The parliamentary standing committee on rural development has recommended a tightening of the definition of “public purpose” in the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill to include land acquisition for most purposes. This bodes ill for the country’s development.
There is no doubt that abuse of eminent domain powers under loosely defined “public purpose” clauses has created serious problems in the past. A clear definition of public purpose—which excludes any government help in getting land for private firms and individuals —is certainly required. But what the committee has recommended moves in the other extreme direction. There is danger that virtually all development activities in the country—from building of highways, dams, nuclear power stations, Metro rail networks, railways among other projects—will come to a grinding halt.
Under the fourth schedule of the Bill, land acquisition for 16 acts listed in that schedule is exempt from the provisions of the Bill. These 16 acts relate to projects of national importance such as nuclear power, mines, highways, etc. Ending exemptions for these purposes, as the committee has recommended, will make it nearly impossible for the government to secure land for developmental activities.
There is great danger here. Today, most developmental projects are under a state of “siege”. The Kudankulam nuclear power project would have been derailed had the state and Union governments not taken a strong stand in its favour. If anything, a combination of activism by non-governmental organizations, foreigners who fish in troubled waters and assorted do-gooders has almost paralysed decision making and implementation in these matters. The proposed Bill, once it turns into law, will cement these problems. If that happens, India can forget industrialization and fast growth; agriculture will become its mainstay again.
There are clear grounds to rein in the abuse of eminent domain power, especially where the private sector is involved (as happened, for example, in Nandigram in West Bengal). But developmental projects of national importance are a very different matter.
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