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Book excerpt: The ground beneath our feet

A new book on the making of the 2013 Land Acquisition Law is an informative read. Especially interesting is the chapter on the December 31, 2014 ordinance that amended the act, leaving it open to abuse. An excerpt

books Updated: May 02, 2015 16:46 IST
Land Acquisition Bill,Parliament,BJP

A new book on the making of the 2013 Land Acquisition Law is an informative read. Especially interesting is the chapter on the December 31, 2014 ordinance that amended the act, leaving it open to abuse. An excerpt

Shortly after a new Government was sworn into office, it became clear that changes to the land acquisition law were imminent…

On 29 December 2014, a press release was issued by the Press Information Bureau… It declared without substantiation that 'many difficulties are being faced in its [the Act's] implementation'. It went on to state that 'in order to remove them, certain amendments have been made in the Act to further strengthen the provisions to protect the interests of the "affected families"...

The press release gave the impression that only two amendments were to be carried out. The first related to applying the provisions of compensation and rehabilitation and resettlement to the laws that had been exempted under the Fourth Schedule. Under the unamended Act, the only exemptions... were the 13 laws given in the Fourth Schedule to the Act. This exception had been crafted... in view of the fact that some projects were indeed, deserving of greater priority than others. This list included acquisition for the purposes of Railways, National Highways, Atomic Energy, Electricity etc…

Legislating For Justice; The Making of the 2013 Land Acquisition Law
Jairam Ramesh, Muhammad Ali Khan
Oxford Unversity Press
Rs 495, PP254

The second amendment related to creating a new category of projects which would be exempt from seeking the consent of the affected families. These projects would also not be required to be tested on parameters laid down in the Social Impact Assessment Process. This new set of categories... included vaguely worded terms such as infrastructure projects (including PPP projects) alongside the more noble public purposes of rural electrification and housing for the poor. The rationale for creating this category was never presented…

For a law that had been founded on consultation with the public, no draft had been shared with public at large. The requirement of inviting comments from the public had been dispensed with and a law was prepared by a group of individuals consisting largely of officials and Ministerial Representatives. Many groups struggled to get their say before the law was amended but few, if any, got the opportunity. It can be argued they simply were not the stakeholders for whom the amendments were being carried out.
The Government had for a variety of reasons been unable to present a Bill on the subject in Parliament. No official document had even been placed before either House of Parliament. It was a surprise to all when the Ordinance was announced and promulgated in the matter of four very long days.

The authors immediately published an editorial in a leading English daily drawing attention to the consequences of this move. In the Article it was argued that the immediate and likely impact of this amendment is that land can now be acquired for a vast number of projects without having to exhaust the pre-acquisition processes that had been put in place, namely the Social Impact Assessment (SIA) and the... prior informed consent from the affected families.

...By requiring the state to seek the consent of 70 to 80 per cent of the affected families, the law empowered those who were to be directly impacted against the arbitrary exercise of the power by the State. For the first time in the history of independent India the citizenry was given a say in how the State would deal with their land. Now with this one step the ruling party had returned us to the days of the British... Attention was also drawn by the authors to the fact that the unamended law was enacted after unprecedented nation-wide consultations... The BJP, then the principal party in opposition, unambiguously supported the law in Parliament and even expressed support for these very provisions it now sought to exclude...

The Social Impact Assessment process gave these people (often farmers) the right to negotiate fairer rates of compensation... Now with the Social Impact Assessment process being waived the Collector can once again determine what constitutes a public purpose... It was this unchecked authority that was at the heart of the multiple abuses of the law chronicled over the last 70 years... Now this safeguard stands eroded. Another likely impact is that this new ordinance will effectively undo the implicit limits that had been placed on the acquisition of agricultural or multi-crop land by the unamended Act… However, the amendments seem to allow such acquisitions without restrictions.

The authors argued in the press that the Government should have instead used this opportunity to strengthen the legal regime governing land titles in States where they are now in power (since land is primarily a state subject). Knowledge asymmetry and an active land mafia lead to the purchase of land being a risky proposition... It is a pity that the Government did not take this opportunity given that they are in power in both the Centre and State in key State Governments where acquisition is a burning issue (Maharashtra, Haryana, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh). Despite protests held across the country, the Government passed the Amendments to the Act in the Lok Sabha on 10
March 2015.

In the name of economic reforms and development, the Government has taken a significant step backward in India's march to land reforms. Given that the choice of opting for an Ordinance came within eight months of the Government coming to power, this story is also a telling commentary on the weakening of democratic and constitutional institutions.

First Published: May 02, 2015 12:10 IST