It has finally happened, although not in the way most people expected. Amendments to the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 were certainly on the anvil, going by the statements of the finance minister and some of his senior colleagues. But that it would be done through the ordinance route was a surprise to even those who were championing these amendments and certainly a rude shock to those who believed that the 2013 law was an equitable step forward that should be given a fair chance.

There are five amendments in the ordinance:

—The insertion of a new Section 10A, which exempts a special category of projects from the consent requirements, the social impact assessment (SIA) requirements and the bar placed on acquisition of multi-cropped, irrigated land. The five items in the special category include industrial corridors and infrastructure and social infrastructure projects including projects in the PPP mode.

Since most acquisitions fall in these two categories, this has the impact of completely nullifying the safeguards contained under the original 2013 law.

—The change in Section 24(2) 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 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 these amendments will disqualify a majority of beneficiaries and are only designed to serve the interests of the State and its land banks.

—The change in Section 87, which will now mean that defaulting civil servants could be prosecuted only after sanction. The 2013 law had placed greater accountability for officers working to implement the law by providing for provisions to penalise them in case of violations. However, the ordinance allows for their prosecution only after taking sanction from the government. Now, officers can proceed to implement the law without any provision for their accountability.

—The period of time after which a piece of acquired land must be returned to its original owner has been diluted. Section 101 of the 2013 law stated expressly that the land must be returned after five years if the land is not utilized.

However, the ordinance amends the period of five years to also include “the period specified for the setting up of any project", whichever might be greater. The impact of this will be that the acquirer can specify an extremely lengthy and generous period for the completion of any project without any accountability. This, in effect, nullifies the clause.

—Section 113 of the 2013 law gave the government power to take any action that may be necessary to implement the law for two years after its passage. The time period was an important limitation on potential abuse. However, the ordinance has extended the time period to five years. This allows the government sweeping residual powers to take any action necessary to support their interpretation of the Act. This is again a violation of the spirit of the Act, which focused on empowering the land owner and not the state machinery.

The 2013 legislation came after two years of extensive nationwide consultations, two all-party meetings, 14 hours of spirited debate in both Houses of Parliament in which over 60 members participated and incorporation of amendments suggested by the-then principal opposition party (namely, the Bharatiya Janata Party). The legislation got unanimous support across the political spectrum; if anything, the criticism was that it was not progressive enough in protecting the interests of farmers and others whose livelihoods would be affected when land is being acquired.

The standing committee concerned chaired by the present Speaker of the Lok Sabha had recommended that government should not be acquiring land under any circumstances for private sector projects and for projects being implemented in the PPP mode. These two recommendations of the standing committee were, in fact, rejected by the then government on the grounds that given land markets as they are in the country, some acquisition by the government will be necessary even for private companies. But the safeguard against forcible acquisition that had become a feature in state after state was the introduction of the consent clause—80% consent of landowners for private projects and 70% consent for PPP projects.

Effectively, the ordinance now has dropped the consent clause.

It is not just the return to the era of forcible land acquisition that has made land-related agitations and protests ubiquitous with which we must be concerned. The dropping of the pre-acquisition social impact assessment requirement means essentially that governments are now free to acquire land far in excess of what is actually needed.

The 2013 law was a fine balance between the need to acquire land for the needs of faster industrialization and urbanization and the need to protect the interests of farmers and livelihood losers. That law did not hinder leasing nor did it interfere with purchase. What it did was recognize the huge injustices that had been perpetrated by governments (and this has indeed been our experience everywhere), which were free to divert acquired land to whatever purpose they deemed fit (and this too has happened when land acquired in the garb of public purpose has been virtually gifted away to private builders in a number of states), over the decades, using a colonial-era law of 1894 that in name was for land acquisition but in effect became a law that facilitated expropriation.

Fortunately, the ordinance does not tamper with compensation and R&R provisions of the 2013 law but that is of small consolation. Eminent domain is back with a vengeance and this can only mean more conflicts over land.

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

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