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Is Land Acquisition Bill good for common man? Weighing the pros & cons of the law

LAB

By Harshmeet Singh

Congress’ opposition to BJP’s amended Land Acquisition Bill reached the streets of Delhi on Monday with a number of leaders including Anand Sharma, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Jairam Ramesh and Ambika Soni gathering at Jantar Mantar and addressing their supporters. Reports of local police resorting to lathi charge and water canon against Congress supporters also surfaced in the media.

This key Bill has become a bottleneck in the ongoing Budget Session of the parliament with the Congress staging a walk out last week when the Bill was passed with 9 amendments in the Lok Sabha. For the Bill to eventually take the form of an act, it would now have to pass through the Rajya Sabha as well, where the BJP doesn’t have a majority. The opposition (mainly comprising of the Congress and the Samajwadi Party) are adamant on sending the Bill to the standing committee, which would ensure that the current ordinance expires. They will have a chance to have their way when the bill comes up for consideration in the upper house.

Attaching urgency to the Bill, the BJP had issued an ordinance in December last year. When the President asked the Government about the reason behind such urgency to issue an ordinance, Arun Jaitley reportedly told him that projects worth $300 billion were on hold due to certain provisions in the 2013 Land Acquisition Act which this bill seeks to amend.

“If at any time, except when both Houses of Parliament are in session, the President is satisfied that circumstances exist which render it necessary for him to take immediate action, he may promulgate such Ordinance as the circumstances appear to him to require.” All such ordinances issued by the President when either house is not in session cease to operate after six weeks from the reassembly of the Parliament. This explains Government’s urgency in passing this critical bill.

Context of the Bill

‘Land Acquisition’ essentially refers to buying of land from an unwilling seller. In this case, it would exclusively include the Government buying land from the land owners for development projects. The first law in this regard was framed by the British Government in India in 1894 which gave the Government power to acquire any land for public purposes (no ifs no buts!). Since this law gave immense power to the Governments at the centre and the states, no one bothered about changing it and the Governments frequently acquired lands for public projects and for setting up PSUs after the independence. Post the LPG reforms of 1991, the Government started giving lands to the private players as well, hoping to script a glorious growth story.

The land owners (farmers in most cases) were seldom compensated for their land. There were no provisions for their rehabilitation and resettlement which meant that their families were left to suffer. Such acquisition didn’t require the consent of the land owner either. Moreover, in many cases, the land owner was just given a few days’ notice to vacate the land. Though the land was taken on the name of ‘development’, these farmers never became a part of such development.

Small disagreements took the shape of protests over the years. A number of such protests were seen at different places such as Nandigram, Singur and Sardar Sarovar Dam. With opaque land acquisition practices becoming the norm, there was never a bigger need for a transparent land acquisition bill. The current bill in question, which seeks to bring certain amendments in the Land Acquisition Act passed by the UPA government in 2013, has been termed as ‘anti-farmer’ by the opposition parties in the parliament and Anna Hazare on the streets.

Pros of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Amendment) Bill, 2015

  • The original act of 2013 considered as many as 13 cases of land acquisition as ‘exceptional’ and these were thus excluded from the act. These included land acquisition for metro rail, national highways, railway lines, atomic energy projects, petroleum and mineral pipelines and others. The new amendment includes all such cases in the Act and thus provides similar rehabilitation and resettlement benefits in these cases.
  • The ordinance also gives the power to the Government to acquire multi crop irrigated land, if it is meant for the projects related to industrial corridors, defence, national security, rural infrastructure including electrification and social infrastructure. This would ensure that such projects are fast tracked and the bottlenecks are removed with considerable ease.

And now the cons

  • The most visible con in the amended bill which is being voiced by the opposition is that it takes away the need for consent of the land owner if the land is being acquired for any of these five purposes – rural infrastructure, industrial corridors, affordable housing, defence and public private partnership projects. While the Government supports this clause and attaches it to its ‘aim for development’, the opposition is up in arms saying that this would lead to land getting grabbed at will. Notably, the new act also exempts these five areas from any Social Impact Assessment, an observation many have overlooked!
  • The Act of 2013 provided that if the acquired land is unused for five years, it must be duly returned to the owner. But the provisions in the ordinance has replaced it with ‘five years or any period specified at the time of setting of the project’, thus giving the government a free hand at deciding the fate of the project and the land.

Race against time

The second phase of the Budget session ends on 8th May. If the government doesn’t manage to pass the bill in the upper house during the budget session itself, the ordinance would stand void. Since the Government is free to issue the same ordinance any number of times, it would be safe to assume that the Government would finally get its way with the amended bill. But when and how remains to be seen.

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