Interview: Jairam Ramesh

‘Go back to the 2013 law’

Print edition : April 17, 2015

CHENNAI, 16/10/2013: Union Rural Development Minister, Jairam Ramesh, interacts with partymen at Satyamurthi Bhavan, before addressing the media in Chennai on Wednesday. Photo: S_S_Kumar Photo: S.S. KUMAR

Interview with Congress leader Jairam Ramesh.

THE Congress has been firm in its opposition to the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Amendment) Bill, 2015. The Ministry for Rural Development under Jairam Ramesh in the previous UPA government drafted the 2013 Land Acquisition Bill, which the NDA government now seeks to amend. Excerpts from an interview with Jairam Ramesh:

Is your party opposed to the ordinance route in general or is there something specific about its opposition to the amendments brought to the LARR Act, 2013?

We were objecting both to the method and the substance of this amendment Bill. We voted against the coal Bill and the minerals Bill, both on substantive and procedural grounds. On the land Bill amendments also, we are opposed to the manner in which first the ordinance was issued and then the amendments were bamboozled through the Lok Sabha without going to the Standing Committee. So our objection is twofold.

The government and its spokespersons maintain that the 2013 Bill was passed in haste.

How can one describe a two-year process as haste? A draft was put up on July 31, 2011, for public consultations. The Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha on September 2011. The Standing Committee took almost 16 months and then the Bill was again introduced in the Lok Sabha in August and in the Rajya Sabha on September 4. Two all-party meetings were held and I held individual consultations with 11 different political parties on more than one occasion. Fifteen hours of debate took place in both Houses. Over 60 MPs participated. How can this be termed as haste? I don’t think any other Bill has been accompanied by such intensive consultations with the widest cross section of society. It was a consultative process par excellence, an interactive process par excellence, participative process par excellence.

The BJP and other opposition parties during the UPA government’s tenure had sufficient time and opportunity to object to the Bill.

The chairman of the Standing Committee was a BJP MP, Sumitra Mahajan, who is now the Speaker of the Lok Sabha. Sushma Swaraj suggested two amendments in the Lok Sabha; Ravi Shankar Prasad suggested three amendments. Rajnath Singh was the opening batsman in the Lok Sabha; Vinay Katiyar was the opening batsman in the Rajya Sabha. There was unanimous support. The only people who argued that the Bill was not progressive enough were my Left friends. I had to make some compromises and had to strike a balance. I wanted all land acquisition, including government, to be preceded by consent. But in the final Act, government projects were exempted from consent. But all projects require social impact assessment. The BJP wants to do away with SIA also. It has effectively removed SIA altogether and removed consent as well.

In order to justify the rationale behind moving the amendments, the government has maintained that some of the erstwhile Congress Chief Ministers had written expressing difficulty in implementing the LARR Act, 2013, in its present form.

State governments are always in a hurry to implement projects. It is understandable from a Chief Minister’s point of view. I explained to them that SIA had to be done within a six-month period, and in a country where land is the only source of social security is it unnatural to expect that it takes three to four years to acquire land?

The apprehension was that the time taken for acquisition would increase; the costs of acquisition were going up, naturally. But it is better to take more time initially in acquiring the land rather than face protests later. The 2013 Bill had a consensus; it did not have unanimity. People went along as they realised that there was a balance to be had—between the need to acquire land for industrialisation and urbanisation and the need to protect farmers’ interests. The ultimate objective of the Bill was to push people into the land-buying route—if land is required, let them buy the land. But if they wanted the government to acquire the land, they would have to adhere to the discipline of the law of the land. Congress Chief Ministers are not autonomous actors; they belong to the Congress party and have to fall in line with the policies of the party. It was the Congress party that took a view on the Bill. There is of course a two-way relationship. For example, on multi-brand retail, Dr Manmohan Singh convinced the party: the party was reluctant but its apprehensions were assuaged. Similarly, on the 123 nuclear agreement and the free trade agreement, the government had one view, the party had another. There is a symbiotic relationship between the party and the government.

The government does not seem to be relenting on withdrawing the amendments and has instead accused the opposition of misleading people.

The argument the Prime Minister has given in the “Mann Ki Baat” address is completely bogus. There is a Fourth Schedule to the 2013 Act which includes 13 Acts, including laws that govern acquisition for highways, railways, power projects, etc. What does the 2013 Act say, Section 105 (3)? It says that within one year of coming into force of the Act, these 13 Acts would be amended to bring their compensation and R&R on a par with the 2013 Act. The fact that Mr Modi has done it is making a virtue out of necessity. He was mandated to do it. He has not done anyone a favour. Any government would have had to do it. Why did they have to wait till December 31? They could have done it earlier if they were so committed to farmers. This is an argument to hide the real intent.

The real intent is revealed in the fact that one of the amendments not only allows for the acquisition of land for industrial corridors, but allows for land acquisition up to one kilometre on either side of the industrial corridor. This will be a repeat of the havoc caused by the example of land acquisition on the Yamuna Expressway.

Unlike the 2013 Act, which limits acquisition to government and private companies, the amendment allows acquisition for any entity, trust, etc. Land can be acquired for the RSS, the Bajrang Dal or the Hedgewar Foundation. Even the promise of employment is not new. It is there in the 2013 Act.

Many parties, including the NDA allies, have not supported the amendments. What the government will do I have no idea. Our position is clear; they should go back to the 2013 law.

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