The use of eminent domain power to seize citizens’ private property is odious and is rightfully scorned in most well-governed countries. Of late, the debate has become more polarized and ideological. The changing context and meaning of “public purpose”, the reason for acquiring private property, has been lost sight of.
The Supreme Court, in an important judgement delivered on Wednesday, has gone some way in clarifying and elaborating on the meaning of public purpose. The case in question arose from Uttar Pradesh (UP), where the state government had acquired a large area of land for the Yamuna Expressway project linking Noida with Agra and developing five regions along the expressway. The project was to be executed by a private company that agreed to bear the cost of land acquisition.
The project was challenged all the way to the apex court, the key contention being that the UP government acquired the land for a private company and no public purpose was involved in the project. Public purpose is often interpreted using section 3(f) of the Land Acquisition Act, 1894. In the charged political atmosphere of today, if a government acquires land, the project automatically becomes one of public purpose, otherwise it becomes something beneficial to private parties. The court has rejected this narrow interpretation.
Today, state governments have little money for investment in large infrastructure projects. If private projects lead to infrastructure that can be used by citizens without discrimination, the private-public distinction breaks down.
This is where the import of the judgement lies. Most debates on the development versus land rights issue boil down to one polemical argument: the land and property of tribals and other marginal groups being “snatched”. The court’s judgement is refreshingly apolitical on the issue. So long as proper compensation is paid to the owners and the projects serve more than a small section of the populace, use of eminent domain power is justified.
It is, however, important to add a caveat here. If this judgement frees governments from political problems associated with land acquisition, it is by no means clear whether they will carry out the task of selecting private partners to execute projects honestly. In fact, if recent events are anything to go by, the danger from crony practices is growing by the day in India. The judgement, sadly so, frees governments in that wrong direction too. That, however, is not a problem of the court or even of the court’s creation: It is something to be sorted out by the people and the government.
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