After Wednesday’s Niti Aayog meeting on the land acquisition act amendments, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said that “states cannot indefinitely wait for… consensus” and that some of them want to enact their own land laws to spur development, which the Centre would approve. Indeed, Article 254 (2) of the Constitution makes room for states to pass legislation that does not conform with Union laws on concurrent list subjects — such as land acquisition — as long as such legislation is then approved by the president. This was the route that Rajasthan used to amend three Central labour laws last year. By signalling its willingness to lob the ball in the states’ court and let them take charge of the desperately needed reforms in land acquisition, the Central government has been pragmatic and politically expedient.
Indeed, it has already expended significant political capital and turned the land acquisition amendments into a shrill and divisive prestige issue. The boycott of the Niti Aayog meeting by the chief ministers of most opposition-ruled states is just the tip of the iceberg. In a year that saw rising rural and agricultural distress, this has diminished its elbow room to effect painful, though necessary, subsidy reform. Its space for manoeuvre in Parliament and ability to bring other key reforms has also shrunk. Perhaps, letting the states pilot the amendments may be the best way out. Certainly, if just the BJP-ruled states as well as Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, which seem sympathetic to the amendments, change their laws, approximately 50 per cent of the country by land area and GDP would be covered.
But some questions still remain that have not been addressed by simply kicking the can down to the states. While the BJP’s proposed amendments rightly aim to limit social impact assessments, the diluting of consent requirement for certain categories of projects is likely to prove troublesome when actual acquisition happens on the ground. Also, the logic that such dilution would help speed up construction of schools, hospitals, roads and irrigation projects isn’t really convincing, as these are mostly carried out by the government. And government projects in any case do not require consent under the 2013 law. The prime minister also acknowledged this in his Mann ki Baat on March 22: the “2013 [law] has no provision for consent in schemes for which the government is acquiring land”. So, while the social impact assessment requirement may be a genuine problem for such projects, consent is unlikely to be.
Even though the governments of most BJP-majority states may not have to deal with a questioning opposition in the assembly, the ultimate test will be electoral rather than a matter of political management or a numbers game in the legislatures.