The Narendra Modi government has decided to introduce the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Amendment) Bill, 2015, in Lok Sabha today. The controversial Bill seeks approval of Parliament for changes brought in the law through an ordinance or emergency executive order in December 2014. The Bill will lapse on March 20, if it is not passed during this budget session that began on Monday. The Bill will sail through in the Lok Sabha where it has majority but the problem will lie in the Rajya Sabha where it does not have the numbers.
There are mainly two clauses that are contentious in the ordinance: Waiving off the consent clause and social impact assessment for public-private partnership projects and private companies.
“The legislation leaves it vague and to the interpretation of the states, and it is not acceptable to the stakeholders. They want clearly stated provisions with no scope for ambiguity,” a senior BJP leader told a national daily recently.
Whether the BJP agrees or not, the land bill has given the Opposition, which was down and out after the general elections of 2014, an issue to rally around, and it could turn out to be a costly mistake for the party in the long run.
On Monday, President Pranab Mukherjee said that the law has been suitably refined to protect farmers’ interests during land acquisition for crucial public projects, the Opposition is not in a mood to relent. The Congress has already given a notice for suspension of Question Hour in the Upper House to discuss the ordinance. Party chief Sonia Gandhi on Monday said the President’s speech had nothing new but was a rehash of UPA policies.
The Anna challenge
Outside Parliament, the NDA has another mega problem: Anti-corruption crusader and social activist Anna Hazare has launched a protest against the Bill. He will be joined by Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and his two-day protest will be followed by a three to four month long 'padyatra' across the country to make people aware of the "anti-farmer" provisions made by the Centre in the ordinance.
There are many out there who think that Anna Hazare is a spent force but on an issue like this, it would be best not to underestimate him. He still has the cache to become the face of a public protest on an issue like this, which can be portrayed as an example of the “nexus between the government and the corporate” against the poor. In a poor country like India, where 60% of the people are dependent on land, this equation could be dangerous for any ruling party. In fact, the BJP would do well to remember how mishandling of the Anna agitation by the Congress had cost the party dear.
Hazare’s protests in Jantar Mantar will also be joined by Ekta Parishad’s PV Rajagopal who is leading a march from Palwal in Haryana and will reach Delhi today. This party too has been working on land rights for a long time and has deep roots in the agrarian community.
What about land reforms?
I am not surprised that the BJP is keen to tackle the land acquisition issue head on but its messaging on the issue has been extremely poor. It is also surprising that it has taken this ‘my way or the highway’ line on this sensitive issue because all along the government had been talking to different stakeholders about the Bill and it should have gauged the opposition to it by now. Even its own constituents have argued against the Bill.
The BJP could have played it differently by promising to undertake two projects that never took off after Independence: Land reforms and land distribution to the landless and homeless poor.
Equitable distribution of land has remained an unaccomplished task in India although most states had enacted land reform laws in the 1950s with the objectives of abolishing 'landlordism' and providing 'land to the tiller'.
The now-defunct Planning Commission had also identified lack of political will, inadequate land policy, legal and bureaucratic hurdles, litigation, lack of correct land records and weak administrative machinery responsible for zero movement on the issue.
The National Council for Land Reforms, which the UPA set up in 2008, is yet to meet even once. Prime Minister Modi as the chairman of the council could have revived the body and looked into this unfinished agenda instead of only putting all his weight behind the draconian land acquisition Bill, which a senior columnist has aptly called The Land Acquisition Forces (Special Powers) Act.
(You can find the author on Twitter @kumkumdasgupta)