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The amendments to the 2013 land acquisition law have been passed in the Lok Sabha, thanks to the majority that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) enjoys in the Lower House. Some allies of the BJP, like the Shiv Sena, were opposed to the amendments while others like the Akali Dal came around at the very last minute reluctantly. Now the amendments have to be considered and passed in the Rajya Sabha when it reconvenes on 20 April. What is clear is that the Congress, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Trinamool Congress, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Janata Dal (United), Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Communist Party of India are categorically opposed to the amendments as passed by the Lok Sabha. These parties have the majority in the Upper House. The stance of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Biju Janata Dal will be known only at the time of voting, depending on the pressure Prime Minister Narendra Modi mounts on the supremos of these two regional parties.

Meanwhile, while Nitin Gadkari has emerged as the most aggressive champion of the amendments, Modi himself has started speaking out. In his Mann ki Baat radio address on 22 March, he made an extraordinary claim, which to put it mildly, is simply untrue. He said the amendments were needed to enhance compensation and resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) benefits for land acquisition under 13 laws that were exempted under the 2013 law. The Prime Minister is making a virtue out of a necessity. Section 105 (3) of the 2013 land acquisition law clearly stipulates that within one year of that law coming into force, the compensation and R&R provisions of the 13 laws in the fourth schedule of the law must be brought on par with those of the 2013 land acquisition law. These laws govern acquisition for highways, railways, coal and minerals. This means that before 31 December, the central government of the day was legally duty-bound to carry out these amendments. Modi showed no favour to anyone, nor was this some great concession to farmers’ interests and concerns. The fact, easily verifiable, is that the 2013 law itself contained these provisions and the amendments simply had to be done because Parliament had unanimously and enthusiastically passed this law in September 2013.

It is true that the compensation and R&R provisions of the 2013 law have not been changed, but neither have they been increased. In any case, the 2013 law has been changed in a fundamental sense and the spirit of 1894 has returned. The battle lines are now clearly drawn on at least seven fronts.

First, before notification, the 2013 law stipulated social impact assessment to be done within six months so that (i) public purpose of proposed acquisition is clearly established; (ii) no diversion of acquired land from stated public purpose will take place; (iii) land in excess of actual requirement will not be acquired; (iv) multi-cropped irrigated land will be acquired only as demonstrable last resort; and (v) livelihood losers and others entitled to compensation would be identified. The 2015 amendments do away with social impact assessment completely.

Second, the 2013 law stipulated that 80% of farmers must give written consent to the government acquiring their land for private companies and 70% in the case of acquisition for public-private partnership (PPP) projects, which are actually executed and operated by private companies. The 2015 amendments do away with the need to get written consent of farmers for a number of private and PPP projects.

Third, the 2013 law stipulated that in the case of industrial corridors, land could be acquired only for the corridor. The 2015 amendments allow for acquisition of land extending to one kilometre of both sides of the corridors, which will undoubtedly lead to windfall gains for builders and developers. The Yamuna Expressway shows the havoc that can be caused by such acquisitions.

Fourth, the 2013 law already stipulates that land acquisition can take place for national security and defence projects under the urgency clause without going through the consent and social impact assessment procedures. The 2015 amendments merely repeat what is already contained in the earlier law and use this as a smokescreen for other changes.

Fifth, the 2013 law has a clause for retrospective application of enhanced compensation and the return of land that has been upheld by the Supreme Court in 2014. The 2015 amendments invalidate these judgements by increasing the number of qualifications that need to be satisfied. This amendment thus denies the benefits to lakhs of farmers whose lands were being sought to be acquired under the 1894 land law but whose lands had not been taken physical possession of or who had not accepted compensation in their account.

Sixth, the 2013 law said if the acquired land is not used within five years, it would be returned to the farmer or to the state’s land bank. The 2015 amendments make this open-ended and, once acquired, the prospect of the land being returned has been virtually eliminated, leaving it to the discretion of the entity for whom it is being acquired.

Seventh, the 2013 law limited land acquisition only for government or for private companies under specific circumstances. Land can now be acquired for any entity, organization, non-governmental organization or individual because the 2015 amendments greatly expand the definition of the private entity to include all of them.

The 2013 law was a fine balance between the need to acquire land for industrialization and urbanization and the need to protect and enhance the interests of farmers and livelihood losers. The amendments disturb that fine balance in favour of the government and private entities. The law would have given an impetus to buying and selling of land. But with the amendments, acquisition of land by government without proper safeguards has got a fresh lease of life. The fears are not imaginary. Land acquisition in this country has perpetrated huge injustices on farmers. The 2013 law recognised those injustices and sought to rectify them. The 2015 amendments take us back to where we were.

The author is a former Union minister and Rajya Sabha MP.

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