With the Lok Sabha passing the contentious Land bill, the stage is now set for a battle royal at the Rajya Sabha. The NDA is in a minority at the Upper House, and the entire Opposition seems determined to block the bill there by sending it to a Parliamentary Committee. So unless the rendra Modi government strikes deals with some opposition parties, the ‘Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Amendment) Bill 2015’, will effectively go into cold storage. This the Modi government is anxious to avoid as huge projects worth thousands of crores in different parts of the country have been stuck for years because land is not available. The previous UPA government did try to clear this logjam, for which reason it introduced the origil bill in 2011 and got it passed in 2013 with the support of the BJP. The LARR Act has been in force since the beginning of 2014, but things have not got moving on the ground as expected. So the bill is back for consideration of Parliament in amended form. The NDA floor magers in the Lok Sabha could not placate the Shiv Se which abstained, while succeeding in winning over the AIADMK and the TRS. The issue is complex and emotive, but party politics has made it more complicated.
There are primarily two sticking points in the amended Land bill which are creating much misgivings in the public mind. The proposed amendment removes the need for obtaining consent of land-owners and for carrying out social impact assessment (SIA) for acquiring land under certain categories. It must be remembered that when the government acquires land for public purpose and controls it directly, it does not require the consent of the land owner. The government acquired this power way back in 1978 when it removed Article 19(1)(f) and Article 31 from the Constitution. The right to property was then demoted from a fundamental right to a legal right only. There were concerns that different governments will misuse the archaic Land Acquisition Act of 1894 to arbitrarily acquire land, particularly from farmers, by expanding the definition of ‘public purpose.’ In subsequent years, these concerns were proved right several times, and the suspicion grew in the public mind that big government was beginning to join hands with big business to gobble up land of small owners. When the UPA government ected the LARR Act in 2013, it stipulated that if the government acquires land for private companies, it will require the consent of at least 80 per cent of the land-owning families affected by the project. In case of public-private projects, the consent level was set lower at 70 per cent. In both cases, social impact assessment was made mandatory.
According to critics of the LARR Act 2013, it has been ineffective in unleashing the economic potential of land due to the consent and SIA restrictions. The Modi government has even furnished letters written by some Congress Chief Ministers to the earlier Manmohan Singh government about these ‘weaknesses’ of the Act. And so the business-friendly Modi government has not only removed these two restrictions in its proposed amendment to the Act, it has so far resisted all demands to put the restrictions back. The government has made some minor changes to the bill, principally agreeing that the proposed amendment will apply only for industrial corridors set up by the government and its undertakings, while limiting the land acquired for such corridors to not more than one km on both sides of the desigted road or railway line. So the major misgivings about the Land bill remain, apart from worries about adequate compensation to land owners and governments acquiring prime agricultural land where multi-cropping is done round the year. The lesson is clear — if the intention of the government is suspect, if its past record does not inspire confidence, then such supposedly reform measures will always be resisted. This happened in Singur and ndigram in West Bengal, which Trimool leader Mamata Banerjee exploited to the hilt to demolish the Left Front. In Assam too, the Tarun Gogoi government has been accused of shady dealings in handing over prime land in Guwahati at Khapara, Gorchuk, Jalukbari and North Guwahati to controversial business houses.