Public land, but the public have no say

By Nguyen Khac Giang   June 13, 2018 | 01:09 am PT
Public land, but the public have no say
The planned Thu Thiem urban area in HCMC's District 2 seen from above. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran
Corruption soars alongside privatization, which is reaching new highs.

I used to live in an apartment complex for a mechanical company, which was built in the 70s. That company was recently sold to a real estate firm through privatization. Workers were laid off in droves. Machines had to make way for incoming high-rise buildings.

It didn’t stop there. Having conquered the company, its new administration has its eyes on the complex itself. They just want to build more shiny pillars of concrete-and-steel, which are already springing up like mushrooms after the rain.

Naturally, the people voiced their opposition. But what can we do? After all, our land is “public land,” which, once privatized, will belong to private firms.

This situation has been obvious to the people for a long time, but it has become even more blatant lately, as Vietnam’s privatization efforts are at an all-time high. The current aim is to reduce the number of state-owned businesses to 150 in 2020.

This is important. Not just for our average citizens whose homes stand on top of these “public land,” but for our society as a whole.

Vietnam’s land is currently priced at $34 billion, the most valuable commodity for the public. Half of this most precious resource is being managed by numerous public firms and authorities.

For the government, our land is literal money bags. Just last year, the government collected VND150 trillion ($6.7 billion) in land rent. This is three and five times higher than revenues generated from selling crude oil and collecting taxes from foreign investment firms, respectively.

For keen entrepreneurs, our land is a gold mine. Historically, many of our cream-of-the-crop land lots are possessed by state-owned companies which can generate huge sums of money, just by selling the said plots back and forth. It is no coincidence that skyscrapers in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are built on land that was once in the possession of state entities.

For the corrupt, our land is just easy prey to be swallowed up, thanks to murky policies regarding their management.

Recently, an investigation in the seven localities of Binh Duong, Cam Ranh, Dong Nai, Hanoi, HCMC, Lao Cai and Sam Son by the state auditing agency revealed that misconduct related to land rents have resulted in a loss of VND8.3 trillion ($362.3 million) to the national budget. This shows how easily corruption seeps into land transactions.

We the people have no part in such interactions – it’s the government, all the way. This is reminiscent of the management model of a typical company: the Board of Directors act in place of the company’s stakeholders, and are responsible for all their decisions.

A management model needs transparency and proper monitoring to be effective. Right now, neither exists.

When it comes to public land, transparency means state-owned firms need to be transparent themselves. But that might be too much to ask for.

Our laws allow the average citizen to monitor public properties, but, in reality, none of us gets that right.

It is not a surprise that almost all misconduct and violations regarding the management of public land have been done by governmental entities, not the people. After all, how many governmental employees would it take to monitor almost 150 million square meters of public land?

The people have no choice but to keep faith in the government and trust that public land will be monitored and managed carefully and effectively, that their rights are protected and guaranteed, that misconduct and violations do not go unnoticed and unpunished. The people of Thu Thiem, Yen Bai, Dong Nai, me, my neighbors… all carry the same faith.

And yet, our pleas for help fall on deaf ears.

Just last year, 95 percent of all complaints sent to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment were about controversies surrounding public lands.

So far, despite all the controversies and corruption that have been exposed, people are still reposing faith that the authorities will redeem themselves.

But they have to tread carefully.

Unlike land, once it is lost, faith isn’t so easily restored.

*Nguyen Khac Giang is a Vietnamese researcher at the Vietnam Institute for Economic and Policy Research. The opinions expressed are his own.

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