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New Delhi: The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s land acquisition Bill moved a step closer to becoming a law with the Rajya Sabha approving it on Wednesday. It will become a law after the President signs off on it.

The upper House voted 131-10 in favour of the Bill that was passed in the Lok Sabha on 29 August. One member of Parliament abstained from voting.

The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, 2012, was being considered by the upper House, along with several amendments suggested by the principal opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said an official from the rural development ministry that piloted the Bill.

The proposed law seeks to introduce transparency in land acquisition so that land is not forcibly taken away from farmers, while ensuring adequate compensation and rehabilitation for landowners and others affected by land acquisition.

One of the proposed changes relates to exempting pending and incomplete irrigation projects from the tough provisions of the new law, which replaces the Land Acquisition Act of 1894. The amendment seeks to protect these irrigation projects from being subject to a retrospective clause that says the new provisions on compensation, resettlement and rehabilitation will apply to all cases where no land acquisition award has been made, and where the land was acquired five years ago but no compensation had been paid or no possession had taken place.

“The 1894 Act was a law that was misused, it was anti-farmer, the law gave the administration so much power to misuse the law," rural development minister Jairam Ramesh. “Efforts have been made to have a completely new law and not just amend sections of the 1894 Act."

The minister said wrong land policies had led to disenchantment and movements like the Maoist movement.

“This is just an enabling legislation, the states are empowered to improve on it if they want; the states cannot reduce the terms but can improve them," he said. “This Bill provides for resettlement and rehabilitation rather than as a policy. Compensation is being given not only to those who are owners but also to those who lose their livelihood when the land is acquired."

Both, the government and the opposition, have agreed that farmers whose land is acquired for irrigation projects will either get compensation or be given rehabilitation and resettlement (R&R) packages. The rural development ministry official cited above said, on condition of anonymity, that the government agreed with the BJP’s suggestion that the social impact assessment clause should not be applied for the acquisition of land for irrigation projects.

The proposed changes drew criticism from the Communist Party of India-Marxist’s (CPM) P. Rajeev, who, during the debate, demanded to know why the Bill was sought “to be diluted after its passage in the Lok Sabha".

The preamble to the Bill says it aims to achieve “a humane, participative, informed and transparent process for land acquisition for industrialization, development of essential infrastructural facilities and urbanization with the least disturbance to owners of the land and other affected families".

Participating in the debate, BJP’s Chandan Mitra supported Samajwadi Party’s Ram Gopal Yadav’s opinion that “acquisition of land should be done in wasteland areas". The Bill stipulates mandatory consent of at least 70% of affected farmers for acquiring land for public-private partnership (PPP) projects and 80% for private companies.

CPM’s Sitaram Yechury urged the government to ensure the urgency clause in the Bill for acquisition of land will not be invoked for private firms.

Derek O’Brien of the All India Trinamool Congress party demanded that consent of all landowners be made mandatory before acquisition of land. On the government’s role in land acquisition, O’Brien rejected the argument given by Ramesh that in a developing economy farmers needed the support of government to ensure fair compensation. “Farmers have the ability to negotiate directly with corporates," he said. “This Bill is not good for farmers, this Bill is not good for the nation."

The lower House passed the Bill on 29 August with an overwhelming majority of 216-19. Once the Rajya Sabha passes the Bill, it will go back to the Lok Sabha for its approval on the amendments.

First introduced in 2011, the Bill was referred to a parliamentary standing panel and a group of ministers for scrutiny, both of which suggested major changes in the original draft.

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