Land Acquisition Law is a hot topic of political debates today. The NDA Government at the centre appears to be hell-bent on amending the "Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act" that was desperately pushed through by the previous UPA Government in 2013. The reason for these desperate actions appears to be the interest of powerful monopolies, both foreign and Indian, who want the governments to encourage and undertake mega infrastructural projects.

 

Consistent with the demands of the lobbies of these monopolies, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is trying to popularise a new slogan, ‘Make in India!’ during his numerous visits abroad as well at home. The Government wants to attract mega investments in infrastructure development including for ‘bullet’ trains, industrial and freight corridors and smart cities to name a few of the major ones. These kind of projects require huge chunks of land parcels. Wastelands and land already with the government will not be sufficient for such projects and these will require acquisition of large tracts of land. The Government wants to arm itself with a powerful law to crush any opposition to this plan and legalise the massive attack on livelihood of millions of people that is bound to take place with the initiation of these projects. Since it could not muster a majority in the Parliament, it has promulgated an Ordinance to start the process of large scale land acquisition (for a list of changes the Ordinance is seeking to make, see <https://lokraj.org.in/?q=articles/statements/unitedly-oppose-ordinance-land-acquisition>).

How should the people look at this issue?

Land acquisition is not simply sale of land. In the case of land acquisition, the owner may not have a choice and even if he doesn’t want to part with his land, may be forced to do so. It is this element of coercion for which a law and government intervention becomes necessary.

Land acquisition impacts the livelihood and the way of living of the people whose land is acquired. If tribal land is acquired, then those tribal communities are displaced and often fragmented. Apart from sudden change in the way of living of these communities, displacement invariably leads to deterioration in their living standard. Farmers whose land gets acquired lose their means of livelihood. Even if they may get some compensation, it is much less than the prevailing rates and the money received gets finished sooner rather than later and the farmers are subsequently, driven to desperation and destitution.

What use a particular piece of land is put to is to a large extent regulated in India. There are forest land, tribal land, agricultural land, commercial and residential land, etc., with each having certain restrictions on the kind of activity that can be carried out on the land. For example, agricultural land cannot be used to build a residential colony unless the land use is changed by the Government. Consistent with the high importance given to the agricultural land from time immemorial, the memorandum submitted by Lok Raj Sangathan in 2007, when an attempt was made by the UPA Government to bring in a new land law, demanded that clear guidelines regarding the basis on which agricultural land can be transferred from farmers to private parties carrying out non agricultural activities and strict enumeration of grounds on the basis of which agricultural land can be taken over by government in the name of Public interest (see <https://lokraj.org.in/?q=articles/action/response-land-acquisition-amendment-bill-2007-and-resettlement-and-rehabilitation-bi>).

It cannot be denied that land acquisition is necessary for development. How people should look at the issue is from the view point of how the land of the country should be used. For instance, irrigated furtile agricultural land is precious for ensuring food self-reliance of the country. Thus, such land should not be acquired unless absolutely necessary. Consider the dream project of the NDA government of developing industrial corridor along the rail route from Mumbai to Delhi. Government is claiming that it needs to acquire a strip of land 1 km wide on both sides of the railway track all along the railway track. We know that it involves huge amount of agricultural land since we can see agricultural fields from a train while travelling between Delhi and Mumbai for a good portion of the journey. Now, there can be no justification for such a huge parcels of agricultural land to be acquired. People are concerned about what impact it will have on agricultural production and food prices, which have already been sky-rocketting. Thus land acquisition for industrial corridor must be limited to land that are not agricultural lands.

Land acquisition is associated with a change in land use that is being acquired. So the issue of land acquisition is intimately linked to the plan of how land should be used. People have to insist that land use must serve the interest of the people. It cannot be dictated by the narrow interests of industrialists or other vested interests. It is a matter of interest for the entire people of India.

The Government needs to come out with a white paper on how the various projects involving major land acquisition have affected the people – how have the people been resettled and rehabilitated? What kind of compensation has actually been paid and after how long? Then it must come out with national and local plans for land-use on a rational basis, ensuring livelihood and well-being of the people. Whether or not mega projects like the Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor or smart cities, should be taken up will depend on how these will satisfy the long-term and short-term interests of the majority of Indian people. The plan must be made public for a wide discussion. 1000s of consultative meetings will have to be organised in all parts of India and the interests of the various sections of the people documented. Only by harmonising these interests can we come up with a land-use plan that can be acceptable to the people as a whole. Without this exercise, rushing through any land law is fraught with the danger that it will serve the interest of tiny minority against the general interest of society. Until this is done, the Government must desist from acquiring any land.

The Colonial Foundation of Land Acquisition Law

With the above perspective, let us look at the Colonial law (Land Acquisition Act, 1894), the various attempts by the Government to amend the law. In its second stint, the UPA Government passed the SEZ Act in 2005 and attempted to rewrite the Land Law to facilitate large tracts of land to be made available to private SEZ developers. Interestingly, while the Colonial law was clear that it was to enable the British rulers to acquire land for public purpose and for companies, the 2007 Bill did not directly talk of land acquisition for private companies. It accomplished this by redefining "public purpose" in the Bill and included projects of private companies as serving "public purpose". The plan to hand over 100s of hectares of land to private companies brought the issue of land acquisition legislation to media glare and the issues of compensation, rehabilitation and resettlement of affected people, the social impact and what constituted a "public purpose" came to be discussed. Finally, the UPA Government was able to pass the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act in 2013, which included assessment of the social impact of any project needing large area of land. It also had to recognize that it was not only the land owners, whose land was being acquired who were affected but many others who derived their livelihood from the land that was being acquired.

A comparison of the Colonial Act and the 2013 Act will show that this Act retains the basic process and procedures of the Colonial Act. Additionally, the 2013 Act includes the process of social impact assessment which is required to make its findings public. The report is to be studied by an Expert Group (EG), constituted by the Government according to the given guidelines, and makes an assessment regarding the costs and benefits of the project. However, the Government has the right to over-rule EG’s negative recommendation and go ahead with the land acquisition by giving its reasons in writing. This power of the Government amounts to a farce of consulting the "independent multidisciplinary Expert Group" constituted by the same Government.

The 2013 Act also retains the Emergency provision of the Colonial Law, which allows the Government to ignore all objections take over the land within 30 days of the notification and bypass all requirements of social and environmental impact assessment. Any acquisition of land can be subjected to the emergency provision if the Government can garner majority support for it in the Parliament.

In the 2013 Act, for land to be acquired for PPP projects and for private parties, consent of 70-80% of the owners of the land is to be obtained after which the rest 20-30%, of the less willing people could be made to part with their land by force of law by the Government. The consent provision is actually much weaker than it appears due to the fact that the agriculture land holdings are very skewed and because the sector is so distressed that many of the small and marginal farmers are wanting to get out food production. According to the 59th round of NSSO, 80% of the smallest landholders in rural area own less than one hactare of land. Together this class of landholders own only 23% of land. NSSO survey has clearly pointed out the trend that the number of households owning one hactare or less has risen from 67% in in 1982 to 72% in 1992 to 80% in 2003. By now, such households will be signifcantly above the 2003 figure. Thus, 80% consent, obtained from this class of landholders, amounts only to consent of those who own less than quarter of the land in question. The consent of owners of 75% of land will not be required if consent is obtained from the owners of less than one hactare of land! The 2015 amendment to the Act has attempted to remove this feature altogether for bulk of land acquisitions in the coming period by excluding five categories of projects including industrial and freight corridors and smart cities (see <https://lokraj.org.in/?q=pages/land-acquisition-bill> for the main features of the 2015 amendments). This is not a small amendment. In fact, it will virtually eliminate the requirement of social impact assessment and consent of project affected people for bulk of the land acquisition at the present time.

The 2013 Act also took away the right of the affected people to approach the lower Courts for legal remedy, which was permitted in the 1894 Act. Instead, the Government has created a special Authority that can receive and dispose off complaints. It is feared that Government-created authorities may be amenable to pressure from the government in most matters. The 2015 Amendment of the NDA Government has not done away this restriction.

What is being promised as compensation for the land owners as being 4 times the market value is simply a lie. Land owners are expected to get far less than the actual rates of land in their area. According to the 2013 Act, the market value is supposed to be multiplied by a specified factor. The factor can be upto 4 times as per the Law but so far this factor has only been 2 or 2.5. The market value is supposed to be determined by that specified in the Stamp Act for that area or as the average of land transaction in the three preceeding years or the rate agreed upon with the private entity that wants to acquire the land. It is well-known that recorded rates in Registries are a small fraction of the actual rates at which land transactions take place. Therefore the owners of the acquired lands are likely get far less then the actual market rates.

Thus we see that although the wording of the current Act and the proposed amendments, including the title of the Act, all appear nice at first glance, on closer scrutiny, we find that the basic character remains the same as the Colonial Land Acquisition Act of 1894. It is designed to facilitate the Government to forcibly take-over land for private companies against the interest and will of the people. Its foundation remain the Colonial Act, which was made by the British colonial rulers of India who did not care for the rights and well-being of the Indian people but only in increasing the loot and plunder of land, labour and resources of our country. Sadly, the 2103 Act and the 2015 Amendment serve the same aim.

By Prof Bharat Seth

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