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Are we losing the plot?

india Updated: Aug 21, 2011 01:28 IST

An issue which has been agitating rural India for decades, finally came for a nation wide discussion with the release of the draft National Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation and Resettlement (LARR) Bill 2011 last month. On 29th July, putting the bill on Internet for public discussion, union rural development minister Jairam Ramesh claimed this version provides a better deal to farmers.

But within two weeks, the reservations and opposition (see box) to the provisions of the bill from a wide spectrum — farmers, industry, states and concerned citizens — made him realise why the bill was in limbo for six years, and why the government preferred to let a British-era law govern the way land is acquired in India.

In fact, when it comes into being, the LARR Act would override, replace several state laws and policies on land acquisition apart from overruling 18 such laws in the central sphere like the SEZ Act.

“Acquisition must take place in a manner that fully protects the interests of landowners and also of those whose livelihoods depend on the land being acquired,” says the minister. The new bill though forward looking, has some provisions, which are under question like irrigated, multi cropped kept out of land acquisition which means no land in Haryana, Punjab, western UP can be acquired. Protestors also say the definition of public purpose is still very broad and is open to misinterpretation.

Why now?

Be it Singur and Nandigram in West Bengal, the $12 billion Posco steel project in Orissa, the multi-billion dollar Jaitapur nuclear power in Maharashtra and the more recent protests in Noida, these cases have a common thread running through them — all involve acquisition of agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes.

This has forced the government to wake up to the need of revamping the 117-year-old Land Acquisition Act 1894 to impart “orientation towards farmers and others displaced.” In the past year, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh have revised their land acquisition policies. Gujarat, too, came up with its new policy in December.

While land is a state subject, land acquisition is a concurrent subject. “If passed by the Parliament, the bill bring land issues under a single unified regulatory governance which has largely been a state matter,” says Kaustuv Roy, executive director, Cushman & Wakefield, India.

The counterpoint is that it loads up a lot of ancillary responsibilities especially in the field of R&R onto the developing agency. This is likely to result in greater capital infusion from the developers’ side into the project in excess of land cost, development cost and cost of construction and may also mean delays in actual commencement of work, says Roy.

On the face of it, registered values do not exist for a large portion of agricultural land and ownership, land records are incorrect and often non-existent. Also, since there is no standardised method of estimating the value of land prices, these provisions may not have much impact on the actual compensation that farmers get. As Sachin Sandhir, managing director, Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, India, points out, “Market values entered in sale deeds are often not the actual prevailing rates in any area.”