The much-awaited land acquisition Bill seems to be in jeopardy with the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government rejecting a parliamentary standing committee’s suggestion the government should not acquire land for public-private-partnership (PPP) projects.
But it has accepted that land procured for special economic zones (SEZs) and some defence projects cannot be exempted from the purview of a land acquisition Bill and promised to amend other laws pertaining to purchase of land for infrastructure, mining and power projects.
The rural development ministry that has freshly named the Bill as the Right to Fair Compensation, Resettlement, Rehabilitation and Transparency in Land Acquisition Bill, 2011, has agreed to bring the SEZ Act of 2005, Works of Defence Act 1903 and Cantonment Act 2006, under the proposed new Bill.
Although rural development minister Jairam Ramesh said he was hopeful of introducing the fresh Bill in the monsoon session of Parliament, scheduled to begin on 8 August, the ruling Congress party’s soured ties with its allies and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led opposition’s stance on the Bill are expected to make the passage of the landmark legislation tougher. The UPA enjoys a thin majority in the Lok Sabha and is in a minority in the Rajya Sabha.
Mani Shankar Aiyar, a Congress parliamentarian and a member of the standing committee, said: “The private sectors enter any project for profit; so why should the government acquire land for them?” However, he admitted that the panel’s recommendations were not binding on the government. “I hope we have raised points that will continue to fuel public debate on this issue in the country,” he added. The standing committee is headed by BJP’s Sumitra Mahajan.
Mahajan was not available for comment while Ratna De, a Trinamool Congress MP, refused to comment saying she had not seen the government’s response.
All other Acts among the 16 laws which were exempted under the earlier Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (LARR) Bill, 2011, will have to be amended in the next two years to ensure that the affected people are given proper compensation and resettlement, according to a report prepared by the rural development ministry on the recommendations suggested by the standing committee.
In the original Bill, 16 central Acts including the SEZ Act, the Atomic Energy Act, the Land Acquisition (Mines) Act and the National Highways Act, among others, had been exempted.
With the central and the state governments under fire for archaic land acquisition rules and facing mass protests in different parts of the country, the UPA government introduced LARR in September 2011. After scrutinizing the Bill, the parliamentary standing committee submitted its report in May. The legislation is expected to address rehabilitation and resettlement by providing safeguards for both landowners and livelihood losers while clearly defining the “public purpose” for which land can be acquired by the government.
Although the panel had also recommended that the government should not acquire land for any private firms even if it is for public interest, the ministry said the government will acquire land for PPP projects only when “80% consent of project-affected families (PAFs) has been taken” and “ownership of acquired land rests with government so that PPP can apply”.
Against the panel’s argument that in no developed country does the government purchase land for enterprises, Ramesh said this cannot be applicable in a developing economy like India.
The ministry rejected the panel’s suggestion that restrictions on the acquisition of irrigated multi-crop land should be extended to “any land under agriculture cultivation” but agreed to give the state government the flexibility to fix the percentage of agricultural land to be acquired.
Land acquisition turned out to be the key issue that led to the end of the three-decade Left rule in West Bengal. Both Congress president Sonia Gandhi, through the National Advisory Council, and her son and party general secretary Rahul Gandhi, through political campaigns, had pressured the government to make the Bill more farmer friendly.
The ministry also accepted the panel’s recommendation that the acquired land should be returned after five years, if unused, but rejected the suggestion that it should go back to owners instead of “a state land bank”. The ministry also refused to accept the panel’s view that the purpose of the land for which it was acquired originally should not be changed. On compensation, the government agreed to allow states to set up land pricing commissions and authorities “to top up compensation amount” and “manage the process”.
In the new Bill, resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) will not only be linked to the consumer price index but will also be revised every three years and compensation will be doubled in case of double displacement. In the new legislation, the state government will determine the threshold of the land area for which R&R should be sought.
The panel had suggested that whenever the government intends to acquire land for public purposes, there should be a social impact assessment study in consultation with gram sabhas (village councils), but the recommendation was rejected by the government.
The government will not acquire land in scheduled areas (areas identified as for tribals) “as far as possible” and in case such land is acquired, the inhabitants or residents will be relocated to a “similar ecological zone as far as possible”.
The parliamentary panel’s suggestion that 75% additional compensation should be given in addition to the total compensation if the land is being acquired for urgent reasons (for example, natural disaster or war) and temporary accommodation be given to the families till total compensation was paid or within three months—whichever is earlier—was accepted.