UPA signs off on new land acquisition Bill

UPA signs off on new land acquisition Bill

New Delhi: The Union cabinet on Monday cleared the politically sensitive and critical proposed land acquisition Bill, a little over a month after it was unveiled to the public by the ministry of rural development on 29 July, after relaxing key provisions relating to compensation and allowing conditional acquisition of multi-crop land.

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The National Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation & Resettlement Bill, 2011, is expected to be introduced in Parliament on Wednesday, a day before the ongoing monsoon session is scheduled to end.

“Today, the Union cabinet approved the Bill. It will be introduced in the Lok Sabha on Wednesday after which it will go to the standing committee," rural development minister Jairam Rameshsaid after a cabinet meeting.

The government will convene a meeting of the National Development Council, of which the state chief ministers are also members, on 15-16 October to discuss the Bill, he added. The standing committee is expected to submit its report during the winter session of Parliament.

The ministry also introduced the “retrospective effect" clause in the proposed legislation, during the process of public consultation, according to which the Bill, when passed, will apply to all cases of land acquisition where “the award has not been made under the 1894 land acquisition Act" or “where the possession of land has not been taken, regardless of whether the award has been made".

While the initial draft prohibited acquisition of multi-crop, irrigated land, the final version allows acquisition of up to 5%—subject to certain conditions. It also says if the land acquired is not used for the stated purpose, it will not be returned to the original owner, but go to the state land authority.

The final version of the Bill proposes that the compensation in rural areas won’t be less than four times the original market value, as against the six times initially proposed. However, in urban areas, the compensation will be twice that of the market value determined.

Another significant modification by the ministry includes the definition of public purpose. It now clearly distinguishes between land acquisition by government for its own use and for transfer to private firms for a public purpose project.

The draft Bill permits land acquisition under three broad categories—when the government acquires land for its own use; when it acquires to ultimately transfer to private companies for a given public purpose, and immediate and declared use by private firms for public purpose.

In the original draft, it was proposed that the latter two kinds of acquisitions can take place only after the consent of 80% of the families was obtained. In addition to the existing public purposes when acquired by government for its own use, it has been added that the state will also not need the 80% consent if it acquires land for railways, highways, ports, power and irrigation purposes.

The cabinet approval comes after West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee said she “broadly" supported the Bill after meeting Ramesh on Saturday. Ramesh has held a series of meetings, including with cabinet ministers, in the last few days to mobilize support for the Bill.

“There is broad support for the Bill (in the cabinet) and Banerjee is fully on board. This is not a coercive Bill, the states will have their own land acquisition laws," Ramesh said.

Banerjee, also the leader of ally Trinamool Congress, who had opposed the Bill earlier, gave her conditional nod, saying the state government will “not acquire any land except for security purposes or when there is a national disaster". A Trinamool Congress leader, who did not want to be named, said the party has decided to raise its reservations over some points in the Bill when it comes before the standing committee’s scrutiny.

Land acquisition has become a controversial issue, after some protests by farmers against unfair compensation and forcible acquisition turned violent and became politicized. While it turned out to be the key issue that led to the end of the three-decade-old Left rule in West Bengal, the agitation in Uttar Pradesh ahead of assembly elections next year could potentially cause a significant electoral setback to the ruling Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party. Both Congress president Sonia Gandhi, through the National Advisory Council, and her son and party general secretary Rahul Gandhi, through political campaigns, had pressurized the government to expedite the legislation.

The Bill emphasizes the need for a combined acquisition and R&R law. It is the first ever national law addressing R&R of families affected and displaced as a result of land acquisition.

Once passed, the Bill will replace the archaic land acquisition act of 1894 and will supersede all specialized legislations on land acquisition, including those for special economic zones and railways.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who chaired the cabinet meeting, said the Bill will balance the need for development with urbanization and growth.

The Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) welcomed the cabinet approval, but expressed concern about the R&R cost that would be loaded on industry. “While CII is absolutely in favour of appropriate and adequate compensation for people who are affected by land acquisition, we believe that the costs have to be reasonable for industry to remain viable," the lobby group said in a statement.