By Naomi Hazarika:
Most battles fought in the Indian subcontinent were regarding one of the most important natural resources – land. And this battle over land still continues. The National Democratic Alliance amended the Land Acquisition Act through an ordinance last week, with which it aims to strengthen a mutually beneficial collaboration between farmers and industries. Although the aim of the ordinance may be to ‘reform’ this act for the better, the amendment hardly shows any promise. The amendment has not only expanded the list of projects that would be exempted from requirements of consent and Social Impact Assessment, but also subtly makes significant changes in the provisions that change the orientation of the act. It dilutes the time limit of five years put on projects after which if land remained unutilised, would go back to the landowner. It has made it harder to prosecute civil servants, reduces the scope of the retrospective clause and opens up doors for permissible infrastructure.
The Hindu reports that “A study released by a US based think tank, Rights and Resources Initiative and Society for promotion of Wastelands Development, studied the Supreme Court and High Court judgements from the past 10 years and newspaper reports on land disputes, and found that land conflicts alone affect one-fourth of India’s districts.” The real cause behind unrests has majorly been about issues related to land. Unlike the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act 2013, that was brought in by the UPA government and was heavily criticised by the industry for making land acquisitions tedious, the ordinance has mostly just diluted the essence of the Act. By relaxing the time period after which a piece of unutilised land has to be returned to its owner (amendment to Section 101), it gives justification for an entity to keep that land even after five years. By asking for government sanction while prosecuting civil servants, it seeks to make life easier for them and pave the way for defaulters to get away without any accountability. The earlier version of the Act strictly called for action against defaulting civil servants. Similarly, the original Act says the retrospective clause will apply in cases where the land was acquired five years or more before the commencement of the new Act but no compensation has been paid and possession has not been taken regardless of the delay caused by the litigation processes. A month before the ordinance was cleared, a Comptroller and Auditor General report on Special Economic Zones was tabled in the parliament. It found out that of the 45,635 hectares of land for SEZs, no operations had taken place in 38% of the land over several years. Developers like Reliance and DLF were criticised for acquiring land but using up only a fraction of it. There is glaring evidence of land being acquired and left idle for years together. But with the ordinance, this retrospective clause will not apply if delay is caused by the court proceeding like stay or injunction by court. Thus, this time will not be counted in the five year period. Not only does this look like a loophole in the mechanism, it actually is damaging two different contours of the scenario. By creating this loophole, it is also feasting on the inadequate judicial processes that follow any legislation. Court stay orders have been politically used to delay proceedings before, and here we see it has been conveniently put in place for misuse again.
Most importantly, it has expanded the array of people who can acquire these lands. By replacing the term “private company” with “private entity”, it has made it easier for entities to have control and bypass any checks on them. “Earlier the acquisition for private purposes was limited to ‘Private Companies’, which are registered under the Companies Act. Now it has been extended to any ‘Private Entity’ that includes proprietorship, partnership, NGO or any other entity,” says a statement released by AAP. The ordinance also exempts projects for defence and defence production, rural infrastructure, affordable housing, industrial corridors as well as infrastructure and social infrastructure projects and Public Private Partnership projects where the ownership lies with the government, from consent and SIA requirements.
The land reforms are hardly any ‘reforms’ in essence as much as they are dilutions of the law for the benefit of one section of the society. But bringing in changes like these to a previously perfectly balanced Act has changed the orientation of the Act altogether which now makes it easier for private entities to acquire land and provides loopholes for defaulters to get away. A huge chunk of the social conflict in India stems from a lopsided land distribution and acquisition system. Problems like Maoist violence, resistance against POSCO plants in Odisha and various other protests against acts of so called “development” point towards a systematic oppression of the farmers and the less privileged. Now backed up with legislations that favour the rich, farmer’s issues will slowly cease to matter. The ordinance paves the way for unnecessary arbitrariness in the decision making processes and provides with little or no infrastructural development. The BJP led government is trying to create deep structural changes in the Indian economy, at home and abroad, with its flagship Make in India project and Niti Aayog. But all these structural changes deepen the gap between the people of the privileged class who don’t really need help and people below the poverty line who need help to even survive. As long as these changes go unchecked, the plight of the real victims of the agrarian and rural crisis of the country – the farmers – will never be addressed.
Have you seen this 5 minute video where AAP’s Yogendra Yadav explains The Land Acquisition Act, and why the new ordinance is a step back?