The reaction by India’s industrial titans to the Singur crisis has been unanimous. Big guns like Mukesh Ambani, Narayan Murthy, Azim Premji and others have supported the Tatas and warned that the state would become a desert for investment if the Tatas had to leave, which is now a reality. Even the Prince of Calcutta, Sourav Ganguly, has supported the Tatas. Mamta Banerjee seemed to be the lone voice in support of the farmers whose land had been acquired forcefully without adequate compensation. People have called her stupid and an enemy of the state. Her own party supporters have voiced their disagreement with her opposition. In this backdrop, I am going to take on the perilous task of finding logic in her stubborn stance and also to suggest a long term solution for the future. I ask the reader to bear with me and let me explain my position.
Not our problem alone
Land acquisition issues are by no means limited to India. In the United States, there exists a law called “Eminent Domain,” which in plain speak says that Uncle Sam can throw you out of your property if it sees a public good that requires the use of your land. Imagine this: a Civil Engineer (from a reputed university) contracted by the government to come up with the most optimal road plan figures out that such a road would need to pass through your grandmother’s house. The authorities send her a notice that she will be paid a certain amount, which would probably be a little lower than the market price. She refuses. Even after the compensation is hiked some more, she refuses. The authorities invoke Eminent Domain and send the cops to throw her out. As the cops arrive, the poor old lady holds on to whatever she can to prevent being dragged away, all the while crying out that this is where she has all her memories, this is where she lived with her husband until he passed away, and this is where she wants to die. She wants to be left alone. But that cannot be allowed, and the official tells her, “Ma’am, you don’t understand. The most optimal road goes through your house, and therefore, for public good, we must have it.” And her cries go in vain (unless civil rights groups get into the game and sue the government for doing this). This story plays out in every society in the world (see box 1, box 2).
People all over the world are generally nice and compassionate, and most people feel bad about a story like this, but they ask desperately, “What alternative do we have for building YOUR-FAVORITE-PUBLIC-GOOD?” There is an alternative that ought to be taught in high schools for its utter simplicity. It has to be understood that the only legal power of a government is the power of coercion. And every single time coercion is used for public good, it has unintended consequences. Note all the controversies of land acquisition that have come to light, from the Narmada Dam project in the West, NanoCity in the North, Singur in the East and now Reliance might make the same mistake in Maharashtra. In India, the police knows no better than to use their guns on protesting people, often killing many. The legal costs rise and big businesses get discouraged by the reaction. In the United States, as business after business got stung by the backlash to eminent domain, a path-breaking and simple alternative emerged.
This alternative has its roots in one of the most powerful insights that the wise have shared about decision making: you can always create OPTIONS. Taking this insight literally, let us try creating options for land acquisition (not the unrealistic Black-Scholes variety that is employed by financial "experts" who wouldn’t know a financial meltdown until the train hit them but the decision analytic variety whose math is simple enough to be understood by an English major with a minor effort). Let’s say Reliance plans an oil pipeline that needs contiguous areas of land. If any one of the landowners in the path of the pipeline hold out, the project will not take off, leaving Reliance with several non-contiguous pieces of land and a large hole in their pocket. In an alternative scenario, instead of buying any plot of land, Reliance could choose to buy an option from the landowner. The option will give Reliance the right to buy the land at the prevailing market (or agreed upon) price within a period of three years (for instance). This option can be valued easily using simple decision analysis tools and would be an order of magnitude cheaper than acquiring the land itself. Reliance could then plan multiple pipeline routes and try to acquire options on each of the routes. The moment they have all the options on a particular route, they can exercise the options on that route and acquire all the contiguous pieces of land.
There are several benefits to this approach. First, as Reliance is a private party, they are not required to reveal the purpose of the acquisition. They can send out agents who don't even need to reveal that Reliance is behind the acquisition. The government, on the other hand, is required to reveal the purpose of their acquisition, resulting in landowners realizing that they can make a lot of money if they hold out. The cost of acquisition will now be based on a good deal between the private party and the landowner. Second, as exercising the option is a legal right, there is no necessity for state coercion on the individual landowner. If someone holds out even after selling an option, that will be considered contractual fraud, and we have a legal framework in place to deal with that. The government no longer needs to deal with mass protests, the police no longer needs to open fire on hostile crowds, and entrepreneurs no longer need to sink large sums of money in legal costs. Third, if some people (tribals/farmers/middle class people) have a strong connection to their land and don’t want to leave it, all they have to do is not sell the option to their land. There should be no legal authority on the part of the government or the industry to force them to do so, and any forcible or fraudulent activity on the part of the entrepreneur would be subject to our existing legal framework that prohibits fraud and coercion. Human rights organizations can shift their focus from protesting to educating the tribals/farmers, while respecting the choice of these communities to accept or reject the education.
Creating options is not a new idea, and you have likely already used it in your life. We shall define an option as "the right to a future decision." A little consideration should reveal that insurance is a very good example of an option, where you buy the right to a lower medical expense should an emergency arise. The price of the option here would be the insurance premium you need to pay each year, which is a fraction of the coverage cost that the insurance company is legally obligated to pay should the situation arise. If you have played in the stock market, then you might be familiar with "call/put options" which is the right to buy/sell a stock at a predetermined price.
Who's Doing Non-coercive Acquisitions with/without options?
If this method is so simple, why hasn’t it been tried already for land acquisition? Strange as it may sound, this has been tried – it just hasn’t been spoken about as most private firms don’t want to talk about their land acquisition strategy. I’ve heard from a reputed professor at Stanford that Disney used options to acquire most of the land they needed for their theme park at Anaheim, California, after which people got wise to the purpose behind the acquisition and hiked up the selling price. Even then, Disney saved a fortune in legal fees by using this method. (For other companies in the US, see Box 2)
The intelligent reader may point out that what works in the United States may not necessarily work in India. To which I wonder what is so special about the Indian DNA that it would not like to save lives and lower costs when it could. In any case, options have been in use in India for a long time, without us explicitly recognizing it. If you've tried buying land in India, chances are you've been asked to pay a "roka" as North Indians would call it. The "roka" is an advance that a buyer would pay a seller after which the seller would stop showing the land to others. The "roka" is an option, a right to buy the land within a specified time. "Roka" options are quite common in the real-estate market and are probably referred to with different words in different parts of the country.
Finally, I have anecdotal evidence that after Larsen & Toubro (L&T) had completed acquiring land for the third Howrah Bridge in (hold your breath) West Bengal, neighboring land owners who had been skipped were upset at missing the pie, and begged L&T to consider buying their land too. It seems that landowners in West Bengal also like good deals, like landowners anywhere else.
There are some legitimate challenges to applying this solution, especially in places like West Bengal. The business climate in the state is highly interventionist, with entrepreneurs unable to operate without the blessings of the prevailing local political party. In such a situation, talking about free markets is a travesty. The current government needs to realize that it cannot replace coercive prevention of industry by coercive adoption of it. It needs to start with the fundamentals and shrink to a minimal form of government. But then, what will happen to the party ranks? Instead of employing cadre into what amounts to an organized land mafia, they can be encouraged to become social entrepreneurs who combine the best of capitalism (freedom) and communism (caring for the community) while leaving the worst out (greed and coercion respectively). While this might take some time, a first step for India would be people from all walks of life coming together to demand the revoking of Article 300-A so that no government has the right to take away private property through any argument of public good. In today's society, we should realize that governments claim almost any economic activity as a public good, and eminent domain laws become a vehicle for individual abuse.
While economists would welcome the strengthening of property rights, they may raise several objections to entirely scrapping Eminent Domain laws in India. First, they will point out that there are "actual public goods" that a government must provide (e.g. roads, wildlife reserves, forested lands). How is the government to do so without laws that resemble eminent domain? Second, private parties cannot freely purchase agricultural land in India. We would need laws that allowed for land use changes, and we still need to consider if such a change is in public interest. Third, individuals sitting on vast natural resources ought not to have the right to refuse their commercialization - this is an argument for eminent domain laws. Fourth, there are thousands of land holders who have title to a small amount of land. This makes it infeasible for private parties to negotiate with so many, hence, the government is a good intermediary. Finally, you would need a sophisticated buyer and seller to be able to use options.
Lets take these arguments one by one. First, it is a 20th century idea that governments are responsible for public goods. There is ample evidence of societies that did fine in the past without government intervention in every sphere of life. As evidence in our present time, look at all the public goods in India and you will find those are the services that are most lacking in creativity and innovation. In the United States as well, the government builds roads as a public good. This is one sector which has seen so little innovation that you now have cars that are built to touch 200 miles per hour and roads that can only handle 65 miles per hour. Think about all the private toll roads you've been on in India and compare them to the government maintained roads, and the difference should immediately be apparent to you. India is full of examples of social entrepreneurs who have given up on the government's ability to provide public goods and provided solutions themselves, either as a for-profit or as a non-profit. Sulabh International builds public toilets(shauchalayas) that are financially sustainable and pay for their construction cost quickly, while generating employment. See Box 3 and Box 4 for further examples. Second, I agree that private parties should be allowed to freely purchase agricultural land and the land owner should have the right to decide how the land should be used. If the current land owner feels it is important that the land use should not be changed, this can be specified in a contract at the time of sale. The argument is often made that good agricultural land should not be used for non-agricultural purposes. If we truly believe that, then we should immediately proceed to demolish all the government (and other) buildings in Kolkata, which has some of the best agricultural soil you could find being on the banks of the Ganga. Third, it is possible to grant an individual the right to their property while one could also construct rights for what lies below the property and separate the two. Once this is done, there is an incentive for entrepreneurs to find ways to drill for oil or a similar natural resource without disturbing the landowner who is at the surface. Fourth, the argument of "too many land owners" is a terrible one, as the government does no better, and arguably worse, than a private negotiator. In fact, a private negotiator would not have the advantage of guns and would have to be polite and stay within legal boundaries. Perhaps, this is an area where an entrepreneur could provide negotiation consulting services. Finally, the argument of sophisticated buyer and seller is an argument for education, although the Indian market is already using "roka" options without doing sophisticated decision analysis. Companies that need help modeling options can hire decision consultants just like they hire tax consultants. I admit that companies will have an advantage in pricing methodology over individual landowners. However, this is a good reason for the creation of a friendly social venture that offers pricing services to individual land owners. On the topic of decision education in India, there is much that needs to be done. (See Box 5)
Philosophical, Economic and Spiritual Reasons
Options should be used for both philosophical and economic reasons. Philosophically, even if everyone around me says that murder and theft is the best way to get what I want, I refuse to do it, and I will argue that India, with its deep spiritual tradition of acceptance of all religions, systems and ideas, should stand firmly behind non-coercion. Just as the tool of coercive land acquisition is the use of a police force with guns, the tool of smart non-coercive land acquisition is options. Economically, let us be clear that while using options has lowered the cost of land acquisition for many, the method itself is not going to guarantee that industrialists will get the land they want, which is no different from the case of using coercion as we have just seen the Tatas getting thwarted even with government support. If both methods cannot guarantee success, and the coercive one consistently creates more headaches, takes lives and increases costs, then we ought to throw our weight behind the non-coercive methods.
Finally, traditionalists might point out that in the Indian tradition, the individual must sacrifice for the family, the family for the community, the community for the state and the state for the world (a maxim approved by Sri Krishna). While this is a noble spiritual idea, it is not what is followed today. On the other hand, a more accurate maxim for the practice of the modern day is, "the individual must be coerced to sacrifice for the family, the family for the community, the community for the state and the state for the world." Every spiritual tradition in India recognizes a supreme internal freedom and asks its followers to acknowledge and become aware of it. It is but natural that India lead the world in giving expression to this internal freedom in our external environment. We can start by recognizing that individual sacrifice is a decision to be made only by the individual, and coercion has no place in a society that wants to call itself free
Almost every country in the world has a legal mechanism that resembles Eminent Domain laws. In the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Ireland, these laws are referred to as "Compulsory Purchase," while Canada and South Africa call it "Expropriation." India used to consider right to property as a fundamental right under Article 19(1)(f). This meant that your land could not be taken away except under the Land Acquisition Act of 1894, or a similar state law, which allows the use of forcibly acquired land by the Government "in the interests of the general public or for the protection of the interests of any Scheduled Tribe". The Land Acquisition Act of 1894 empowered the Central and the State Governments to acquire lands that they felt was necessary for a "public purpose". Public purpose was defined so broadly that even land use by state-owned corporations was included, thus turning this law into an all-powerful mechanism for the British. While this British baggage continues to this day, in 1978, the right to property was shifted out of fundamental rights so as to make it harder to challenge land acquisitions by the government, and Article 300-A was introduced which said that "no person will be deprived of his property save by authority of law." In other words, the state/central government can take your land away if Parliament or State Legislatures make a legislation/order/rule to do so, in exchange for compensation determined under the Land Acquisition Act by the Collector. You can challenge the action of the government in a court if you think the government has acted unfairly, and in most countries (except authoritarian ones like China), this leads to protracted legal battles, civil rights headaches for the government and spiraling legal costs for the industry involved. The Land Acquisition Amendment Bill (2007) is an effort to reform the 1894 law, but how much band-aid can one put on a gaping wound? Senior Advocate Bishwajit Bhattacharyya recently outlined in the Statesman (Oct 29, 2008) how even passing a law under Article 300-A has been successfully challenged in court. How many people have the resources to take on the government when their rights are violated?
At this time, the United States probably has the worst eminent domain laws on the planet. In 2005, a controversial Supreme Court ruling upheld (by a 5-4 vote) the government's use of eminent domain powers to take private property from one owner and transfer it to another owner under the pretext of economic development. This ruling was criticized publicly by many noted people, including Bill Clinton. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who voted against the law in the famed Kelo v. City of New London case, warned that this new addition would "wash out any distinction between private and public use of property." For the first time in US history, governments could use eminent domain powers to declare ordinary private use of property as a "public use." In a report by the Castle Coalition (a network of homeowners and activists in the US determined to stop the abuse of eminent domain), there have been more than 5,000 instances of abuse since the Kelo decision. This figure includes cases where private property owners have threatened the use of eminent domain on reluctant sellers to agree to their price or risk having their property taken away by force. This situation is quite comparable to India where the government acquires lands for private parties under the argument of "economic development."
The report also goes on to debunk the myth that eminent domain laws are needed for economic development by citing several projects that did not use eminent domain. Walt Disney's construction of Disney World, The Rouse Company's construction of a new city in Howard County, Maryland and Focus Property Group's creation of a 3000-acre community called Mountain's Edge are some of the examples. Disney World is particularly interesting to us as they used options quite heavily. Further Reading: http://www.castlecoalition.org
Box 3: Social Entrepreneurs in India, a powerful force for public good
Arvind Eye Hospitals in Madurai (and other cities in South India) treats patients who cannot pay; free of cost and make up their money from people who can. Exnora in Chennai (and now several other cities) has created a system of garbage cleaning where an erstwhile scavenger now collects garbage from each home and dumps it in the proper place, for a fee. LaserSoft Info Systems in Chennai employs "disabled" people and puts them to work in the field of banking software. The Sangini Mahila Seva Cooperative Society is for, of and by sex workers in Kamathipura, Mumbai's oldest red-light district, where sex workers gain access to banking services and rise out of destitution. A similar and older initiative has been quite successful in Kolkata's Sonargachi district. The popular Lijjat Papad is made by a social venture, Shri Mahila Griha Udyog, founded by Sarvodaya members. This is an organization focused on creating a dignified work environment for women in a decentralized manner, and its success should inform case studies in any serious business school. Most Indians are familiar with "utterly, butterly delicious" Amul butter. Amul stands for Anand Milk Union Limited, a social venture inspired by Sardar Vallabhai Patel, which is privately run as a cooperative to give milk farmers a good deal and provide high quality milk products to society. Anandwan is a social venture in Maharashtra founded by the late Baba Amte, and run as a self-sufficient rehabilitation center for people afflicted with leprosy. Anandwan has incorporated environment-friendly processes into the local lifestyle without your tax money.
Box 4: Environmental Social Entrepreneurship in the US
The Nature Conservancy (http://www.nature.org/) is a US charitable institution that acquires forested land using existing land acquisition laws as a private party in order to conserve it. Aimed at preserving bio-diversity, this organization has been voted as one of the most trusted national organizations in the US in online polls. Their work has led to the creation of several national parks. The Proactive Carnivore Conservation Fund is a private initiative by an organization called Defenders of Wildlife that finds innovative solutions to prevent people from killing wildlife (such as compensating farmers for the livestock they lose to wolves in return for sparing the wolf's life). The Property and Environment Research Center has an instructive article by the founder of this project, Hank Fischer, at http://www.perc.org/articles/article319.php
Box 5: Decision Education
It is a pity that most business schools in India either skip Decision Analysis or teach it as "Decision Tree Analysis," which is like stripping all the philosophy from yoga and teaching it as a bunch of stretching exercises. There is only minimal benefit in doing so. This is not just a problem in India but also in the United States (as you can see from the massive financial crisis). What is even more pitiable is that people need to wait till they get to a university (there are only a few that teach this as a philosophy) to learn good decision making. To remedy this, the Decision Education Foundation (www.decisioneducation.org) teaches high school children the basics of good decision making. Perhaps it is time to start a chapter of the foundation in India.
Here is a very brief introduction to the philosophical foundation of decision analysis (DA). DA does NOT help you predict the future or maximize the chance of the best outcome. For that, you are better off going to an Indian astrologer or a financial engineer (though I wouldn't trust the financial engineer - I recommend the book "The Black Swan" for people who call themselves statisticians or financial engineers). DA is an amoral method that helps you stay consistent with your preferences, information and alternatives. DA disabuses you of the notion of "objective decision making," making it clear that you can only judge the quality of your decision, not someone else's. Even more fundamentally, the quality of your decision must be judged before the outcome, as you cannot judge a decision from the outcome. If you knew the outcome, you wouldn't have a decision to make. Another fundamental tenet is the principle of sunk cost - the past matters only for learning, not for accounting.