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April 5, 2015
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April 19, 2015

Across the Aisle: Land acquisition – Nine steps to nirvana

It is difficult to believe that a government will stake so much — risk of defeat in the Rajya Sabha, political capital, support of allies, the Prime Minister’s time — on a mere land acquisition amendment Bill. It is also difficult to believe that the Government has decided to brave farmers’ anger, street protests and media criticism to get the amendment Bill passed by Parliament. But that is how the story is unfolding.

Prime Minister Modi is leading the Government’s campaign in support of the Bill to amend the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act 2013 (LARR Act). Mr Venkaiah Naidu, Minister of Urban Development, gives a byte a day. Mr Arun Jaitley, Minister of Finance, is confrontational one day and conciliatory the next. Mr Birender Singh, Minister of Rural Development (who will pilot the Bill) is, for the most part, silent. Reports indicate that the RSS and its affiliated organisations are divided on the Bill.

The old Land Acquisition Act of 1894 was an oppressive and exploitative colonial legislation. It took free India 66 years to repeal that Act and pass a law that was vastly superior in terms of fairness and justice to the many stakeholders. That the law was passed nearly unanimously, with the support of the principal opposition party (BJP), was a tribute to the collective wisdom of Parliament.

It, therefore, came as a bolt from the blue that the new Government, within six months of coming into office, took up amending the LARR Act as one of its priorities. The Government advised the President to promulgate an ordinance on the midnight of December 31, 2014.

I commented on the ordinance in a column that was published in this newspaper on January 18, 2015 (Stand up and be counted). My argument was that dispensing with Social Impact Assessment and the ‘consent’ clause, in practically every significant case of land acquisition, was an assault on the soul of the LARR Act.

Nine changes in Bill

As opposition to the ordinance mounted, the Government brought nine changes in the Bill to replace the ordinance. The Government’s ministers swore that every concern had been addressed and it was the duty of every patriotic Indian to support the Bill. The Bill was passed by the Lok Sabha but faced fierce opposition in the Rajya Sabha. In the absence of a replacement Bill passed by both Houses of Parliament, the ordinance lapsed on April 5, 2015.

Playing with high stakes, the Government has promulgated an ordinance once again. The new ordinance is the old ordinance plus the nine changes. The nine changes have been trumpeted as if they were nine steps to nirvana!

As far as I can recall, no minister of the Government has bothered to tell us what these nine changes are. I therefore decided to do a clinical dissection of the nine changes and here is what I found.

Cosmetic and substantive

Three changes are cosmetic, nothing has been changed. In the crucial Section 10A, there was an exclusionary clause for “infrastructure and social infrastructure projects”. Now, the phrase “social infrastructure” has been dropped. But the word “infrastructure” remains and the exclusion remains. Secondly, in Section 24, the word “account” has been replaced by the words “designated account”. Thirdly, the language of Section 87 has been recast, but the requirement of obtaining sanction before a court may take cognisance of an offence is intact.

Three changes are exhortatory. The Government has been told to ensure that only the bare minimum land required for an infrastructure project is acquired. The Government has also been directed to prepare and maintain a record of the wasteland it owns. And, finally, the LARR Authority that will hear objections to the land acquisition or to the award of compensation has been required to hold its hearing in the district where the land is located!

Only three changes may be called substantive:

1. The amendment favouring “private hospitals and private educational institutions” has been dropped.

2. In the case of land acquisition for industrial corridors, Social Impact Assessment and the ‘consent’ clause will be dispensed with only if land up to 1 km on either side of the corridor is acquired. Actually, this will complicate matters because two procedures have to be followed in case land up to and beyond one kilometre is acquired.

3. Section 31 sub-section (2) clause (h) has been amended to require that the award shall include particulars of mandatory employment to at least one member of each affected family. This is an improvement upon existing clause (h) and makes explicit what was earlier implicit.

Core objection remains

We may welcome the three substantive changes, but what about the core objection to the attempt to re-write a law that came into force only on September 26, 2013? The soul of the LARR Act is Social Impact Assessment. The protection for the landowner (invariably a small landowner) is in obtaining the consent of 70 per cent or 80 per cent of the affected families. The Government has made it clear that it cares little for these provisions and is happy to throw them overboard.

Those who stood up to be counted must stand firm. Those who gave the Governmentthe benefit of doubt must now stand up and be counted.

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