The UPA government has done a commendable job of identifying the key problems the nation is facing and coming up with legislations to solve them but at the same time, has perfected the art of drafting them in such a defective manner that they, to a great extent, defeat the purpose for which they were supposedly intended (though the NDA, on the other hand, completely neglected the need to legislate on so many crucial issues). In another article I had written on this portal, I had identified some problems with the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, Right to Education Act, Forest Rights Act and Communal Violence Bill, I pointed to defects in the National Sports Bill, and I mention the proposed law relating to sports over here not because it deserves as much attention as the others I mentioned but because even that proves this trend of defective law-making by the UPA. This piece shall be dedicated to the new proposed law to deal with land acquisition.
Land acquisition has been at the forefront of national deliberation since the days of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, and it continued to hit headlines with very serious debacles that occurred one after another in places like Nandigram, Singur and Bhatta Parsaul. Of course, it’s not one political party that has been involved in land acquisition controversies with the Congress, BJP, CPI-M and regional parties all being caught in the storm.
Then, we heard that the UPA was coming up with a new legislation that would do away with the role of the government in facilitating land acquisition for private players, who would have to directly negotiate with the owners of the land for the rate at which the latter are willing to sell it, if they are willing to sell it at all. This came as very pleasant news and was one which would please both true economic right-wingers and true left-liberals.
As for the former, they believe in the right to property being an inalienable right of every human being and no regulation by the Govt. except to ensure the rule of law, which means that a farmer or tribal who has ownership over his land cannot be deprived of the same without his free consent, and the Govt. has no business to interfere in any economic transaction a private company has with him to buy his land. Crony capitalism is not true capitalism, and in the latter, everyone, rich or poor, is given his right to property and is protected equally by the rule of law, but without the State handing out doles to the poor by intervening in the economy.
As for the latter, State intervention in the economy is necessary but only to protect and safeguard the interests of the poor, and ensure that they don’t suffer. The rich are to be taxed heavily and their interests are to be subordinated to those of the poor. A decision favouring the farmers and tribals, the deprived sections for which left-liberals are so very vocal, especially in the context of land acquisition in the context of private companies, would have been welcomed by them as well.
As for centrists like myself who respect both schools of thought and in part, agree with both of them, there’s no question of disagreement where both of them converge.
However, now that the bill is ready for the monsoon session, it is very disappointing to say the least. It still gives the government the right to acquire land for private companies. Yet, as it is often said, it’s always better to look at the brighter side of things, and therefore, it may be useful to first examine the positives of the bill. The process for land acquisition involves a Social Impact Assessment survey, preliminary notification stating the intent for acquisition, a declaration of acquisition and compensation to be given by a certain time. It makes rehabilitation and resettlement (R&R) compulsory for all displaced persons. Also, compensation for the owners of the acquired land is to be four times the market value in case of rural areas and twice in case of urban areas.
Yet, even this isn’t as rosy as it sounds. The market value is based on recent reported transactions. This value is doubled in rural areas to arrive at the amount of compensation. This method may not lead to an accurate adjustment for the possible underreporting of prices in land transactions.
Then, consent of 80% of the owners of the land is necessary for acquisition but only in the case of private companies, but not in the case of PSUs. Aren’t PSUs expected to be more socially responsible? What is more, the government can temporarily acquire land for a period of three years without having to comply with any requirement.
Equally ridiculous is the idea of a pure sale-and-purchase transaction between a private company and whose land is being sought to be followed by an obligation on the part of the private company. The government can promote legal literacy among the poor and educate them about their options for every transaction, but to force private companies to engage in R&R, even if the seller isn’t really very intent on it, stifles much needed economic activity.
However, what takes the cake is that this new proposed law is not meant to apply to land acquisition for SEZs, highways, mines etc. by keeping the respective legislations dealing with these to not be affected by its provisions, but wasn’t the issue primarily all about acquisitions for these very purposes?
The author is a freelance writer based in New Delhi and has co-authored two short books, namely Onslaughts on Free Speech in India by Means of Unwarranted Film Bans and Women and Sport in India and the World: A Socio-Legal Perspective. He is currently working as a research associate in the Centre for Civil Society (CCS), a reputed Delhi-based public policy think-tank. The views in this article are entirely personal.