate with the states in training them for effective implementation of land use?The policy of how land should be managed for the entire country still remains within the domain of GoI. Various Centre schemes are in motion, including the important National Land Reforms Modernisation Scheme (NLRMS), through which we are giving plenty of funds to the state governments for conducting a cadastral survey of the country.Perhaps you are aware that the last cadastral survey done in this country was during the British raj about 100 years ago. After this we have never done a cadastral survey in this country. And meanwhile, land records have undergone a lot of change. Property ownership has changed hands, and although the text data may have been upgraded in some states, the spatial data has not been upgraded. Because of this, a large number of land disputes arise—and that’s why the courts are so heavily burdened. We are encouraging them to conduct a survey of the entire area, for which the GoI funds completely. Most state governments are doing it in bits and pieces only because it’s very technical.On the other hand the textual data also needs to be updated, and most of the state governments have computerised their databases, but most have yet to provide the linkages with the Registrar’s Office. Unless there is automatic updating of the land records, the database will become outdated after some time. So it is important that as soon as a transfer of ownership takes place, through registry, through transfer in the Registrar’s Office, it gets reflected in the database.That connectivity has been done by about 20 states, we are trying to push the other states to follow. A number of training programmes we conduct for the revenue staff for senior offices are helping in creating an environment of understanding of how important land records are, and to ensure that land reforms are conducted.Why has your ministry proposed for SEZs to be out of the purview of Clause 98, which exempts SEZs from land acquisition norms?The department may have said something, but this is not our final position. You are aware that we have only received the comments from the Standing Committee, and have been examined but we still have to go to the cabinet. We will move the amendments in the department only after that and that’s when we can say what shape it will take. For the present, I would not like to comment on it.The Sumitra Mahajan Committee Report seems to be summarily rejected—as it appeared to be anti-reforms. But will states be free to pick up elements from it—especially states like West Bengal?My answer about the Cabinet approval stays. I know that the industry is quite upset but it should not be upset about it because the Bill is only trying to create a balance. The new Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (LARR) Bill tries to create a balance between the two both from the land acquisition side as well as the land-owner’s.When the government works on land acquisition, primarily whose interest does it purport to serve?That is exactly the dilemma we were facing when we were making the bill and so we had numerous consultations with representatives of the industry, local representatives and property holders association, and farmers’ associations. A Bill needs to cater to the overall development of the country. We cannot be partners to somebody’s private venture and keep our eyes closed when a farmer is being ousted from his area and been thrown out.One of the biggest challenges in land acquisition especially in some of the underdeveloped states, and in the East and North-East, the problem is that the land records are not available. What steps is your department taking to correct this?Under the NLRMP scheme, land records are being updated and computerised even in Orissa, Bihar and MP. Bihar has conducted aerial survey of five of its districts, and shortly, they will send us a report on how far they succeeded. They have gone a long way in textual data computerisation. Jharkhand has done so in four districts, while in Orissa also, they have done it on a large scale.In the North-East, there is a different system of land records. There individuals do not own land—the community does. The scheme does not envisage making any changes in the prevalent system but computerise the records in the name of community. The community leases out land to its own individuals.In Nagaland, people have started growing rubber in a big way. The positive effects of this plantation has been the Jhum (shifting) cultivation has come down tremendously because of long leases of 30-40 years.There is a recent emphasis on rural infrastructure—with schemes like Provision of Urban Amenities in Rural Areas (PURA) that aim at integrating and bundling up projects under Public-Private Partnership (PPP), treating a village as a centre for overall development. What is the progress? Has land acquisition been an issue?Because of large-scale migration, it has become necessary to see that our villages have now become model villages.No acquisition problem in PURA has been brought to our notice at all. I do not think when a work is being executed for infrastructure development, the community objects. In fact I have seen instances where people come and give their lands. Land prices go up too. Our concern, though, is when industries purchase land that they may not need immediately—that upsets the balance I mentioned earlier.Your ministry has recommended zoning as a solution to conflict less development with optimum use of land. How does it work and help and how can it be implemented?It has not started working yet. We are trying that state governments should adopt [this solution]. Zoning is when you earmark areas that can be developed for agricultural purposes only. Class 1, Grade A, multi-cropped areas, for example, need to be earmarked. It may sound a little unfair to a farmer who may want to sell the land. We have reserved 33 per cent of our land for forests. Likewise why can we not reserve the multi-crop Grade A farmland for agricultural purposes?*Interview conducted by Kanishka Gupta.