The West Bengal assembly on Tuesday passed a bill to return to some of the original owners their land in Singur, which had been acquired by the previous Left Front government for the Nano project.
In doing so, chief minister Mamata Banerjee kept her pre-poll promise to the electorate, which gave her Trinamool Congress, a resounding majority in the elections.
The Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Bill cites “non-commissioning of the project” as the reason for this step.
Land acquisition for private capital has always been an emotive issue. And the growth vs environment debate has lent an additional dimension to it. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has said environment preservation cannot be sustained by perpetuating poverty.
Sensing the urgency of the situation, Congress president and National Advisory Council (NAC) chairperson Sonia Gandhi has promised the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) would bring in legislation in the monsoon session of Parliament to address issues relating to land acquisition.
In pursuance of this, the central government is working on changes in a 117-year-old law, the Land Acquisition Act, to impart “orientation towards farmers and other displaced”.
There have been disputes among various stakeholders — the government, civil society and the states (land is a state subject) — and this has delayed the drafting of an amendment bill.
Also, a new set of proposals from the NAC forced the department of land resources (under the ministry of rural development) to review its policy.
In the final analysis, it is the states that are affected because of land turmoil. Hence they are trying to balance the needs of agriculture and industry within the framework of the current Land Acquisition Act.
In the past year, two states — Haryana and Uttar Pradesh — have revised their land acquisition policies to provide more farmer-friendly deals. Gujarat, on the other hand, came out with a new policy in December last year.
“I am a farmer myself, so I understand their sentiments,” Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda said about his government’s compensation policy. While his compensation policy has earned widespread admiration, Hooda’s advantage has been the fact that not much disturbance has been seen in his state on this issue.
The case of Uttar Pradesh is different. Having in mind the experience of Bhatta-Parsaul, where the state acquired land for the privately developed Yamuna Expressway, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati sought to wash her hands of the matter.
“The government’s role will be that of a facilitator, limited to issuing notification under the Land Acquisition Act of 1894,” Mayawati said two weeks ago while announcing a revised policy. She says her policy is better than the one proposed by the Centre.
Industry chambers are alive to the pressing concerns.
“The issue of land acquisition is all about satisfactory compensation. If some states like Haryana are seeing no litigation or protests, the reason is the compensation package they have in place,” says Chetan Bijesuri, additional director, Ficci.
The NAC has asked for norms on the valuation of land and studies on the social impact that land acquisition inevitably has. Sonia Gandhi herself has advised caution on acquiring fertile land for the benefit of private developers. Given the sensitivities involved, the central actors would do well to examine the inputs from states in creating an overarching law.