Print edition : May 03, 2013

Union Minister for Rural Development Jairam Ramesh. Photo: Vino John

Interview with Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh.

Union Minister for Rural Development Jairam Ramesh said abuse of the provisions of the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, was rampant, denying landowners fair compensation and livelihood losers adequate relief. Pooh-poohing criticisms that he stands in the way of project clearance by making land acquisition tough for project owners and thereby obstructs high growth, he quipped: “You cannot ensure high growth in a lawless atmosphere. You need a framework of laws, morality and ethics and then you need high growth.” Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline a day after the all-party meeting to discuss the new Land Acquisition Bill on April 9:

What is the sticking point in bringing about a consensus on the land Bill?

There is no sticking point. We have already introduced the Bill. We are now going to introduce the official amendments. We are trying to create a consensus so that when the debate takes place in Parliament there is not much acrimony and the Bill can get passed unanimously. The Union Parliamentary Affairs Minister, Mr Kamal Nath, and I have been making a serious and systematic effort to consult with all the political parties before we make a debate in Parliament.

The Left parties have demanded that the Bill be referred once again to the House panel. Why has it not been accepted?

We can accommodate concerns/suggestions if they are operational, but many of the points the Left is making are ideological. The fact of the matter is that the Bill allows for acquisition of land for private companies. You can have an ideological position that it should not be done. But, to give an example, this Bill allows for the acquisition of land for private companies and for public-private partnership projects after securing the written consent of 80 per cent of the owners of the land. So there is a consent clause, there is a compensation clause, and there is an R&R [resettlement & rehabilitation] clause. The Left says this should not be there, but that is an ideological position. In that case, we can never arrive at a consensus.

This Bill is the product of many years of deliberations. All the political parties agreed at the April 9 meeting that we need a new Act very soon. Because the 1894 Act is an invitation for the abuse of the “eminent domain” clause. Under this, much more land than is actually required is being acquired. Land is being acquired for public purposes but is being diverted for private purposes. The abuse is rampant, and there is unrest across the country because the 1894 Act gives extraordinary powers to the administration to acquire land under the garb of eminent domain. No doubt, we have exempted from the new Act transmission towers, highways, the Railways and special economic zones.

But we have said that where the laws are exempted, their R&R and compensation provisions should be brought on a par with the new Act within one year’s time. If a State government wants to be more progressive, they are welcome to do so, but this is the bare minimum which they cannot subtract from but can add on. If a State wants to increase the compensation or R&R or tighten some provisions, it is fine.

In an interview, the Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha accused you of being a killjoy for development and growth during your tenure as Minister of Environment. Now the same criticism has been hurled at you by industry and project owners.

If Mr [Arun] Jaitley said that I was a killjoy for growth, I am not somebody who does blind vakalat [recommendation] for corporates. My job is to implement the laws of the land, which have been passed by Parliament in which he is a distinguished member. Is he for those people who make profits by circumventing laws that are being passed by Parliament?

[Narmada Bachao Andolan leader] Medha Patkar and her ilk think that this Bill is not progressive enough. [Industrial bodies] CII/FICCI think that this Bill is very tough. If I have succeeded in displeasing Medha Patkar on the one side and CII/FICCI on the other, it means I have done something right.

I would like to highlight some of the salient points in the amendment Bill that encompass multiple checks and balances. Monitoring committees at the national and State levels to ensure that R&R obligations are met have also been set forth. Again, no land can be acquired in the Scheduled Areas without the consent of the gram sabhas. In case land remains unutilised after acquisition, the new Bill empowers States to return the land either to the owner or to the State Lead Bank. No income tax could be levied and no stamp duty charged on any amount that accrues to an individual as a result of the provisions of the new law. Where acquired land is sold to a third party for a higher price, then 40 per cent of the appreciated land value (or profit) would be shared with the original owners.

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