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Five Years On, India’s Land Acquisition Act Remains In Question

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Land Acquisition has always been a well discussed and debated topic in Independent India. There are several stakeholders ranging from tribal people and poor petty farmers to the biggest corporations in the nation and everyone in between. The incumbent government, in 2015, tried to pass The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Amendment) Bill, 2015, also known as Land Bill 2015, but the bill could not pass in Rajya Sabha. This was an amendment to an act passed by the previous UPA government in 2013 and is commonly known as LARR. However, LARR was a new act to reform the land acquisition in India since the laws regarding it did not change since 1894.

The incumbent government passed an ordinance that incorporates all the amendments that were part of the Land Bill, and they could not pass. The original 2013 bill had certain aspects to it like Social Investment Assessment (SIA) of projects (for example, environmental concerns with massive infrastructure program) and consent of original landowners when it comes to private and public-private land acquisition.

The most important aspect was that if the construction does not start in five years, the land has to be returned to the original owner. The ordinance exempted five categories of projects, including rural infrastructure, affordable housing, defense, industrial corridors, and social infrastructures from all the aspects of the original bill mentioned above.

As one can guess, the government faced a lot of grassroots resistance from social activists like Medha Patkar as well as opposition from political parties like Congress regarding the passing of ordinance and putting it into practice. One of the grassroots resistance happened in Karnataka earlier this year.

Social Activists like Ravi Siddhammanavar and organizations like Karnataka Rajya Raita Sangha protested against the Union and State governments and demanded the repeal of the whole amendment itself. They were principally against the removal of the three clauses mentioned above as well as the value of the land, which was started by the government. Protests elsewhere, like in Gujarat, were more focused on the removal of social assessments from specific massive projects. The protests led by farmers were against lignite mining by Gujarat Power Corporation Limited.

Due to the ordinance, the responsibility of implementing the amendments fell to the state governments. The BJP government in Jharkhand introduced the amendments in a separate state act in 2017, which diluted the three significant clauses. The diluted law met with fierce opposition, and organisations in the state like Jharkhand Mukti Morcha called for bandhs all over the states.

The state government aimed to rapidly develop and achieve a similar growth rate with that of the neighboring and very identical state of Odisha. But the government missed the social aspects interlinked with the bill they passed and hence met with opposition.

Farmers during protest march at Azad maidan on March 12, 2018 in Mumbai, India. (Photo by Kunal Patil/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Protesters used a unique form of protests in Rajasthan, where they sat in mud pits and called it Zameen Samadhi Satyagraha. These individual protesters were against the forceful acquisition of their land, which is their lifeline and the only source of income for a lot of them. They were not given adequate compensation and were left with no money or source of income to sustain their livelihood. All this happened in October 2017.

In 2018, protests in the Satara and Sangli districts of Maharashtra were initiated by farmers affiliated to All India Kisan Sabha. They were against the acquisition of land in Ratnagiri by the state governments to make way for the Nagpur-Ratnagiri Highway.

The supporters of the amendment state the current developmental needs of India and present an argument that revolves around the unfortunate need to acquire land from relatively marginalized people to complete the mining and big infrastructural projects that would put a new life into a broken and lacking infrastructure of this nation. They also say that the amendments provide enough for rehabilitation and compensation to the affected families.

Those opposing the amendments say that the removal of Social Investment Assessments from certain types of projects where they might be needed; the most is just actively turning a blind eye towards the needs of the same—mainly when they include environmental concerns of the society. They also say that removing the clause, which made the investor return the land after five years of disuse, will lead to more and more projects going to a standstill and may also increase the chances of scam and corruption.

The dilution of the consent needed for private and public-private projects relates to who owns the land, especially when it comes to tribal and remote areas of India. Asking them and convincing them about how the property, which was owned by them for generations, was being used will go a long way in not only their cooperation for the project under question but the bigger goal of de-marginalizing them.

We should not forget one crucial feature of the protests, i.e., that these protests were not started or initiated by an opposing party or political rivals. They are grassroots opposition started by the locals and indigenous people whose livelihoods were threatened by it.

Almost all of the time, their land is the only source of livelihood and income they have, and their family is dependent upon it. The compensation they receive is far from supporting them for an extended period. We should also not forget the people who are dependent upon the lands they did not legally own. The landless tillers are still a part of rural communities and the rural economy of India. Yet, since they cannot produce the legal documents in their favor, they often lose their lives without the little compensation they might otherwise get.

The debates regarding land acquisition in India have a long history behind them, and it did not start with the amendment bill in 2015. Since the times of Britishers, we have been debating how a land must be acquired and how the compensation must be given. But these new protests against the amendments do show the different development ideas that are aspired by various stakeholders, and it is up to the government to meet these ideals and demands of different people groups.

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