The Union cabinet finally gave way. After all,Mamata Banerjee has worn down more resolute opposition in the past. This time,her relentless criticism and,reportedly,the late hours and loud walkout threats achieved their object: the possible wheeling into cold storage of the Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill and the Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill. This is regrettable,as the bills are improvements on the law as it currently stands. Under the current Land Acquisition Act,the state can acquire private land for virtually any public purpose at prices it can set. After Independence,the law was initially employed to possess private land for state-run projects. But as Singur and Nandigram showed,land acquisition today presents a very different question: how should the state acquire agricultural holdings on behalf of private industry?
The proposed Land Acquisition Bill addresses this very question. In fact,its strongest votaries were the Left parties during the previous UPA regime. The bill is most effective in defining public purpose. The state will be able to acquire private land for defence and infrastructure building only. A third category for acquisition is also mentioned for private industry. But in such cases,the private entity has to acquire at least 70 per cent of the land; only then will the state acquire the remaining 30 per cent. And since this 30 per cent could be non-consensual acquisition,property owners will,in effect,be paid more than the market price. The other improvement is the Rehabilitation Bill. Currently,we follow a non-binding rehabilitation policy that is honoured more in the breach. A legally enforceable framework is a leap forward,even though its detailing must be considered a work in progress.
Bills that even the Left claims balance industrialisation with equity are surely difficult to caricature as a capitalist trap. If anything,industry may be less than happy with the change. But such are Banerjees politics; with the West Bengal assembly elections still to be fought,she opposes the state acquiring even the final 30 per cent,even at above-market prices. The Trinamool chiefs eyes seem less on the clauses and commas of the two bills,more on the horizon that is 2011. With the real power she has fought for so long finally within her grasp,she is loath to risk any dilution of her militant,self-professedly pro-farmer image. Hopefully,post-2011,her posturing will cease. But until then,she will be holding hostage not just the Centre,but plain common sense.