New Delhi: As he credited Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi for the government’s ambitious new land acquisition law, rural development minister Jairam Ramesh on Sunday said the party would exploit political gains from a raft of legislation that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has pioneered.
Ramesh, whose ministry drafted the law, labelled the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, 2013, as the “sixth milestone” on the government’s roadmap to implement a rights-based approach to development.
Ramesh listed the Right to Information Act of 2005, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme of 2005, the Forest Rights Act of 2006, the Right to Education Act of 2008 and the National Food Security Bill of 2013 as the five previous laws brought in by the UPA that are aimed at empowering the common man and ensuring inclusive economic growth and development.
“Of course, when we go into a political campaign, certainly it will be part of our election campaign—the food security Bill (and) the land acquisition Bill will be big issues that we will go to the people (with),” the minister said, adding these will be highlighted during the upcoming polls in five states— including Delhi, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh—this year besides the national election next year.
The land acquisition Bill passed by both Houses of Parliament during the monsoon session that ended on Saturday will be notified in three months, the minister said.
The Congress-led UPA, which was re-elected in 2009 for a second five-year term, has been weighed by a series of graft charges since then. Many critics of the government say the food security and land acquisition laws are aimed at garnering dissipating support among the masses as the country heads for crucial state and national polls.
Crediting Gandhi as the inspiration behind the change in the name of the Bill from the original Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill in 2011, Ramesh said the Congress vice-president had instructed him to “think of a title that conveys the essence of what you are trying to say”. The minister disclosed that Gandhi had pointed out that in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, then president George W. Bush had brought out an Act that curtailed the civil liberties of the American people but when it was titled the Patriot Act, nobody opposed it.
It was Gandhi’s visit to Bhatta-Parsaul in Uttar Pradesh in May 2011, where farmers had clashed with the police over better compensation for their land, that focused renewed attention on the forcible acquisition of land.
Land acquisition has been a contentious issue in India with many displaced protesting inadequate compensation—one of the issues that this new law seeks to address. Many infrastructure projects have been held up because of problems related to land acquisition. Ramesh, on his part, promised to bring in amendments to the 1908 Registration Act that deals with land titles during the winter session of Parliament.
Ramesh also gave credit to Congress president Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council, which sets the social agenda for the government, for suggesting the provisions of resettlement and rehabilitation be made part of the land acquisition Bill.
“This land acquisition law if properly implemented will defeat Maoism,” Ramesh said, noting that the 1894 land acquisition law, which the new law seeks to replace, had a “very important role to play in encouraging Maoist activity”.
“Land acquisition is at the root of the Maoist issue,” the minister told reporters in New Delhi. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has categorized the Maoist rebellion that has affected 82 of India’s more than 650 districts as the country’s most serious internal security threat.
Ramesh conceded that the new law will make land acquisitions costlier for companies but he argued that the legislation will help farmers, tribals, dalits and the landless, and was in national interest.
“Companies must also learn to be sensitive to changing aspirations. Indian companies still believe they can use the government to forcibly acquire land. That era is gone, we cannot forcibly acquire land. People are empowered, people are much more aware of their rights. We have to respect them. You have to go through a consultative process,” the minister said, adding that the consent of village councils was a must for acquiring land.
He slammed the record of government-run companies in rehabilitation and resettlement, saying that the “record of the public sector in displacement is worse than the record of the private sector. It is a sad truth that more displacement has been caused by public sector projects than private sector projects...this is why Naxalism (Maoist insurgency) has grown” in areas like Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha.
The minister added that the central government will ask state governments to prepare maps of wasteland in each district that can be used for industrial projects. According to his own assessment, there were about five hectares of wasteland across different states of India. This, Ramesh said, was in keeping with suggestions made by leaders like the Samajwadi Party’s chief Mulayam Singh Yadav.