Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done well to directly reach out to farmers on the proposed contentious amendments to the land acquisition act passed during the previous government’s tenure. It is not possible to dispute his central argument that acquiring land from agriculturalists for building roads or industrial corridors is not about benefiting private capitalists (“dhanna seths”). The real gainers are people in the rural areas. Modi has also rightly pointed out that no farmer wants all his children to till the land; the average size of holdings is too small to allow that. This means gainful employment opportunities must be created for rural youth. And certainly, it is better these jobs come up at factories closer to their homes and villages, so that they don’t have to go and live in the “jhuggi-jhopdi [slums] of Delhi and Mumbai”.
While Modi’s impassioned intervention will go a long way in countering the arguments of those who see a grand corporate conspiracy in his government’s land ordinance, it still does not address a genuine concern. This has to do with the removal of the “consent clause” in respect of land acquired for rural infrastructure, industrial corridor, affordable housing or defence production projects. If these projects are going to benefit farmers, why dispense with the requirement of seeking their consent prior to land acquisition? Getting approval from 70 per cent of landowners seems a reasonable requirement to ensure it is representative of the will of an overwhelming majority, while also dealing with the problem of “holdouts” by a few. It is one thing to reduce the consent threshold further to, say, 51 per cent, but quite another to completely do away with the requirement.
The more pertinent danger arising from the political storm kicked off by the land ordinance is that it diverts attention from reforms that possibly merit greater priority — be it decontrolling urea, rationalising fertiliser and food subsidies, or replacing open-ended physical grain procurement and distribution with targeted direct cash transfers. The fear of being perceived as “anti-farmer” — which the ordinance may have contributed to — could well lead this government to drag its feet on these reforms, which cannot be postponed any longer. For that reason alone, flexibility on land acquisition through restoring the consent clause may make sense.