‘This is not the best, but it is progressive’

Interview with Jairam Ramesh, Union Minister for Rural Development.

Published : Sep 18, 2013 12:30 IST

Jairam Ramesh: "This is a middle path."

Jairam Ramesh: "This is a middle path."

THE passage of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, 2013, is being perceived as a major achievement by the United Progressive Alliance government. The Bill that has replaced the colonial Land Acquisition Act, 1894, went through several changes in order to arrive at a middle path, a term coined by Union Minister for Rural Development Jairam Ramesh. Whether the path leads to equitable and balanced development or not remains to be seen. Addressing some of the criticisms against the Bill, he defended why it was necessary to pass it the way it was. Excerpts:

The bulk of land acquisitions have taken place under the 13 existing pieces of legislation that are listed in Schedule IV of the Act, and these are exempted from the compensation and R&R guarantees. Why the exclusion?

The exclusion of the 13 Acts was realpolitik. I could never have got the Bill through had I included all the Acts. My original draft, which I made public in September 2011, included these Acts. There was a huge furore within the government. So sometimes, in government to arrive at a decision and consensus, one takes an extreme position. So I resiled from that position and said I needed something else in return; that in one year’s time, the compensation and R&R package would be brought on a par with this Act. In theory, it would make sense to have one law, but in practical terms it would be difficult to have an all-encompassing law. This is a middle path. Within one year, the compensation and R&R in these Acts will be brought on a par with those under the new Act.

I realise there are certain concerns, particularly the Coal Bearing Areas Act and the Mining Act which have inflicted huge misery on tribal people, especially in States like Jharkhand. But policymaking, consensus-building, is always an incremental process. The best always cannot end up becoming an enemy of the good. This is not the best Act. It is a good Act. I had to bring around the BJP, the Left, regional parties, Cabinet colleagues, civil society and State governments. I admit this is not the best Act but it is a progressive Act compared to [the] 1894 [Act]. Is this the best that I would I have liked? The answer is no. Have I compromised on many of my original positions of September 2011? The answer is definitely yes. And the worst thing is that in the last one and a half years, the economic downturn took place. And therefore this whole argument that we should not have an Act that would negatively affect investor sentiment. So I had to carry that constituency also. It wasn’t easy.

Why has the government arrogated to itself the powers to omit or add any of the enactments specified in the Fourth Schedule? Should this not be a prerogative of Parliament?

We will lay the notification on the floor of the House. It will go back to Parliament. The executive should have some powers to amend schedules, laws. If I had said that we would have amended it only after parliamentary approval, we would never have got parliamentary approval. So flexibility should always be available to the executive to respond to changing situations and circumstances. One option was that we would go back to Parliament, but it was rejected as too time-consuming and we would not have got what we wanted. There is a fine mix of how much the executive should do and how much Parliament should do. I am not one of those who believe that the executive should wither away. Parliament has an important role and that is why I resisted the ordinance route for the Bill.

Why is this Act completely silent on land use? Should it not have been a part of this Act? The ambit of public purpose is also very wide.

Land use is a much larger issue. To the extent that the land is acquired for a public purpose and the land cannot be diverted for any other use. There is some kind of a land use that is implicit in acquiring land. Governments have been formulating land use policies for the last 50 years. There have been land use boards chaired by the Prime Minister at the national level and State land use boards. We all know that having a land use policy is one thing and the pattern of land use is another. I think it should be left to State governments. We can provide certain broad parameters, as we do for forests. This law is not for land use, but for land acquisition.

Why has the law allowed for land to be acquired from Dalits and Adivasis, the most vulnerable sections that the government purports to protect?

In the law, for the first time, there is a separate chapter for Dalits and Adivasis. We have provided for higher entitlements for them. We are saying as far as possible don’t acquire land from scheduled areas. Neither was R&R ever a law. For the first time in history, R&R is a law. Neither in the States or at the Centre was R&R ever a law. The 1894 Act was amended three times in 119 years. The option before me was to introduce a fourth round of amendments or carry out a comprehensive rewrite of the Act. This is what we have done. We have not just introduced amendments. Why was this not done before, I do not know. How can I answer for my predecessors?

Why has the requirement of Social Impact Assessment (SIA) been excluded from irrigation projects? The provision of land for land to those displaced has also been altered.

Land for land will be given wherever possible, but where land for land in command area is not available, compensation will be given. The Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh said it would adversely affect irrigation development in his State. He made a last-minute request and I had to take a call whether I stand on principle or I take this Bill through. I decided it was more important to get the Bill through. In any case, I feel irrigation is a public good, done by governments, and is essential for agricultural prosperity, which is good for food security. Legislation is a political process and I have to take the political parties with me.

The differential nature of consent to be sought, especially in public-private partnership (PPP) projects where consent from 70 per cent of landowners is required, and not that of all land-dependent people, is being construed as a concession to industry.

Yes, it is a concession to industry. We need industrial growth and urbanisation. I plead guilty to it. But livelihood losers are being given compensation and R&R.

Why was the government averse to setting up a Land Price Commission in order to decide the market rates?

We didn’t want to create two levels of bureaucracy. The Monitoring Commission would perform the same function to increase compensation if it felt it was less.

The Standing Committee had explicitly proscribed the acquisition of multi-crop land. Several apprehensions were also expressed on the floor of Parliament on this.

Agreed. It is a very fine principle. But the Chief Ministers of Haryana, Punjab and Kerala said, do not close the doors on us. The acquisition of multi-crop land will be a last resort and the word used is demonstrable last resort. It will be done as part of the SIA. We have left it to the State governments to determine the limits. Punjab might say it is okay, Uttar Pradesh might say it is not. They have to give reasons to acquire multi-crop land. It has to be done in writing as to why they couldn’t find any other land.

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