For the first time since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s impressive electoral victory in 2014, the NDA government is facing its toughest challenge in Parliament. This is because the amended version of the 2013 land acquisition Act has united the Opposition, civil society groups, and even the ruling coalition’s constituents like the Swabhimani Shetkari Sangathana and the Shiv Sena.
To be fair, even before the amendments were introduced, there was a perception that the NDA is working for corporate groups and not for the poor. Now there’s an apprehension that the Centre wants to take away the rights of farmers and that the BJP’s land ordinance is tailor-made for big private projects.
In 1894, the British government brought in the Land Acquisition Act. Although the legislation was unfair to farmers, there were no major changes in the law till 2013 when the UPA 2 passed the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, 2013, or LARR, in short.
The UPA’s legislation followed consultations with various stakeholders. In fact, the Standing Committee on Rural Development, which looked into LARR, was chaired by the BJP’s Sumitra Mahajan (now Lok Sabha Speaker) and the panel wanted a stronger law in favour of farmers. Sixty-five MPs including Rajnath Singh and Sushma Swaraj had participated in the land law debate, which went on for 15 hours before it was passed unanimously in Parliament. MPs like Vinay Katiyar and Birender Singh (who was then with the Congress) proposed that the consent of more than 80% farmers must be taken before acquiring land for any project.
The 2013 Act had three major tenets: First, no land acquisition would happen without the consent of farmers; second, there would be a social impact study; and third, there would be increased compensation for losers of land. Today, unfortunately LARR is being accused of stalling mega projects and being anti-growth. The critics view the consent clause as “anti-development”. So in December 2014, the NDA promulgated an ordinance that did away with all the three basic tenets of the UPA 2’s land Act — and subsequently the BJP government’s amendment Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha on March 10.
The consent provision is clouded with confusion. Though everyone knows that it is in the interests of the farmers, the government is trying to justify its amendment by citing the ‘greater public good’ theory. The government says that it needs land for essential infrastructure projects. In my speech in the Lok Sabha, I drew attention to the first and second clauses of Section 2 of LARR, 2013, which comprehensively debunks the BJP’s theory.
Few are aware that Section 2, Clause 1 of the 2013 Act says that there is no need for obtaining farmers’ consent in case the government needs it for building infrastructure or essential projects. This means that if the government wants to build roads, canals, railways, hospitals, ports and airports, it can go ahead without the consent of the land losers. The BJP’s spin doctors are talking about defence projects. Again, there is no requirement of farmers’ consent or a social impact study in the 2013 Act.
However, Clause 2 of Section 2 of the 2013 Act makes it mandatory to obtain the consent of 70-80% of farmers in case the land acquired for a private project or a project under a public-private partnership plan. This was the soul of the legislation. The BJP’s Bill essentially renders this — the farmer consent clause for the acquisition for private and PPP projects — defunct.
Thanks to the UPA 2’s land Act, farmers got the right to express their views if their land was acquired for projects that would lead to private profiteering. But that has been scrapped now. This is unconstitutional because Article 14 ensures equality. One entity cannot be allowed to profiteer at the expense of an ‘unwilling’ individual, using the instruments of the State. The BJP doesn’t seem to agree and they have produced a Bill before Parliament that I believe is not only against the interests of farmers but also violates Article 14 of our Constitution.
The requirement for a social impact study was the second important aspect of LARR. This meant introducing essential checks such as engaging with the affected families, ensuring that excess land was not acquired and that the right kind of land was acquired where options are available (fertile versus barren), besides having a cost-benefit analysis of a project. The BJP’s Bill seeks to remove this clause without giving reasons.
The third issue pertains to the proposed dilution of Section 24(2) of LARR. This section in the 2013 Act ensured that land would be returned to the farmers if a project failed to take off after more than five years of acquisition. The Supreme Court in Municipal Corporation Vs Harchand Lal Solanki and seven other cases found that LARR is constitutionally sustainable and used Section 24 of the 2013 Act as the basis of its judgments, which led to thousands of acres of land to be returned to original owners. The BJP’s Bill dilutes this Section. The fate of those farmers who are using Section 24(2) of the 2013 Act to press for their claims would be guillotined by the BJP’s Bill.
In the face of stiff opposition, the government has made a few amendments to its land ordinance. These are bogus because they do not touch upon contentious issues. At best, these amendments address minor issues such as excluding acquisitions for private hospitals and private schools from consent requirement (why these cases were provided exemptions by the BJP in the first place must be questioned), and are downright misleading. Since the NDA is sticking to its guns and moving these bogus amendments, our fight against the BJP’s land Bill will continue.
Deepender S Hooda is a third-term MP from Rohtak, Haryana and is the whip of the Congress in the Lok Sabha
The views expressed by the author are personal