As expected, the BJP’s proposed land acquisition amendment has run into trouble. This is as predictable as late-December fog in Delhi and about as illuminating. Given that we, as citizens, are unlikely to get any good or trustworthy information on this serious subject from posturing politicians, I have prepared a short guide in the form of a Q&A that begins from the basics.
Is a land acquisition law necessary? Yes. As best we know, every country has some sort of land acquisition law or process. The justification is to make public purpose override private interests, so that “unwilling sellers” cannot obstruct the creation of a public good. In India, two other reasons are considered important. One, the land is very fragmented (three acres is the average landholding size, in contrast to hundreds of acres in Europe and the Americas). As a result, large projects can involve thousands of landowners, and individual negotiation with each is very difficult to coordinate, if not impossible. Two, many of these owners do not have clear title to the land they possess, which means that there are likely to be litigations and disputes later on. India’s land acquisition law solves both problems: of fragmentation and unclear titles.
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How much has the law been used in India? A lot. After Independence, the government adopted unchanged a land acquisition law created in 1894. It proceeded to create what we see as modern India by using that law. This includes the infrastructure for transportation, power and irrigation, factories (as well as the mines to provide raw material and townships to house workers), conservation zones (like national parks), defence installations and urban satellites. It is possible that as many as 50 million people have been affected by land acquisition and land conversion (from one use to another). Such widespread use of the law was justified by arguing that almost any change from “dry” agriculture would create a public good because it would create growth, the ultimate public good. Therefore, irrigation was a major thrust, as was modernisation, broadly understood. Other than in communist states like China and the Soviet Union that abolished private ownership of land (which was the biggest acquisition of all), the highest quantities of acquisition have taken place in India.
Why was a new law created in 2014? The injustices of six decades had begun to generate resistance led by civil society, not political parties. The sudden application of the special economic zones law in 2006 created many points of resistance and conflict. Political parties got involved — generally agitating against land acquisition where they were not in power but supporting it where they were. The state used violence in several well-known situations (Nandigram, Kalinganagar, Kalahandi, Yamuna Expressway) and several projects were famously abandoned (Singur, Maha Mumbai). Land acquisition was viewed by many as the “biggest problem” in India’s growth path. A new act, which had been in the works from around 2006, finally got written into a bill in 2011, was circulated, discussed, tweaked, and made law in early 2014, weeks before the general elections. The new law increased direct compensation, guaranteed rehabilitation and resettlement, created new processes of “informed consent” and “social impact assessment”. All major parties supported the bill, including the BJP, but the Congress (the bill’s author) hoped to derive maximum political mileage from it.
Why does a law less than a year old need to be amended? Late in December 2014, the BJP-led government issued an ordinance which, now that the legislature is in session, has to be made law or abandoned. The ostensible reason for the ordinance was to bring other acts that have a bearing on land acquisition into compliance with the new law. The real reason was that the new law, which was viewed with alarm by private industry, had not removed the bottleneck in acquisition but may have made it worse. As the “Mid-Year Economic Analysis” of the ministry of finance put it: “The Act seems to be written largely based on the premise that the person whose land is acquired is rural, poor, and vulnerable. This may result in adverse consequences (extraordinarily high costs and undue enrichment) when land is acquired from those who are urban, rich and educated. (In future, most acquisitions are likely to be in urban or semi-urban areas.)” The ordinance tries to get around these problems by removing the indirect costs (of informed consent and social impact assessment) in some settings — for instance, the vaguely-worded “industrial corridors”, which could mean anything, but probably means all of urban and peri-urban India.
What has been the reaction to the proposed amendment? The opposition has unified in resistance to the amendment. It has been called a “black bill” that is “anti-farmer” and “anti-people”. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has promised to go on a (one-day) fast. Anna Hazare has rallied in Delhi with the AAP. Traditional regional rivals, like the BSP and SP in Uttar Pradesh and the TMC and CPM in West Bengal, have set aside their differences to denounce it. Even BJP ally Shiv Sena has voiced opposition.
How cynical should we be as citizens? Very. As usual, both political groups are being disingenuous. If the BJP wants to change the law for urban and peri-urban India, it should be open about it and make its arguments clearly. It should explain why it voted for the law a year ago but wants to change it now. It should make clear what most informed citizens know, that there are vast differences between urban India and its deep rural areas and increasing inequalities, that growth is not a magic carpet that can make the whole country airborne but a rocket that takes off in a few places, with a limited number of people. The opposition could begin by acknowledging the same — and that there is no such thing as a generic “Indian farmer” and the new law (amended or not) will mean windfalls for many landowners. Nitish Kumar could admit that almost no land in his state will be affected by the amendment. In fact, he should wish that it would be, because that would indicate that investments were going to enter Bihar. And what goes for Nitish goes for Mamata.
My personal view, which I have aired on many occasions, is that the 2014 law is a bad law. Good intentions produce neither good art nor good law. The amendment proposed by the BJP may make it better and therefore is worth trying. Others can decide on their own. Just don’t rely on politicians for information.
Chakravorty is author of ‘The Price of Land: Acquisition, Conflict, Consequence’