We have to strike a balance

Print edition : January 11, 2013

Jairam Ramesh, Union Minister for Rural Development: The title of the Bill shows a mindset change.-V.V. KRISHNAN

Interview with Jairam Ramesh, Union Minister for Rural Development.

THE newly christened Right to Fair Compensation in Land Acquisition, Resettlement and Rehabilitation Bill, 2012, which was due to be passed in the Lok Sabha with amendments, has been deferred to the Budget session. Union Minister for Rural Development Jairam Ramesh spoke to Frontline on the present status of the Bill and the debate on it within Parliament and outside. Excerpts from the interview:

What were the reasons for the Bill being postponed to the Budget session? It has been more than a year since the Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha.

[BJP leader] Rajnath Singh, [Samajwadi Party leader] Mulayam Singh, [Janata Dal (United) leader] Sharad Yadav, [Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader] Basudeb Acharia, and [Trinamool Congress leader] Saugata Roy wanted more time to study the amendments. So first I said extend the session by one day. Some were willing, some were not. A suggestion was made to refer it again to the Standing Committee. I declined, stating that ultimately the Standing Committee is a recommendatory body and it is the government that has to take a final call. Then it was suggested that it could be taken up in the Budget session. Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath then said that this would be the first item in the legislative business of the Budget session, which is not too bad; some 60 days from now. The heavens are not going to fall and it will give people more time to study the amendments.

I think people got scared by the number of amendments. Although there are 154 amendments being moved, almost a hundred are typographical errors, nomenclature changes and definitional changes. Some 28 amendments are minor ones, procedural in nature. Twenty-six amendments are what you may call substantive amendments affecting the basic structure. Of these, 12 are those that have been suggested by the Standing Committee and 14 are the result of Group of Ministers deliberations. We should focus on the 26 amendments. People said even this needed to be discussed. I said fine. It is an important Bill and one shouldnt rush it through. Between now and the Budget session, we will interact with the political parties. But I found all of them broadly supporting the Bill. Even Saugata Roy, whose party is not exactly favourably disposed towards us, has good things to say about the Bill. The Bill has to be seen in its totality. I feel satisfied that civil society is unhappy with the Bill for not being progressive enough; industry is unhappy with the Bill for being too progressive. If everyone is unhappy, then I think it is a good Bill.

The Standing Committee on Rural Development had expressed concerns about widening the definition of public purpose and in fact had argued for narrowing the definition.

The Standing Committee made 29 recommendations; we accepted 26. The fundamental difference between the Standing Committee and us was that the Standing Committee said there should be no acquisition of land for private sector or PPP projects. That recommendation we categorically rejected as the government believes we have not yet reached a stage in India where we can completely abandon the role of the government for acquisition either for private or for PPP projects. Land markets are imperfect, information markets are imperfect, land fragmentation is a widespread reality; there is an asymmetry of power between the land seekers and the landowners, and livelihood losers who form a very important element of this Bill.

For the first time, learning from Singur, we have introduced the provisions to protect the welfare of livelihood losers. In private transactions, landowners and land seekers will enter into a deal but livelihood losers will figure nowhere. The state of our land records is decrepit. For all these reasons, we believe, I believe, the Prime Minister certainly believes, all of us collectively believe that we cannot abandon the governments role summarily as the Standing Committee has recommended. That is the main ideological difference. Others are minor changes here and there. I have no hesitation in acknowledging this.

The Standing Committee says the government shouldnt acquire land for private projects and PPP projects because in Western countries the governments do not acquire land. But in Western countries, you dont subsidise diesel, LPG and kerosene also. There is a difference of opinion between the Standing Committee and us. We have to acknowledge it and move on. Yes, it comprises Members of Parliament and we give it respect. Where we differ, we differ.

The Bill in its original form spoke about consent of all affected families. Now there appears to be a dilution of terms seeking consent from all affected persons, especially the livelihood losers.

The Bill that I presented in September was predicated on the consent of 80 per cent of land losers and livelihood losers, both. Now it is 80 per cent of the land losers for the private sector and 70 per cent of the land losers in the PPP projects. The reason for this is that over a period of time administrative and practical difficulties come up. Who is a livelihood loser? Where is he residing? How long has he been residing? It is not easy. Keeping in view the sentiments expressed by a wide cross-section of people and in order not to make the law too bureaucratic, too cumbersome, we said let it be 80 per cent of landowners.

We are providing handsome compensation and resettlement and rehabilitation. These are the three components of the Bill. Land losers get all three; they are involved in consent, they get compensation and R&R. Livelihood losers get two out of three. Right now, livelihood losers are involved in zero of the three, so it is a huge step: from having no stake to having two-thirds of the stake.

There were apprehensions that there is an attempt to water down some features of the Bill, like not applying the Bill retrospectively.

What we are saying is that where no award has been made under the old Act, the new Bill will apply. For those cases which are more than five years old, where an award has been made but land has not been taken possession of or where compensation has not been paid, the new Act will apply. Because there are many instances where the award may have been announced but compensation has not been paid.

We have defined compensation for the first time. It does not mean mailing a cheque to the farmer alone. It must be credited to the account in the post office, that is what we mean by payment of compensation. The retrospective clause is a hugely progressive clause. The compensation amount is being hiked up four times in rural areas and two times in urban areas. Unutilised land will be returned either to the landowner or to a land bank. If a land is sold off after being sold off, 40 per cent of the appreciated value will be shared by the landowner. We protect land acquisition in Schedule V areas as far as possible. We do not want Schedule V areas to be kept as museum pieces. We have to strike a balance. We have to balance out the demands of land for accelerated industrialisation and urbanisation and the need to pay fair compensation. The title of the Bill shows a mindset change.

If everything is so perfect with the Bill, why is it taking so long and why do the contentious issues remain?

Industry associations are very apprehensive that it will jack up costs. Vocal sections of civil society feel that I have not gone far enough. I have to find a middle path. I have struck a balance. It has taken me one year. The Bill was presented in September. Many State governments want an unfettered right to acquire land. There are multiple stakeholders. It is an evolutionary process. I have said, let us revisit the Bill after 20 years. We had to change the 1894 Act; it is excessively and most iniquitously pro-government and pro-industry. Many sections in government and industry certainly dont want it to happen.

T.K. Rajalakshmi

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