Land Bill

Growing resistance

Print edition : July 24, 2015

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Manvender Vashist /PTI

S.S. Ahluwalia (second, right), BJP MP, chairing the first meeting of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the LARR Bill in New Delhi on May 29. Photo: PTI

The Narendra Modi government’s keenness to push through the Land Acquisition Bill faces stiff resistance from various organisations that have deposed before or sent representations to the Joint Parliamentary Committee.

ON May 30, in the course of an interview to a national daily, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a curious statement. He said that the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (LARR) Bill was not a matter of life and death for him and that he was ready to accept suggestions. In a striking coincidence, on the same day the Union Cabinet decided to re-promulgate for a third time the LARR Ordinance, 2015, which was due to lapse on June 4. The official reason given was that it was done to maintain continuity and to ensure that farmers did not suffer. On June 23, in the course of a trip to the United States, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley speaking at Stanford, California, on India’s economic future said that the 2013 land law had hindered the development of rural India. His government had the numbers to have the Bill approved and could call a joint session of Parliament if it was stalled. Hopeful of the passage of what he called a “landmark reform”, he did not give a timeline for the joint session but said that the Bill’s passage was crucial for the next phase of economic reforms. All this was said when a Parliament-appointed Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) was hearing depositions on the contentious ordinance amending the original Act.

The Bill replacing the ordinance was passed in the Lok Sabha on March 10 with 10 amendments, but the government resorted to the ordinance route following sustained opposition in the Rajya Sabha. In order to ensure that the ordinance did not lapse because of the impasse, the Rajya Sabha was prorogued. Subsequently, the President gave his assent for the re-promulgation of the ordinance for a third time.

On May 13, in the face of overwhelming opposition inside and outside Parliament to the amendments, particularly to those pertaining to the dilution of the provisions on consent and social impact assessment and the widening of the ambit of the exempted categories, the Lok Sabha adopted a motion to refer the Bill to a joint committee. Five days later, the government constituted a 30-member JPC chaired by S.S. Ahluwalia of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and comprising 20 members from the Lok Sabha and 10 from the Rajya Sabha. Prominent members from the opposition included Digvijaya Singh and former Union Ministers Jairam Ramesh and K.V. Thomas from the Congress; Mohammad Salim from the Communist Party of India (Marxist); Derek O’Brien from the Trinamool Congress; Ram Gopal Yadav from the Samajwadi Party; and Sharad Pawar from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). An advertisement was put out on May 24 asking the public to send in their inputs by June 8. Many missed this crucial detail, and those who noticed it found that the time frame given for feedback and inputs was limited. Shockingly, within days of the constitution of the JPC, the ordinance was re-promulgated a third time. The JPC had met only once. Opposition party representatives justifiably criticised the government for violating parliamentary norms.

In a statement, the CPI(M) said: “The re-issuance of this ordinance at a time when a Joint Parliamentary Committee has been constituted to examine the implications of the amendments proposed by the BJP government to the 2013 law approved by Parliament is particularly objectionable. The ordinance should be kept in abeyance till the Joint Parliamentary Committee submits its report and Parliament takes a considered position on this amended Land Acquisition Bill.”

In a letter addressed to Ahluwalia, the Bhoomi Adhikar Andolan and the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) said: “After the consistent pressure and opposition, the NDA [National Democratic Alliance] government has referred the land Bill to the Joint Parliamentary Committee but a two-week notice to make submissions is extremely insufficient for many groups and mass organisations to give detail inputs and bring out their comments.” They demanded that the committee extend the timeline at least by a month, until July 8.

The NAPM is part of the Bhoomi Adhikar Andolan, which has left-leaning unions such as the Kisan Sabha and the All India Kisan Sabha as its members. It suggested that the JPC reach out to farmers and workers and hold wider consultations, public meetings and public hearings on the Bill, especially in cases where the local communities had been affected by past or present experiences of land acquisition, rehabilitation and resettlement. The reference was to sites of struggle such as Kalinga Nagar, Dhinkia, Sompetta, Raigarh, Madurai, Mundra, Kanhar, Bhatta Parsaul, Jashpur and Dholera. Following protests and demands that the JPC should hear out representations as well, the deadline for receiving depositions was extended and now JPC meetings are held every Monday and Tuesday. The JPC report has to be submitted to Parliament at the beginning of the monsoon session, that is, in the third week of July. The JPC is expected to wrap up its proceedings in the second week of July.

In their depositions before the JPC, farmer organisations and other stakeholders, including those affiliated to the BJP, have expressed strong reservations to changes suggested to the land Bill. Frontline, which has access to some of the crucial depositions, found that there was overwhelming opposition to the ordinance. In a letter to Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley on June 10, the all-India Kisan Coordination Committee (KCC), which includes 65 farmer organisations such as the Kisan Morcha (the BJP’s farmer front), the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), the Shetkari Sangathan, the Karnataka Rayat Sangh, the Khedut Samaj (Gujarat) and the Swabhiman Paksha, a constituent of the NDA, headed by Lok Sabha member Raju Shetti, apprised him of their concerns and pointed out that they had conveyed their objections to him on May 28 as well. The KCC met on June 9, and in a letter to the Minister a day later, said: “The farming community, which is facing the most severe crisis of this century, was taken aback when the Central government amended the 2013 Act, which now robs the farmers and the farming industry of various benefits derived under the 2013 Act. Now under the ordinance, there is no scope of objections and the consent [clause] has also been withdrawn. The farmers’ right has been infringed. Certainly, the ordinance cannot be in the farmers’ interest on this score.” On the issue of additional compensation, the KCC said that if the farmers did not give their consent under the 2013 Act, “lands can still be acquired provided the land owners are paid an additional 75 per cent compensation. Under the ordinance, once the consent clause is taken away, the farmers will lose out on this additional compensation.”

The KCC said: “Farming is a difficult profession, survival in agriculture is tough; farmers are trying their best to increase the productivity by trying to bring their land under irrigation. The subsoil water level is receding. The lands which are irrigated and where the subsoil water is fairly high should not be acquired. The acquisition of such lands for developmental activities is neither in the interest of the State nor the farmer. This is not even good economics as the Central government year after year has been allocating huge funds [thousands of crores] for irrigation of non-irrigated lands.” The farmer group registered its protest at the clause that allowed the non-return of land. It said that “the very purpose of urgent acquisition means that the land is required immediately and cannot wait. If this be the case, why should the land be acquired from the farmer and left fallow for years?… Why should the farmers’ land be taken if the same is not going to be put to developmental activity within five years? If 25 per cent of the estimated work of the project is not completed within five years, then the extension of time beyond five years seems unfair and the land must revert back to the farmers.”

The KCC also cautioned the government against reducing the compensation amount given by the State governments. The 2013 Act, it said, provided for compensation up to two times the circle rate for urban areas and four times in the rural areas, but some State governments, such as Haryana and Maharashtra, had issued notifications reducing the compensation quantum. The Central government, it said, should ensure that under no circumstances would the compensation level be reduced.

It also pointed out that swathes of land acquired earlier in the name of development were lying unused and that industrialists had benefited from the State and Central governments. The KCC said a committee should be set up to examine the acquisitions of the past and that the lands that were lying unused should be used and taken over by the state for carrying out the first phase of development.

It said: “The report of the committee must also indicate the loss to the exchequer on account of the benefits extended to them [industrialists] in the name of development. We, therefore, request you on behalf of the farmers of the country to kindly consider their request and withdraw the detrimental provisions in the ordinance.” The KCC and BKU delegations deposed before the JPC on June 15 and their deposition included all the salient points mentioned. They averred that the amendments were against the fundamental right to property of farmers, that the whole nature of the original statute had been changed, that the consent clause was vital to arrive at a fair compensation, that the exemption of social impact assessment from the five new categories exposed the “nefarious mindset against the rural people”, that there was a vast difference between private company and private entity, and that the amendments were nothing but a change of heart.

Public purpose

On June 16, the Bhoomi Adhikar Andolan made a detailed representation to the JPC. It raised objections to the wide definition of “public purpose” in the Bill, and criticised Section 10(A) of Chapter III A of the ordinance amending the principal Act’s provisions to determine the public purpose and social impact of a project. It pointed out that a provision in the principal Act for institutional accountability under a court of law against erring officials was replaced by individual accountability requiring government sanction to proceed against them. Section 10(A) exempts the following areas from consent and social impact assessment requirements: “(a) such projects vital to national security or defence of India and every part thereof, including preparation for defence; or defence production; (b) rural infrastructure, including electrification; (c) affordable housing and housing for the poor people; (d) industrial corridors; and (e) infrastructure and social infrastructure projects, including projects under public-private partnership where the ownership of land continues to vest with the government.”

The Andolan has been holding sustained protests across the country against the expansion of industrial corridors, acquisition of multi-crop land and the exemption granted to five categories from social impact assessment, consent and food security safeguard provisions. It demanded restoration of the mandatory employment clause provided in the principal Act and the clause providing for informed consent of all affected gram sabhas in all kinds of projects, and sought clarity on the procedural difficulties” cited by the government as a reason for amending the principal Act. It requested the JPC to consider the recommendations of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Rural Development headed by Sumitra Mahajan and the discussions that took place in Parliament.

The Andolan pointed out that a Right to Information application filed with the Ministry of Finance seeking details about the stalled projects mentioned in the 2014-15 Economic Survey revealed that only 8 per cent of the 804 projects were stalled because of land acquisition problems. Only 1.36 per cent of the projects (slum rehabilitation projects, budget housing projects and bus stands) had anything to do with the well-being of disadvantaged or impoverished segments of society. The Andolan said this was contrary to the stand of the advocates of the ordinance that the land acquisition process was holding up the projects and slowing down the economy.

Opposition to the amendments have emanated from all corners, including former BJP ideologue and founder of the Rashtriya Swabhiman Andolan, K.N. Govindacharya, who deposed before the committee. He told Frontline that the statement about convening a joint session of Parliament to push through the Bill was aimed at intimidating or instructing the BJP members within the JPC. “The government seems insensitive to the functioning of the JPC. This kind of a dadagiri [bulldozing] is not done in a democracy. It will influence the JPC members,” he said. He said the government should take stock of the land situation, look at providing residential land to all and acquiring and distributing Bhoodan land.

The People’s Alliance of Central East India, a coalition of organisations working in Chhattisgarh, wrote to the JPC that changes in the provisions of the principal Act deprived farmers of their land and of better compensation and rehabilitation and resettlement benefits. It pointed out that no Bill by the name of Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (First Amendment) Bill, 2015, was ever passed by both Houses of Parliament, and that the reference to “Second Amendment” Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Second Amendment) Bill, 2015, appeared erroneous. It also pointed out several shortcomings in the amendments. Others have wondered why the BJP was silent on the lease option as opposed to permanent acquisition of land by either a public or private entity, a proposal that had come from the party when it was in the opposition.

The depositions reveal that there is overwhelming opposition to the amendments to the principal Act and that little has changed since the ordinance was promulgated the first time. While most of the critics in the JPC, including some NDA members, seem to be on the same page, everything depends on whether a consensus will emerge.

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