It is often said that a just land acquisition – with all the involved parties satisfied – is an impossibility. However, Considering the aspirations of Indian economy and the interests of farmers and land owners at stake, a democratic and progressive legislature governing the consent, compensation, resettlement, and resolution of conflicts on land acquisitions is long overdue. And with the ordinance which passed early this year; on the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, 2013; looks like we have taken a major step backwards.
Legislature on land acquisition in India dates back to the 1894 law, which allowed colonial authorities to carry out the acquisition regardless of how the person whose land is sought to be acquired is affected. Even after India’s independence, no safeguards or appeal mechanism were brought in to hinder the acquisition process, nor was there any law concerning the resettlement and rehabilitation of the displaced. As expected, the farm houses of the rich and the affluent were never acquired. It was always the farmers, agricultural workers and tribals who suffered.
In 2011, the twelfth five-year plan noted that of the estimated 60 million people displaced in development projects since independence, over 40% were tribals. Considering that tribals constitute about 8% of India’s population, the numbers are quite high. An estimated one in ten Indian tribal is a displaced person. The draft of the government’s National Policy for Rehabilitation states that around 75% of the displaced are still awaiting rehabilitation. Given the extent of exploitation the voiceless millions have gone through, the reformation of laws governing land acquisition in India was extremely critical.
The Union Ministry for Rural Development initiated the process of amending the Act back in October 1998. The bill underwent numerous changes, and was passed by the Lok Sabha twice, but failed at the Rajya Sabha on both occasions. The bill, over these years, became more and more lenient, hence compromising with the interests of the displaced. Over a period of seven years, and after being reviewed by two Parliamentary Standing committees, the bill was finally passed in September, 2013.
The Land Acquisition, Resettlement and Rehabilitation Act, 2013
The Land Acquisition, Resettlement and Rehabilitation Act, 2013 ensured the displaced a compensation up to four times the market value of land in rural areas and two times in urban areas. The act made it mandatory to obtain prior consent of owners of the land – 70% for Private Public Participation (PPP) projects and 80% for private projects, which could be raised to 100% by respective State Governments.
The 2013 law exempted 13 laws from the purview of the bill, which included the Indian Railways Act, National Highways Act, Land Acquisition Mines Act, Coal Bearing Areas Acquisition & Development Act etc, under which the bulk of the land acquisition takes place. While the colonial legislation did not permit the government to acquire land for the corporate sector, the current piece of legislation did. Despite these loop holes, the 2013 Act was seen as a step forward.
Ordinance to amend the Land Acquisition Act, 2014
On 5th January, 2015, the new government amended the 2013 act through an ordinance. Although the compensation for the displaced remains the same, the ordinance removed the mandatory consent clause – both the 70% consent for PPP and 80% consent for private projects. Unlike the 2013 Act, the ordinance enabled the acquisition of multi-crop irrigated land as well. The provisions related to food security bill were removed. A Social Impact Assessment (SIA) of the acquisition and provisions requiring public hearing and Gram Sabha were omitted, hence removing the role of Panchayats in the negotiation process altogether. Also, according to the ordinance, a land remaining unused for more than 5 years will not be liable for return to its owner anymore.
Earlier the acquisition for private purposes was limited to Private Companies, which are registered under the Companies Act. The ordinance has extended it to any Private Entity which includes proprietorship, partnership, and NGOs as well.
While in opposition, the BJP was opposed to ordinances altogether, calling it undemocratic and authoritarian. In just six months since it has come to power, the BJP government has already used ordinances thrice.
In its defense, the BJP has argued that the rates of compensation have been kept unchanged. But what about consent? Does axing of the SIA not imply that it would no longer be necessary to identify, compensate and rehabilitate millions of landless peasants who work on land owned by others? In a recent report, the National Sample Survey Office revealed that only 57.8% of rural households are engaged in agriculture. What about rehabilitating the rest of the population?
A matter that affects a huge majority of Indian population, especially farmers and dalits, which underwent debates and discussions over decades, was brought to conclusion through an ordinance, which favors the interests of the corporates and real estate barons, and cripples the voiceless millions. The 2013 Act, despite its shortcomings to provide complete cover to the displaced, was framed after consulting the stake holders over a period of seven years. It was reviewed by two Parliamentary Standing Committees, both headed by senior BJP leaders, Kalyan Singh and Sumitra Mahajan. The new BJP government changed the Act over the stroke of a pen, avoiding every debate and discussion, and took it closer to the old colonial Act of 1894.
How long can the government deny the rights to farmers and agricultural laborers and remain unwilling to establish the balance between democracy and development? If this does not raise questions on India being a democracy, then what does?