Veneer of fairness

The government pushes through the Land Acquisition Bill, but critics say it will take away more than what it purports to give.

Published : Sep 18, 2013 12:30 IST

A farmland in Punjab. India's land acquisition legislation passed by Parliament ignores many crucial points raised in the report of the Standing Committee on Rural Development pertaining to agricultural land.

A farmland in Punjab. India's land acquisition legislation passed by Parliament ignores many crucial points raised in the report of the Standing Committee on Rural Development pertaining to agricultural land.

CLOSE on the heels of the passing of the National Food Security Bill, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government pushed through its other game-changer initiative, the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, 2013, or LARR Bill, ostensibly to address the injustices involved in land acquisition. While there was all-round agreement about replacing the antiquated Land Acquisition Act, 1894, the final form of the legislation as passed by Parliament was arrived at after diluting many provisions of the original Bill with last-minute amendments. The amendments moved by sections of the opposition, mainly the Left parties, were ignored or negatived when put to vote.

The title and body of the legislation seems to indicate a balance between acquisition of land on the one hand and compensation to the affected people and their rehabilitation and resettlement on the other. But, in reality, the legislation offers only a veneer of regulation to check unbridled land acquisition. The intention to regulate is couched in various qualifying and flexible statements such as “as far as possible” and “last resort”. It has been pointed out that while the colonial legislation may have had many drawbacks, including the lack of a provision for consent from those whose land was proposed to be acquired, it still did not permit the government to acquire land for the corporate sector, whereas the current piece of legislation does.

Many crucial points raised in the 31st report of the Standing Committee on Rural Development pertaining to agricultural and multi-crop land as well as about narrowing the ambit of public purpose were roundly ignored in the final run-up to the legislation. What is most significant is that the provisions of the Bill regarding rehabilitation and resettlement (R&R) shall not apply to acquisitions made under the 13 existing Acts. A large number of acquisitions have taken place under these Acts. The Standing Committee had recommended the inclusion of the 13 Acts. Several members who spoke on the floor of both Houses of Parliament said land should not be acquired for private purposes but rather be given on lease. Some even suggested that the titles should remain with the owners.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supported the Bill almost in toto and got the government to incorporate a clause that effectively denied compensatory land for land where it is acquired for irrigation projects. The last-minute inclusion was made after the Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister appealed to the Union Minister for Rural Development Jairam Ramesh to consider the fact that compensating people displaced by irrigation projects with land would not be practical. To accommodate his views and to project a semblance of fairness, the words “as far as possible” were inserted in the clause. This was clearly a departure from the earlier guarantee of giving “project oustees” land for land apart from compensation. Responding to a few amendments suggested by the BJP, the government included the option of lease instead of acquiring land. Also, in order to prevent motivated sales by taking advantage of the new law, a new clause was inserted that 40 per cent of the compensation would be shared by the original owner.

The government ignored the bulk of the amendments moved by the Left parties, who abstained from voting. The Trinamool Congress, whose amendments were accepted in principle by the government, opposed the Bill, forcing the Union Minister to point out that one of its members, D. Bandopadhyay, who was Land Reforms Commissioner, had helped in drafting the Bill and yet opposed it. The Trinamool opposed the Bill on the grounds that it “should not be used for profit-making companies”.

The Left’s amendments The amendments moved by the Left parties pertained to protecting and safeguarding the land rights of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes and ensuring government involvement in every step in the event of their lands being acquired, including in post-acquisition development plans; extending the provisions of R&R to the 13 Acts listed in the Fourth Schedule of the Bill; reviewing the antiquated Indian Stamp Act of 1899; keeping out the acquisition of multi-crop land under all circumstances; setting up of a Land Price Commission at the national, State and district levels to determine market prices; and the inclusion of a land use policy. But the government disregarded these proposals.

Of the more than 100 amendments the Communist Party of India (Marxist) proposed, only two amendments were adopted. One of this pertained to the rights of sharecroppers and tenants, but this was adopted only in a limited manner. The ambit of compensation here is only for those sharecroppers and tenants who had worked on the land for the last three years prior to the enactment of the LARR. Basudeb Acharya of the CPI(M) raised this issue in the Lok Sabha pointing out that in the absence of land records, it was difficult to prove the tenure of sharecroppers. The second proposal of the CPI(M) which was accepted was that the law could not be amended to reduce or dilute the compensation and R&R provisions; it could only be amended to enhance them.

P. Rajeev, Rajya Sabha member of the CPI(M), told Frontline that the government had arrogated to itself the powers to add or omit any of the enactments listed in the Fourth Schedule, containing the 13 Acts now exempted. As per Clause 106, the Central government was empowered to omit or add any of the Acts by issuing a notification. “How can the government take over what is the right of Parliament?” Rajeev asked.

Under pressure from the Left parties, the government agreed that within one year of the notification of the Act, the provisions of compensation and R&R as given in the First, Second and Third Schedules would apply to the cases of land acquisition under the Acts listed in the Fourth Schedule. However, at the same time, the government can, by an executive notification, exclude or include at will any of the 13 enactments from the purview of the Act. “At a time when the government is heavily going in for PPP [public-private partnership] mode of projects, including in Metro Rail, it is imperative that all these Acts, like the Railways Act, 1989, the Coal Bearing Areas Acquisition and Development Act, 1957, and the Metro Railways (Construction of Works) Act, 1978, are brought under the main Act immediately. Various infrastructural activities under the exempted list of Acts are being privatised and there is no provision for compensation, resettlement or rehabilitation for them,” he said.

The compulsions of the government to keep these Acts out were unclear even as the Jairam Ramesh expressed his helplessness in doing so, though he appeared to agree with the necessity of bringing these Acts in the body of the main Act. Why the Acts were kept out for one year was also not clear. He agreed that under no situation should multi-crop land be acquired, but expressed his helplessness following petitions from the Haryana, Kerala and Punjab governments that this provision be reviewed. They argued that it would virtually be impossible to acquire land in these States. He said full flexibility had been given to the States even in terms of seeking 100 per cent consent from the land losers if they wanted to.

Rajeev said that wherever the purchase of land was above the land ceiling limit, the compensation and R&R provisions in the Bill should have applied. However, the Bill gives the freedom to the States to decide the ceiling limit of land to be acquired on the grounds that land is a State subject. “State governments can raise the ceiling of land which can be acquired to suit the purposes of real estate,” he added, expressing apprehensions at the unbridled acquisition of land.

The Left parties had demanded that the evictees be given a share in the increased value of land as often the land’s value went up manifold after acquisition. Though the Bill specifies a formula for the compensation of land acquired in urban and rural areas, there is no mechanism to determine the market value or to ensure that the land losers and those dependent on the land receive a share in the enhanced value of the land. In fact, there was a dilution in the solatium rate from what was in the original Bill in 2011. “The 1894 Act was a colonial Act; this one is a neoliberal Act. That is the only difference,” said Rajeev.

D. Raja and Prabodh Panda, Members of Parliament of the Communist Party of India, felt the government should have brought out a White Paper on land use apart from having a thorough discussion in Parliament on the same. Raja said the current piece of legislation should have ensured that no resale of land took place and the land was returned to the original owners if it was not used for the purpose it was acquired for. The Bill gives the option to the State government to decide whether the land would go to a land bank or to the original owner.

Prabodh Panda told Frontline that the government should play the role of a facilitator, not an agent; the agitation over the Posco steel plant in Odisha was a clear example of the confrontation between the government and the people. “If an investor wants land above the ceiling limit, then conditions should have been laid down for such acquisitions in the Central Act,” he said.

Many aspects were left vague, he said. For instance, where consent was to be obtained from 80 per cent of the people whose land was proposed to be acquired and the compensation and R&R for them were laid down, what would happen to the 20 per cent who did not agree to give up their lands, he asked. He felt the need for a clause for compensation or R&R with retrospective effect. Indiscriminate land acquisition began in the early 1990s and in several cases with little compensation, he pointed out.

The rules for the new legislation will be framed and they are expected to incorporate some suggestions and concerns that were raised on the floor of the House. What is apparent is that the Act gives a clear licence for acquisition in almost all categories, with loose caveats inserted here and there. The government has been talking of a National Land Reforms Council for distribution of land to the landless and the guarantee of homestead land. The LARR Act seems to take away more than what it purports to give.

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