Land disputes hit Indian infrastructure plans

Protests against a proposed Indian nuclear power plant this weekend highlight a growing problem facing developers, experts say, as the country tries to upgrade or build much-needed infrastructure.

Thousands of fishermen, farmers and their families in Jaitapur in western Maharashtra state turned out in force on Saturday to denounce the loss of homes and agricultural land, as well as voice fears about radiation and pollution.

The long-running protest has already seen a government compensation package rejected as “derisory” compared with the estimated US$22 billion that the plant will cost.

Environmentalists also oppose building the French-backed facility because of its location in the ecologically sensitive Western Ghats mountain range and a high-risk earthquake zone, plus India’s lack of an independent nuclear regulator.

“The authorities are trying to spin this as people wanting more money, but the people just want to have their land and have the security of that lifestyle and income. They’re very concerned about the radiation risk and whether there will be a waste-reprocessing facility on the site,” a Greenpeace energy campaigner said.

Years of wrangling over land, compensation and environmental impact have become a regular feature of many projects aimed at developing modern India.

High-profile disputes include plans for a second airport on protected wetlands to service Mumbai and a plan by Tata Motors to build a new manufacturing plant for the world’s cheapest car, the Nano.

India’s environment ministry approved the much-delayed airport project last month, but Tata Motors aborted its move to West Bengal state in 2008 after weeks of violent protests by farmers angered by the forced purchase of their land.

ArcelorMittal, South Korea’s POSCO and Vedanta Resources have all recently been forced to look elsewhere for large-scale steel plant and mining projects after opposition in Orissa state.

Special economic zones — a government initiative aimed at turning India into a manufacturing powerhouse by offering tax breaks and other incentives — have also been hit by claims of illegal land grabbing and corrupt practices.

The editor of India Infrastructure magazine, Shubhra Puri, said such disputes were now a major problem, as ordinary Indians, with the help of campaigners, become more savvy.

“Whatever settlement was given to them earlier, they used to think this was a boon and it helped them alleviate their economic status, but today they are wiser,” she said. “They talk to other people in other areas to see if they’re getting a lucrative deal … If they get together these projects will not happen. They’re negotiating very, very smartly.”

India desperately needs infrastructure development to keep pace with an expanding economy, exploding population and urbanization.

A McKinsey Global Institute study in April said US$1.2 trillion of capital investment was required by 2030 to meet demand in Indian cities, and warned that sustained economic growth was at risk without managed policies.

Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has said that demand for electricity is now about 10 times greater than output, and the 9,900 megawatt Jaitapur plant could help cut the deficit.

He has pledged to review the compensation package for locals, but there are few signs that the issue will be resolved anytime soon.

Rahul Gandhi, touted as a future prime minister, has called for fairer land acquisition laws amid signs that powerful business lobbies and vested interests tend to win out over most grassroots opposition.

Proposed changes to the opaque and out-of-date laws, though, are stuck in India’s parliament, which is currently in a state of gridlock over corruption claims in the awarding of 2G mobile phone licences.

Jai Mavani, an infrastructure specialist at the Pricewaterhouse-Coopers consultancy, said strong political will was needed to push through projects.

Yet he and Puri said delays were inevitable.

“We’re a democracy and the due process requires that every citizen, no matter how insignificant they may be in the scheme of things, needs to be heard,” Mavani said.

“We can’t just get the road and railway lines,” Puri said. “We can’t ignore grassroots sentiment. These problems are bound to arise.”

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