By: Jairam Ramesh and Muhammed Khan
After intensive and extensive consultations lasting for over two years, the UPA 2 government succeeded in getting Parliament to pass a historic new land acquisition law in September 2013. This law completely replaced the colonial Land Acquisition Act, 1894. The new legislation did not fully satisfy everybody but it came to be widely acknowledged that it, for example, ended the era of forcible acquisitions, enhanced compensation for both land-owners and landless families significantly, provided for the essential resettlement and rehabilitation of families displaced on account of land acquisition, curtailed the abuse of the “urgency” clause, gave farmers a share in the appreciated value of the acquired land, provided for the return of unused land and the creation of land banks, and gave gram sabhas new powers to decide on land acquisition. Since January this year, the Supreme Court has upheld the new law, particularly the retrospective clause, in four separate judgments.
Gopinath Munde, before his tragic death, publicly stated that he would ensure the effective implementation of the 2013 act. But his successor in the rural development ministry, Nitin Gadkari, firing from the shoulder of the states, seems to have other views and has previously announced that he is in favour of amending the new law substantially. Specifically, it appears that the consent clause that provides for land acquisition for private companies only after the written permission of farmers will be diluted and the mandatory social impact assessment prior to land acquisition, in order to judge its essentiality and to identify both land and livelihood losers, will be dropped. There are other changes proposed that will entirely alter the law.
The concerned parliamentary standing committee had recommended that government should not acquire land at all for private companies under any circumstances. This committee was headed by senior BJP leader Sumitra Mahajan, who is now Speaker of the Lok Sabha. The UPA 2 government did not accept this recommendation. But it provided for such acquisition to take place only after 80 per cent of the farmers give their written consent, with the consent requirement being 70 per cent when public-private partnership projects are involved. However, here an important exception was made. For projects carried out by the government, for the government (for public purpose) where the land would remain absolutely and completely in the government, no consent would be required.
Indubitably, the Land Acquisition Act, 1894 was a draconian legislation that had been the cause of widespread displacement and heinous atrocities, all committed in the name of advancing development. The principal reason why the law was a relic and necessitated a revisit was because of the complete absence of any safeguards against its abuse. Any authority could decide, unilaterally, that land was required and it could simply make a claim for it. Hearings against it were perfunctory and often dispensable. In this day and age, when we prize due process as an essential promise to our citizens, such a law just could not be allowed to continue on the statute books.
A social impact assessment is now being argued to be an inconvenience, a cause of delay. But before any acquisition begins, should there not be a transparent public process, whereby a thorough and systematic inquiry could be made to ascertain if the acquisition is even necessary to begin with? In other words, the acquisition process should not be subject to the whims and fancies of governmental authorities. The social impact assessment study is also limited to a deadline within which it has to be carried out— six months.
A third point apparently being made by Gadkari is that states must have flexibility. Of course they must, and indeed they do in the new law. States are free to decide on whether land should be acquired, purchased or leased, and they are also free to decide on the extent to which multi-cropped irrigated land should be acquired, keeping in mind considerations of food security. It is also the prerogative of the states to decide when resettlement and rehabilitation should take place when land is being purchased directly by private parties from farmers. The sliding scale of compensation (between twice in urban areas and four times in rural areas) is for the states to fix.
The 2013 law was passed with the complete support of the BJP and, indeed, of all political parties, each of which made important contributions to the final version. Both amendments recommended by the BJP in the Lok Sabha, relating to lease and share in future sale of acquired land, were included without changes. Amendments suggested by the Madhya Pradesh chief minister to smoothen land acquisition for irrigation projects were accepted in the Rajya Sabha and included in the final legislation.
Drafting a law requires a balancing of competing interests — a task of immense proportions in a country with many diverse groups. The new land acquisition law must be given a fair chance because, for the first time, the concerns and interests of farmers, livelihood losers and scheduled caste and scheduled tribe communities have been given the highest priority as part of land acquisition. That should not now be abandoned. The focus should be on passing amendments to the Registration Act, 1908, for which UPA 2 had introduced a bill in the Rajya Sabha. This will ensure greater accuracy in arriving at land values and also in determining beneficiaries for payment of compensation. Other initiatives launched in the past four years for modernisation of land records and a national land reforms policy must also be taken forward.
Ramesh was Union minister for rural development when the 2013 land acquisition law was passed. Khan is a former officer on special duty, MoRD