Land Bill hits a wall

The NDA government’s amendments to the Land Acquisition Act of 2013 through an ordinance, widely seen as an anti-people intervention, meet with stiff resistance from a wide spectrum of political parties and civil society groups.

Published : Mar 04, 2015 12:30 IST

Farmers protesting against the proposed amendments to the Land Acquisition Act, at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on February 24.

Farmers protesting against the proposed amendments to the Land Acquisition Act, at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on February 24.

WHEN, in December 2014, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by Narendra Modi got an ordinance promulgated to amend the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 (LARR Act), it did not anticipate such widespread opposition to it, including from some of its allies like the Shiv Sena, the Akali Dal and the Lok Janshakti Party. In fact, that the government was planning to amend the law became apparent when, on June 27, 2014, the Union Ministry for Rural Development called a meeting of the Revenue Ministers of the States to discuss the LARR Act.

The new government had been in office for little over a month. The justification given for the ordinance was that Parliament was not in session and that the Central government needed to take immediate action to make applicable the provisions of compensation, rehabilitation and resettlement to 13 Acts mentioned in Schedule 1V (that had been exempted from the 2013 legislation), to expedite the process of land acquisition and to carry out certain other amendments.

Unfazed by the dismal results in the Delhi elections and perhaps to prove a point that it was still in control, the NDA government was determined to go through with the ordinance, and introduced an Amendment Bill to the effect. The President’s address to the joint session of Parliament was an indication that the government was committed to the changes in the LARR Act. Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, speaking in the Rajya Sabha in defence of the changes proposed in the 2013 Act, said the Act was a defective piece of legislation. Appealing to the Opposition, he said that infrastructure and industry were not “bad” words. But, he clearly could not explain the public good in acquiring land for private hospitals and private educational institutions.

Defending the exemption of five categories of projects from social impact assessment (SIA) and consent, Jaitley said the debate over the Bill should not be seen as one between the “rich” and the “poor”, or between farmer and non-farmer. He also played the jingoistic card, saying that (information about) seeking consent and doing the SIA for land acquired for defence and security purposes would reach Pakistan. He also said that some strategic installations had suffered because of the law.

Even as the debate on the LARR Act continued inside and outside Parliament, a demand was made to implement the land reform policy, based on a 10-point agreement arrived at with the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in 2012 and the introduction of the draft Homestead Bill guaranteeing 10 cents of land, which was also drafted in the UPA’s tenure but ignored thereafter.

The amended Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha amid pandemonium even as various organisations and political parties stepped up pressure from the outside. Further, the entry of the popular Gandhian and anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare in the protests against the land acquisition ordinance gave a fillip and a twist to the ongoing protests led by the opposition parties and left-leaning farmers’ organisations which were unanimous in their rejection of the ordinance. Hazare’s public declaration comparing the government to India’s colonial rulers—his speeches were extensively covered by the electronic media—eroded the pro-people image that the government had been trying to cultivate so assiduously. Not only did everyone unanimously oppose the ordinance route, but the government’s justification that the proposed amendments were made to help both industry and farmers did not convince anybody, least of all the farming community. That even farmers’ outfits affiliated to the ruling party expressed their unhappiness with the ordinance showed that support for the ordinance was anything but overwhelming. The isolation of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led NDA on this issue could not have been more apparent or complete.

The ordinance, now called the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Amendment) Bill, has several features that effectively dilute or do away with earlier provisos for consent and SIA in five categories of projects.

Under the 2013 Act, consent of 80 per cent of the landowners for private projects and 70 per cent of the landowners for public-private partnership (PPP) projects was required; this has been done away with for five categories: defence, rural infrastructure, affordable housing, industrial corridors and infrastructure projects, including PPP projects where the ownership would lie with the government.

The government’s obdurate defence that this was done to benefit the needs of rural and urban India and to accelerate economic growth did not appear convincing. The experience of land acquisition for special economic zones (SEZs), the negligible quantum of employment such zones generated, as well as the vast swathes of land lying unutilised after acquisition did not inspire confidence in the government’s new-found justification.

Secondly, the 2013 Act had made SIA mandatory for all projects except irrigation projects. The sole purpose of having an SIA was to assess the number of people displaced, including the landless and those dependent on the land indirectly, and to weigh the benefits of the project in question. In one stroke, the ordinance did away with the need for such SIA in the five categories of projects. It is inexplicable why these exemptions are being granted to projects in the name of the public interest.

One significant issue having an impact on food security is the removal of restrictions relating to the acquisition of multi-crop and fertile land. The ordinance does away with many protective clauses. The definition of public purpose, which was hotly debated even within the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Rural Development headed by the present Speaker of the Lok Sabha, Sumitra Mahajan, was altered to make it possible for the government to acquire land for private hospitals and educational institutions. The definition of land acquired for private projects was also altered. Earlier, only those companies registered under Section 3 of the Companies Act could acquire land; the ordinance widened the definition of private companies to include all kinds of private entities like proprietorships, partnerships, corporations and non-profit organisations.

The 2013 Act also provided for retrospective application of the 2013 law for land which had been acquired under the 1894 Act. It provided a safeguard whereby if an award had been made under the 1894 Act five years or more prior to the commencement of the 2013 Act and if physical possession had not been taken or compensation had not been paid, the proceedings would be deemed to have lapsed and fresh proceedings would commence under the new Act. The ordinance does away with this right and benefit to affected people and lays down that proceedings would not be deemed to have been lapsed due to delays caused by court stay orders or where compensation has been awarded and lying in an account. The retrospective application would now be decided by a tribunal.

The earlier Act provided for action against errant officials but the amendments ensure that officers cannot be prosecuted without prior sanction by the government. Under the previous Act, land acquired but unutilised for five years was to be returned to the original owners or their legal heirs or to a land bank; the amendments under the ordinance removes the five-year restriction. A very significant change in the Act has been the extension of the power to issue notifications and directions by the Central government. The Left parties had objected to the right of the government to issue notifications on the grounds that any notification amending the Act should be put up in Parliament. Hence, the existing Act had given the government powers to issue notifications up to a period of two years, till December 2015; the proposed amendment extended this for five years, until 2019, which coincides with the end of the term of the Central government.

“It is nothing but the old 1894 Act, extending corporate interests. The ordinance completely alters the basic framework of the LARR Act, 2013, making a complete mockery of it and the struggle and protest against unjust land acquisition,” said a statement issued by a broad front of organisations, including farmers’ organisations and people’s movements like the National Alliance of People’s Movements, the All India Kisan Sabha, the Akhil Bharatiya Kisan Sabha, the Ekta Parishad, the Jan Sangharsh Samanvay Samiti, and the Bharatiya Kisan Union. Hannan Mollah, former Member of Parliament of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and Atul Kumar Anjaan of the Communist Party of India said categorically that the ordinance had to go.

For three days from February 23 to February 25, thousands of people marched to central Delhi and staged protests against the land acquisition ordinance. On the one end was Anna Hazare and the Left-led farmers’ organisations and social movements, and at the other end was the Congress, which mobilised its entire top leadership to come out on the streets against the ordinance. The Ekta Parishad, which had organised a five-day march of landless tribal people mainly from Palwal district in Haryana, to Delhi, flagged the issue of land reforms and homestead land. P.V. Rajagopal, who led the march, said that the non-implementation of the agreement between the previous UPA government and the Ekta Parishad needed to be revisited. He also extended the support of his movement to the abrogation of the LARR ordinance. “We should go beyond the LARR Act, 2013. Why should the government come into the picture at all in acquiring land?” he said, adding that the Land Reforms Council headed by the Prime Minister was in the process of being reconstituted. “Every government wants its own people. I hope that this government implements the agreement arrived at earlier,” he said.

Alarmed by the groundswell of protesting voices, the government, on February 24, constituted an eight-member committee chaired by the former Minister Satyapal Malik and comprising BJP Members of Parliament to consult with farmers’ organisations. There were indications that the ordinance may be tweaked for getting the approval of both the Houses of Parliament. However, senior Union Ministers in the government continued to defend the amendments in their public statements.

The surfacing of a letter written by former Commerce Minister Anand Sharma to the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressing concern about the LARR Act showed that the Congress itself had been a divided house on the Bill when it was in power. Even though the LARR Act, 2013, underwent a lot of changes primarily because of pressures from the Left parties and the amendments moved by them, it was a fact that in its original form it had sought to incorporate the interests of corporate India, by widening the ambit and definition of land acquired for public purpose, for example. Interestingly, when the LARR Act was being debated and was in the final stages of passage, the very same BJP was very much on board and its leaders, now senior Ministers in the government, had, on the floor of Parliament, praised the then Union Minister for Rural Development for tabling the Act.

It will not be easy for the government to push the LARR Bill through unless it resorts to a joint session of Parliament. It cannot afford to let the ordinance lapse. By setting up a committee, the government may be buying time, but as all indications go, it is in a hurry to implement the land Bill. However, with mounting opposition to it, and with genuine apprehensions about the government’s power to acquire land for “public purpose”, it seems less and less likely that the passage of the amendment Bill will a run a smooth course.

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