After promulgating the ordince on land acquisition thrice, the NDA government has now given it a quiet burial. While announcing this decision, Prime Minister rendra Modi has pointedly said that with so much ‘rumours’ being spread about the land bill, his government does not want farmers to have any ‘doubts or fears’. After all, the Land Acquisition, Resettlement and Rehabilitation Act, 2013, was one of the points of conflict that led to the shameful washout of the monsoon session of Parliament. There was even talk of an imminent showdown with the combined opposition by the government gearing up for a joint parliamentary session. So the Modi government’s climbdown comes as an anti-climax. The numbers were against the NDA floor magers, with the ruling alliance having 395 out of total 788 members in both the Houses. But with NDA constituents like Shiromani Akali Dal, Shiv Se, Swabhimani Paksha and Lok Janshakti Party strongly opposed to the land bill, the BJP leadership had no option but to back down over the issue. Opposition efforts to paint the Modi government as ‘anti-farmer and pro-industry’ appears to have hit home too, particularly with the high-decibel Bihar assembly elections looming ahead. While the drubbing in the Delhi assembly elections is still too fresh in memory, the massive agitation in Gujarat by the Patel community seeking OBC reservations has blown a gaping hole in Modi’s ‘Gujarat model’ of development.
The government’s U-turn has now made a gleeful Congress crow from the rooftops that ‘truth has ultimately prevailed’. Was the NITI Aayog also a factor in the Modi government’s retreat, having recommended that ecting any law on land acquisition, a concurrent list subject, should be left to the states? The Prime Minister has been claiming that several chief ministers, even from Congress ruled states, had requested amendment of the land acquisition law to make it ‘more effective’. The idea was to make land acquisition easier for development of industrial corridors, building rural infrastructure like roadways and power, social infrastructure including education, housing for the poor, and setting up defence installations. This seemed to go well with Prime Minister Modi’s efforts to boost domestic manufacturing as part of his ‘Make in India’ vision. But with the Congress opting for a ‘scorched earth’ policy and the Modi government failing to build up support among other parties, regressive politics was brought into full play. So if the onus is now left to the states, it will be interesting to see how BJP and Congress ruled states go about the matter. The major points of controversy over the government’s bill to amend the 2013 land acquisition law related to doing away with the consent and social impact assessment clauses.
The earlier law provided for securing the consent of 80 per cent affected people before land acquisition, social impact assessment to be completed within six months, and returning land to farmers if the land was not used within five years. The amendment bill however proposed to not only remove these provisions — but also to stipulate that land can be acquired by ‘private entities’ in addition to private companies, providing for builders and real estate firms one kilometre additiol land on both sides of land acquired for industrial corridors, and disallowing prosecution of government officials without prior government sanction for offences committed during land acquisition process. No wonder such provisions in the amendment bill attracted so much adverse publicity. The errors were compounded by the Modi government using the ordince rather than the legislative route. It helped the opposition depict the government as a ‘suit-boot ka sarkar’ hell bent in appeasing the big business lobby by taking away land from the poor farmer. The controversial bill is now under the consideration of a joint committee of Parliament, whose report is likely in the winter session. Meanwhile, the NDA government through an order has provided for 13 points to reform the existing land acquisition law so as to provide ‘direct fincial benefit to farmers’, in an obvious attempt to repair the damage. The fiasco over the bills on land acquisition and goods and services tax (GST) has now left the Modi government on the backfoot in its attempt to push growth through big-bang reforms. It seems a pity after its successes in getting the coal and insurance bills passed and efforts towards fincial inclusion and social security network. It will now have to go back to the drawing board and take pains to avoid such public relation disasters in future.