By Rina Chandran
MUMBAI, Sept 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Indian states must return idle land acquired for industrial and infrastructure projects that have been shelved, campaigners say, as conflicts erupt across the country over the scarce resource.
Most Indian states have bought land from farmers to build sizeable "land banks". But activists say much of it is unused and should be restored to farmland when projects collapse, rather than remaining with the state.
"Our view is that land that is unused must be returned," said Colin Gonsalves, founder of Human Rights Law Network, which is representing petitioners in a case against Special Economic Zones (SEZ) with vast swathes of idle land.
"It cannot be banked for later or used for another purpose. That is unconscionable," he said.
Less than 10 percent of nearly 5,000 hectares acquired by SEZs has been used for its stated purpose, the petitioners say, calling for it to be given back to them.
States began to build land banks in the 1990s after India opened up to foreign investment.
Nearly 2.68 million hectares (6.6 million acres) of land have been banked in eight states with public records, according to research firm Land Conflict Watch.
Data from Land Conflict Watch shows nearly 500 disputes over land in India.
A law passed in 2013 was meant to protect the rights of farmers, ensuring consensus over land acquisitions, rehabilitation for those displaced, and adequate compensation.
Several states have diluted these provisions to speed up acquisitions.
Officials say land banks allow farmers to sell voluntarily and check forced acquisitions. But activists say they mainly benefit the state and developers, with no protections for sellers.
"There is an element of coercion even when it is meant to be voluntary," said E.A.S. Sarma, a land rights campaigner.
"And there's no suggestion of returning the land if it is not used," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Earlier this year, villagers in Odisha protested when the state banked, rather than returned, their land after South Korea's POSCO shelved a steel project.
"Once forest land has been marked for development, it is cordoned off and never freed up, even when the project is stalled," said Rahul Choudhary, co-founder of the Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment advocacy group.
"Those who depend on it for their livelihood can never get access," he said.
In a rare victory for campaigners, West Bengal state last year returned 400 hectares of land that had been allotted for a Tata Motors factory that was later abandoned.
Some of that land is being cultivated again.