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Another U-turn on land acquisition

Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and finance minister Arun Jaitley have been claiming that the amendments to the 2013 law are required so that defence and national security projects are not delayed. But the law already had an urgency clause for these projects. Photo: PTI
Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and finance minister Arun Jaitley have been claiming that the amendments to the 2013 law are required so that defence and national security projects are not delayed. But the law already had an urgency clause for these projects. Photo: PTI

The amendments will disqualify a majority of beneficiaries and are only designed to serve the interests of the state and its land banks

The Narendra Modi government wants to bring in far-reaching amendments to the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Resettlement and Rehabilitation Act, 2013. These modifications were discussed in the Lok Sabha on Monday and will almost certainly get passed today. What will happen in the Rajya Sabha, however, is an entirely different matter.

The 2013 law was made by Parliament unanimously and enthusiastically in September of that year after extensive nationwide consultations, numerous interactions between the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government and various political parties and two all-party meetings.

The parliamentary standing committee led by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s Sumitra Mahajan, who is now speaker of the Lok Sabha, had studied the legislation for well over a year and had made many recommendations, most of which were incorporated into the law. The standing committee had recommended that no land should be acquired whatsoever for private or for PPP (public-private partnership) projects, but the UPA government had disagreed with that view.

Under the 2013 law, government projects (including irrigation) do not require the consent of farmers, but a social impact assessment before the notification of the acquisition is required. This assessment is to ensure that the land owners, whose land is being acquired, are reassured that the land will not be diverted for any other purpose and that land in excess of what is actually needed is not acquired.

The assessment will also ensure that, as far as possible, multi-cropped irrigated land essential for food security is only acquired as a demonstrable last resort. The assessment will also identify those other than land owners whose livelihoods will be lost on account of the acquisition who will be entitled to compensation and R&R (resettlement and rehabilitation) assistance. The 2013 law clearly stipulates that the social impact assessment will be completed within six months. The Modi government wants to do away with social impact assessment altogether, thereby severely weakening democratic processes during land acquisition.

The 2013 law restricts land acquisition only for government projects and private companies after securing 80% consent from farmers (70% in the case of public-private partnership projects). The Modi government wants to do away with this consent clause altogether, thereby opening the door for forcible acquisition, like in the 1894 law. Further, it now wants powers for the government to acquire land not only for itself and private companies but also for private entities, which would include trusts, foundations and NGOs, thereby expanding the scope of governmental jurisdiction for a government that believes in maximum governance, minimum government.

The 2013 law was clear that under no circumstances would land be acquired for private hospitals and private educational institutions, which are perfectly capable of buying the land they need from land owners. But the Modi government wants government to acquire land for these commercial, profit-making activities and that too without the consent of farmers and without the social impact assessment having to be conducted.

Both the Prime Minister and finance minister Arun Jaitley have been claiming that the amendments to the 2013 law are required so that defence and national security projects are not delayed. Actually, the 2013 law already has an urgency clause, which allows for acquisition of land for defence and national security projects without consent and without social impact assessment. It is not at all clear why this special urgency clause cannot be invoked to acquire land for strategic purposes without having to reveal all information to the public. The whole intent seems to be to use the defence and national security argument to push through the entire package of amendments so that any opposition to the amendments can be dubbed as unpatriotic and anti-national. This is totally misleading and deliberately provocative.

The return of land clause in the 2013 law has also been tampered with by the Modi government. The law clearly states that if the acquired land is not put to use within five years of acquisition, then that land is returned to the land owner or it goes into the state government’s land bank (which is what some parties like the Trinamool Congress party wanted). But now the ordinance removes this time limit and basically makes it indefinite. Thus, land could be acquired and held on for years without necessarily putting it to use according to the purpose for which the acquisition was done in the first place. This is gross injustice to farmers.

Finally, Section 24 of the new law applies the act retrospectively. It provides that in those cases where the award for acquisition was passed five or more years prior to the coming into force of the 2013 law (before 1 January, 2009), the acquisition would be deemed to have lapsed and the land would be returned to the original owner. This was, however, made contingent on the fulfilment of at least one of two mandatory conditions: (i) the compensation had not been paid to the owner; or (ii) physical possession had not been taken.

In January 2014, the Supreme Court in the case of Pune Municipal Corporation versus Harakchand Misirimal Solanki invoked this clause to return land to aggrieved owners. Thereafter, in May 2014, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court headed by justice B.S. Chauhan pronounced the landmark judgment on the interpretation of Section 24(2) of the new land acquisition law, which also set aside a long pending acquisition. Section 24(2) has now been amended by the ordinance to exclude the time spent under litigation where a stay order has been passed.

Furthermore, the definition of compensation paid as laid down by the Supreme Court in the case of Pune Municipal Corporation has been nullified. The Supreme Court had defined compensation paid as an amount deposited in the court. The new section states that any amount paid into any account maintained for the purpose shall be sufficient. Both of these amendments will disqualify a majority of beneficiaries and are only designed to serve the interests of the state and its land banks.

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

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