Land ordinance: The haunting
It is a fair wager that after the decimation of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Delhi’s assembly elections, the opposition to its policies in Parliament will increase. Among several targets, the land acquisition ordinance promulgated on 31 December to amend parts of the land law of 2013 should glide into their cross hairs.
Both Houses of Parliament are required to approve the ordinance once the budget session begins on 23 February. A failure could see the ordinance being re-promulgated, and the cycle repeated. The ordinance could come to haunt the government, alongside the brand new ghost of the BJP’s ambition to run Delhi.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s imprimatur is firmly on the ordinance. Personally, and through his office—through statements and tweets—Modi claimed the ordinance in the peremptory manner he wooed Delhi. This could hurt both Modi and the BJP because the ordinance is not only about fixing a flawed land law—the position of the government and the BJP spinmeisters, and several media barons who do not mask their proximity to big government and big business alike. The ordinance is a repository of flawed attitudes that diminish democracy.
Doing away with consent is, of course, one such. This is not about defence-related projects and rural infrastructure, over which India’s citizens have naturally shut up and put up since independence. Denial of consent to setting up industrial corridors, affordable housing, which can lead to the bizarre situation of the poor being displaced for other poor, and infrastructure projects, including those in which the private sector partners the public sector as a major, equal or minor partner, is a corruption of the doctrine of eminent domain. The doctrine provides the state moral justification to acquire land for the greater good. Private hospitals and private educational institutions, too, are now exempt from such consent.
Social impact assessment for such projects are no longer required. Irrigated, multi-cropped land is now up for grabs, minus any earlier restriction aimed jointly at aspects of farmers’ welfare and food security. And, land acquired for any project whatsoever can, with the help of the ordinance and nifty paperwork, indefinitely remain with the entity acquiring the land, even if the purpose for which the land was acquired—and people displaced, with or without consent—remains unfulfilled. The land law had placed a limit of five years after an entity had gained possession of land.
India’s flourishing corruption, hollow record of human rights, and displacement and rehabilitation trauma that affects tens of millions of people is proof of how such an ordinance can actually add to the destabilizing of internal security—the opposite of government claims. Even discounting the factor of consent, application of the ordinance requires unimpeachable governance and lack of crony capitalism. This is unlikely.
Moreover, the ordinance is really a Land Acquisition Forces (Special Powers) Act. It runs the danger of deepening callous administration and policing, and sycophancy, all in the name of national duty. The ordinance proclaims: “Where an offence under this Act has been committed by any person who is or was employed in the Central Government or State Government, as the case may be, at the time of commission of such alleged offence, no court shall take cognizance of such offence except with the previous sanction of the appropriate Government…”
So, a bureaucrat involved with land acquisition, or a policeman—officer and constable alike—assisting that acquisition can get away with application of force against citizens—landowner, landholder and activist alike—unless a government green-lights prosecution. What government will if the person is acting on behalf of such a government?
Anything already goes. In pre-land ordinance Tamil Nadu, protesters have overnight gone from being fisherfolk and farmers to being declared enemies of the state, for demanding clarifications about the safety of state-run Kudankulam nuclear power plant in the middle of their fishing and farming areas. In a tragic list, more than 8,000 people have cases of sedition against them; more than 18,000 have cases for waging war against the state. From Odisha I have copies of first information reports registered by police against farmers protesting land acquisition for a private sector steel plant. Besides unlawful assembly, the police reports pin on them bizarre crimes like performing obscene acts and songs, and import and export of counterfeit coins.
These are just two examples from two states, from a list that includes several hundred from most states of India. And now, there is the ordinance.
Sudeep Chakravarti’s latest book is Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India. His earlier books include Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly
affect business, runs on Fridays.
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