Understanding the Land Acquisition Bill: Politics, changes and impact

It is hard to believe before the UPA Government brought the amendments to the Land Acquisition Law in 2013 that we were following the so-called The Land Acquisition Act, 1894, a 120-year-old legislation. The 1894 Land Act begins with “Whenever it appears to the Government the land in any locality is needed or is likely to be needed for any public purpose or for a company, a notification to that effect shall be published in the Official Gazette…”

My sincere thanks goes to the UPA Government led by the Congress, which brought in these changes with equal credit to the opposition, mainly the Bhartiya Janata Party for getting rid of that draconian law.

The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Amendment) Ordinance, 2014, signed by the President of India on the last day of 2014 is the doing of the present National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, and it lists the amendments to the Act passed by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in 2013: The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013.

The Narendra Modi Government has brought out some key changes in the LAB, which in their opinion were fundamental to the overall growth and development of the country as a whole, keeping in mind the benefit of villagers, farmers and more importantly farm labourers. Many political parties have come together, particularly for political reasons to corner the NDA Government and are agitating against it, calling the Bill and the Government, anti-farmer.

Our beloved modern Gandhi, the serial agitator Anna Hazare also doesn’t like the changes that have been made to the UPA Act. Before we delve into why this is so, it is important to first list precisely what the reservations are and more importantly, what the changes are and how it is going to impact farmers or villagers.

Main Acquisitions

Serial social activist. Anna Hazare started his agitation against the changes brought to the LAB through ordinance by the NDA Government at the Jantar-Mantar in New Delhi. Sitting on a day-long fast Anna Said ‘पीएम मोदी ने अच्छे दिनों का वादा किया था, इसलिए लोगों ने उन्हें वोट दिया। हालांकि, ऐसा हुआ नहीं। अच्छे दिन सिर्फ पूंजीपतियों के आए हैं। (“PM Modi promised good days ahead, that is why people voted him. But it did not happen. Good days are only for capitalists.”)

The main points of opposition by Anna and other political parties include:

  • Land Acquisition Bill is undemocratic and anti-farmer.
  • How can Government cheat farmers to pass benefits to businessmen and industrialists?
  • This Government is planning to snatch land in the same fashion as the British.
  • What was the need for an Ordinance when the Bill was already passed in 2013?
  • Very few farmers have knowledge about the bill, they need to be educated.

I totally agree with the last reservation. People do need to know the reality about the changes brought in through the ordinance which is also now being debated in the Upper House of Parliament to be passed as an Act. Let us examine the key changes brought in by the NDA Government in the Bill passed by the UPA Government one by one.

Key Changes and their Impact

1. Consent Clause: The first proviso of sub-section (2) of section 2 in the UPA version of the Act has a requirement of the prior consent of at least 80 per cent of those affected families before acquiring land. For public-private-partnership projects (PPP), prior consent has to be of at least 70% of those affected families.

Change: The NDA amendment proposes that for projects relating to (i) National security or defense, (ii) Rural infrastructure including electrification; (iii) Affordable housing for poor people; (iv) Industrial corridors; and (v) Social infrastructure and PPP projects where government holds the land, there is no longer any need to obtain prior consent.

Defence: This is a major change. But is it anti-farmer? Is National security not of prime importance? The Government has brought this change looking at the national security aspect. The country needs to be independent in this matter. Today millions of our heard earned money from the public exchequer goes to other countries in importing the latest arms and ammunition. Should Government inform citizens and take their consent if it plans to put a strategic nuclear plant in some area? No. I also believe that if our farmers come to know that their land is being used for defence purposes, they would only feel proud.

Rural infrastructure including electrification and housing for poor: Infrastructure and social infrastructure projects, including those under public private partnership where ownership of the land vests with the Governments. This is bound to benefit the entire country, particularly the people in rural areas where infrastructure and social infrastructure is inadequate. The Narendra Modi Government came to power on its promise to people to provide irrigation facility to each agricultural land, a house to each family with drinking water facility and 24 hours electricity, and good roads to provide better connectivity. Does this change in law which will help Government execute these projects and fulfil promises made to our villagers is anti-farmer? Don’t our villagers deserve a better life?

Industrial corridors and PPP Projects: There are confusions created among people for political reasons. People should know that the Industrial Corridors are not created by capitalists and businessmen. They participate once the corridors are designed. Government will create the industrial corridors and before taking the land, the district magistrate will have to confirm in writing who in the family is going to get a job of what scale before any acquisition takes place.

Almost all the exempted purposes benefit rural India. They would enhance the value of land, create employment and provide rural areas with better infrastructure and social infrastructure in addition to the enhanced compensation. PM Modi on ‘Man ki Baat’ also clarified that the Government understands that, for these projects, Government shall first utilize the land owned by them, then the barren land and if at all required, agricultural land would be acquired.

2. The Compensation Clause:Thirteen Acts of Parliament like the Railways Act, the Electricity Act, the Atomic Energy Act, etc (see page 45 of the UPA’s legislation of this selfsame Act), which provided for land acquisition, were put in the Fourth Schedule of the Act, (these schedules are listed in the UPA Act page 37 onwards) also apply to the orders stated in the fourth schedule “with such exceptions or modifications that do not reduce the compensation or dilute the provisions of this Act”.Which means, with a notification, land acquired for the above 13 Acts, the new increased compensation clause will not apply. This was a blunder.

Change: The NDA amendment has removed the aforementioned provision (underlined). To a layman, it might appear as nothing significant. However, reading the fine details of this provision, it is clear that it ensures that even if the land is acquired under the above 13 crucial Acts, the farmers will get the new, increased compensation—hold your breath—at four times the market rate. Is this anti-farmer? The Modi-led NDA Government has not changed the increased compensation provided in the UPA’s version of the Act and also clarified that the compensation will be applicable to not only the land owners but also the people dependent on that land.

On top of that the law modified by the Modi Government ensures that unless full compensation is not paid, land cannot be taken in possession. Compensation will be deposited in a designated bank account  and the transactions are totally transparent.

3. Time Limit Clause:Section 101 of the UPA Act states that if the acquired land remains unutilized for a period of five years from the date of taking over the possession, the land shall be returned to the owners.

Change: The NDA amendment has changed it from “five years” with “a period specified for setting up of any project or for five years” and period wasted in legal matters is not included in this timeframe. By doing this the Government  fixes responsibility on its own that it  has to finish the project within the time limit specified for the project. If Government does not finish the project within the time line, then whatever the original land owners wishes, would prevail.

4. Why did the NDA support the bill in 2013?

Those who are agitating today for the cause of the villagers and farmers, ruled the country for 60 years under the same law made some 120 years back. The draconian Land Act of 1894 was expunged neither during the socialist governments of Jawaharlal Nehru or Indira Gandhi or the Janata Party, nor during the period the communists held great sway over India’s politics and policies all the way up to the mid-1990s. All these grand protectors of our land were following the extortionate, 120-year-old British-made decrees like “Whenever it appears to the Government that the temporary occupation and use of any waste or arable land are needed for any public purpose, or for a Company, the Government may direct the Collector to procure the occupation and use of the same for such term as it shall think fit…”.

The UPA Government brought in this Act in a hurry to gain the political mileage when it realized that it was facing an inevitable defeat in the ensuing Lok Sabha Election. The BJP, for obvious reasons supported the Act without reading the fine print. However, our thanks are due to both parties for getting rid of the 1894 Act.

When the Modi-led NDA Government was formed at the Centre, State Governments started writing to the central Government that the Act has limitations and requires changes. An year passed by and no state Government was  ready to bring the Act to force. Back then, two Congress-governed states—Maharashtra and Haryana applied the new Act but both these “farmer-friendly” Governments, through notification, reduced the compensation to 50 per cent. It is evident that the Modi Government believes in strengthening the federal structure and giving more power to states and therefore, the changes are as per their recommendations now.

5.Why Ordinance?

Under Sec 105, the “Proposed” notification had to be placed before Parliament for a period of 30 days and Parliament was expected to approve, disapprove or modify the said proposed notification. The need for an ordinance arose because such a notification would have to be put before Parliament in the Budget session itself in July-August, 2014 and the approval or disapproval taken accordingly. 31 December 2014 being the last day for such a notification, the Government decided to amend Section 105 and apply all the compensation and R&R provisions of the 2013 Act to the thirteen exempted laws. Through this provision, the present ordinance provides that the farmers would get higher compensation if their land is acquired under any of the exempted laws. It goes a step further than the 2013 Act. This also explains the urgency of issuing the ordinance on the last day of the year since otherwise the Government would have been in default of the complicated approval provisions outlined in the 2013 Act.

The Real Cause

The ragtag Opposition and other fringe agitators are creating confusion for political reasons. LAB is a major law that is going to change the outlook and the future of India. To help their cause, the Opposition is shifting the narrative of a national requirement to mean it to be a personal requirement. Owning a small piece of land is also a matter of pride for an individual but it is not above national pride and above all, these are narratives which are used to confuse people. Migration from rural areas to urban and suburban centers where employment opportunities are available, is a reality. It is the migrants from rural areas who would benefit from this, who travel thousands of kilometres to Metro cities in search of a job and live miserable lives in slums.

In the end, the most fundamental question arises: What do we want for our own fellow Indians?  That our farmers’ children are compelled to live their lives in the slums of Delhi, Mumbai etc in search of a job that provides them two meals a day? It is important that villages, farmers and their whereabouts are strengthened by providing them better roads, electricity, irrigation water, and industries around them for the additional burden on farms to shift to industrial employment. Better market, better school, better healthcare…indeed, the very basic needs that should be met, is the need of the hour for our villagers.

To know what our villagers, farmers, farmworkers actually want and expect from the Government, watch this—a riveting, magnetic, and enthralling speech that shakes you to the core by none other than a backward farmer and also a Member of Parliament from Bihar, Hukumdev Narayan Yadav. This is one of the greatest speeches ever made in the Parliament since the Constituent Assembly Debates.

yadavThe needs of a modern, growing and developing India needs a balanced approach. Development and justice to the landowner must coexist. One can’t be done at the cost of the other. The amendments brought in by the Modi Government are based on extensive consultations where State Governments of most political parties supported these changes. Those who are opposed to these changes can certainly mandate their respective party’s State Governments not to use the provisions of the ordinance. History will judge how these States will lose out in the era of competitive federalism.