The outdated 1894 law on land acquisition is set for a challenging reintroduction in Parliament. But nearly all connected with this law rue it; be it farmers, industrialists or displaced people awaiting resettlement. Even Union minister for rural development Jairam Ramesh, who negotiated, debated and fussed over every detail, says the process was so stressful it made his “hair turn grey”. The bill is, after all, a critical aam aadmi legislation for the UPA at a time when its popularity chips are down and elections loom ahead.
Even so, it’s not going to be smooth sailing. There are many fundamental issues—compensation, powers left to the states, the sweeping definition of ‘public purpose’, amongst others— that have been raised by numerous stakeholders, the opposition parties, and state governments.
Political parties sought more time to study the bill last winter, but this time the rural development ministry has found a kind of compromise. Parties, including the CPI(M), JD(U), SP and BJP will send their views, and their suggestions will be considered in the budget session. “We have asked for an all-party meet prior to the budget session on this bill,” says CPI(M) leader in the Lok Sabha, Basudeb Acharia. “Furthermore, acquisitions for government projects—including by railways and defence—often go without compensation and relief and rehabilitation (R&R). We want suitable amendments on these.”
In a recent analysis of 525 court verd–icts in Delhi between 2008 and 2010, Prof Ram Singh of the Delhi School of Economics found that, in 86 per cent of the cases, people got significantly hig–her compensation than what land acq–uisition commissioners (appointed under the 1894 Act) fixed. Appeals sec–ured a further hike in 96 per cent cases. In one case Singh cites, the compensation rose by nearly 1,500 times. On average, compensation rose by 290 times. “It could be that courts give too much,” says Singh, “but it is more likely, from what I’ve seen, that government and companies give landowners too little.”
“Settling land disputes is part of the bill,” says B.B. Srivastava, secretary, land resources. “People can still approach courts if there are land disputes.” The negotiations and changes this bill has had to deal with since 2007 boggle the mind. ‘Industry-friendly’ ministries, for instance, wanted the proposed national manufacturing investment zones out of the bill’s R&R purview. sezs were exempt earlier, but now will be included—after one year—in perhaps a nod to civil society and farmers. In all, 26 substantive and 28 minor amendments have been made.
Noida Ext, acquisition gone awry. (Photograph by Jitender Gupta)
Critical among these is the power left to states to guide land acquisition (land is a state subject and land acquisition is on the central list). So now the limit after which R&R provisions will apply in private acquisitions, the bars beyond which multi-cropped or agricultural land cannot be acquired, and the size of each acquisition will be decided locally. Unutilised acquired land can be, at state discretion, returned to original owners.
Perhaps the most contentious issue is how the bill defines “public purpose”—and this is linked with the position on PPPs or public private partnership vent–ures. “One of our main recommendati–ons was that the government not acqu–ire land for private firms and PPPs. That has not been accepted,” says BJP MP Sumitra Mahajan who heads the parliamentary standing committee on rural development. The BJP has said it wants to debate how “public purpose” is def–ined when the bill comes to Parliament.
Linked to this are the benchmarks for how much consent is needed before land acquisition. The draft bill settled it at 70 per cent for PPPs and 80 per cent for private-only projects. Significantly, this excludes the most needy stakeholders—landless labourers and other non-owners—though they’ll be entitled to R&R. The bill’s sweeping definition of public purpose—to include public, private and PPP—would see government acquiring land for private enterprises. “There will be a rush for PPPs to avoid the 80 per cent consent norm. This is exactly what made the 1894 law seem draconian,” says Bhara–tiya Krishak Samaj chairman Ajay Vir Jhakar.
According to Prof Singh, while it’s impossible for any law to fully satisfy both developers and farmers, the government does have a creative way out with PPPs. “PPP is a catch-all term but the category is very diverse. It’s a mistake to club all together. The government should distinguish PPPs centred around real estate from PPPs that provide public goods and services,” he says.
“We also have to accept government presence in acquisition as the only way to ensure accountability. The priority should be to ensure displacement is always the last resort,” says Harsh Mander, director, Centre for Equity Studies. He says the terrible impact on tribals and the poor when private companies acquire or resettle without government oversight nullifies the notion of consent on paper.
For all we know, the UPA will successfully manage these dissenting voices—some from within the Congress. The government has taken a give-and-take approach to fine-tune the draft (it’s no longer public). “We want the 1894 law scrapped and a new law,” says Acharia. “But the bill needs further provision for tribal interests. The standing committee has not seen the current draft yet.”
While that to-and-fro continues, the reality is that, apart from land acquisition, over 20 other laws impact land ownership, transfers, resettlement and compensation in India. In many cases, there are no land records and landless peasants and tenants are excluded. Skilful floor management may well see the UPA through but not without many hurdles along the way.
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
Different states have different needs. So the center should just have an empowering bill for the states.
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