Men would do anything anything for some women, hyenas would do anything for a meal...and most States would do anything for a world-class institute delivered to their doorsteps. Not Kerala, it seems.
When the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) announced that it was setting up the Indian Institute of Space Technology (IIST) in Trivandrum, the rejoicing was universal, or so it seemed. After all, this was an institute vital to India's progress as a leader in space technology, not to mention only the third institute of its kind in the whole world. As another addition to the world-class cluster of R&D and educational institutes in the city, it will help to significantly boost the human and intellectual resource base of the area.
Given all this, it would appear strange that the powers-that-be first of all denied the presence of any suitable land in the district and later, once ISRO had identified and acquired land on its own, moved with great swiftness to stamp the land as illegal and to prod ISRO off it by promising alternate land for free. The bizarreness of this episode raises a lot of questions.
First of all, how could the district collector - the lord of the flies...ahem...files, give a blank verdict of "sorry, no land" in Trivandrum district when the truth is quite obviously otherwise. As the head of the Revenue machinery in the district, he should be fully aware of the hundreds of acres of available land with the Government in various places in Trivandrum - Palode, Vithura, Karyavattom and so on (As detailed in this report). For some inexplicable reason, the powers that be seem to have been blissfully unaware that such massive tracts of land was available, much closer to the city than at Ponmudi. And anyone in the property development industry can tell you, that even bigger tracts of land are available in the district.
Next, it seems strange that it took the purchase of land at Merchinston Estate to awaken the Government to the fact that thousands of acres of forest land had been swiped from under the noses by the legislation introduced by the previous Govt. It is left to us to wonder why this Act was not frozen immediately after the LDF came to power, given the hue and cry they had made while in Opposition when the Act was passed. Or at least after the fracas at Munnar, the Act could have been frozen and de-notified properties brought under the scanner, which would have prevented the mess caused when ISRO decided to acquire the land.
Given that the Act was in force, and that ISRO had done due diligence of the legality of the multi-crore land deal, one is left to wonder whether the Govt's holier-than-thou stand will find any legal backing. ISRO may not sue the Govt. but it is time that the latter learnt the meaning of the word "proactive" before they tangle with a private party who would make them pay, and pay through their collective noses.
Now if only the authorities placed as much emphasis on acquiring land for vital projects as on keeping an eagle-open for land-grabbers, all of us would have been much better off. Better off by thousands of crores of investments and tens of thousands of jobs. The Government has promised ISRO that it will receive 200 acres of land in short order, but it seems a very tall order indeed considering its track record in Trivandrum till date.
The acquisition of 100 acres of land for the Phase III of Technopark has been hanging fire for over 3 years....nay...closer to 4 now. And this is when a long list of blue-chip investors including PCS, the Raheja Group and L&T had been asking for the land all the time to create high-tech projects with the ability to create tens of thousands of direct jobs. The same holds for the small acreage required for the Trivandrum City Road Improvement Project. It took the implementing firm to stop work indefinitely for the land acquisition to re-start after a hiatus of nearly two years. Not to mention the long suffering land acquisition for the Technocity project. Nearly two years after the project was announced, the revenue survey is still in progressing with amazing speed, when a tortoise and a snail would have done a faster job!
Now one would think that this whole business of land acquisition is incredibly difficult and frought with public opposition. Maybe not, we are not exactly talking Singur or Kalinga Nagar here. Most of the people in the above mentioned project areas are ready to shift out. Of course, provided that they are duly compensated and they are not even talking of the market rates. However, such sensibilities seem to elude the concerned authorities in a disconcertingly often manner. For example, the landowners at the Technopark Phase III site are willing to move out in the interest of development, if adequate compensation is paid. Unfortunately, the district administration offered them the compensation rate which was decided when the project was initiated, a small matter of 4 years ago - since when land prices in the area have increased by 10-30 times! Naturally, there was resistance to being paid 10,000 bucks a cent when the going price in the area is close to 4-6 lakhs a cent! And especially so when the same Government is shelling out 80,000 bucks a cent for swampy land nearly 20 Kms from Ernakulam town intended for a project being promoted by a private Dubai company. To make matters worse, even when it became clear that the compensation package had to be revised, it has taken months and months of file shuttling to and from the Collectorate to get simple demands of the people on paper. And still the file forlornly waits to be admitted in the hallowed chamber of the State Cabinet for approval.
Perhaps the complex mathematics - addition and multiplication...wowie! - and financials were too much? Well, considering that the 245 acres for the much talked-about project of the cousins from Dubai were acquired helter-skelter in about five months, it doesn't sound so. Lately there has been a pronounced lack of enthusiasm from the netas and babus for projects south of Cherthala, but it can't be this bad. Or it could be the difference in the people in charge?!
Past mistakes have anyway been made, so what can be done? To start with, have the best people in charge of things in the districts where development is proceeding the quickest. Next, create dedicated machinery for land identification and acquisition, including state of the art survey teams and computerised records. Even in cases where some sort of such machinery exists, like in the case of the Fast Track Projects, under which all the above tortoise speed initiatives are classed, the concerned authorities need to be empowered. No sense in making a tahsildar in charge of land acquisition when his powers are too limited to matter in a crunch. Ideally, it should be a top-notch IAS/IPS officer with a good track-record at executing such projects. Someone capable of and empowered to make quick decisions. Fourth, the Govt. should ensure adequate money is available for compensation as soon as the land is identified and surveyed. This can be achieved by approaching commercial banks, by issuing equity through SPVs (like INKEL) or through Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) as proposed for Technocity.
And finally, incoming Governments should roll back any legislations that they are strongly opposed to, as soon as they assume power rather than wait for them to blow up in their faces.
Hopefully, the next time a premier institution, be it public or private, all and sundry won't be running around in utter confusion about where to plant the flag. Cheers!