Softening land acquisition

Softening land acquisition

... This is my land: A DH file photo of a poor landowner protesting against Posco’s steel plant coming up in Gadag. The reshuffle in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s team last month saw Jairam Ramesh, minister of state for Environment and Forest (independent charge) being elevated – some would say kicked upstairs – to cabinet rank and given the Rural Development portfolio. Soon after the swearing-in ceremony in Rashtrapati Bhavan on July 12 last, the 57-year-old alumnus of Indian Institute of Technology drove straight to his new office in Krishi Bhavan, where a contentious task was awaiting him – redrafting the archaic and draconian Land Acquisition Act of 1894. His predecessor Vilas Rao Deshmukh had left him drafts of the Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill and the Resettlement and Rehabilitation Bill.

Ramesh took a couple of weeks to rework the drafts and came up with a draft National Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation & Resettlement Bill, 2011 – combining the two proposed legislation.

“Land acquisition and rehabilitation and resettlement need to be seen necessarily as two sides of the same coin. Rehabilitation and resettlement must always, in each instance, necessarily follow upon acquisition of land. Not combining the two in one law risks neglect of rehabilitation and resettlement. This has indeed been the experience thus far,” he wrote in the foreword to the draft, which was put on the website of the Ministry of Rural Development for a public consultation. After receiving feedback from people till August 31, the MoRD is likely to review the Bill and send it to the Union cabinet for approval. Ramesh is also in touch with chief ministers of the States and has already met Mamata Banerjee in Kolkata. The stormy petrel of West Bengal has strong views on the legal regime for land acquisition and, in 2009 and 2010, her party - All India Trinamool Congress, a constituent of the ruling United Progressive Alliance - stalled the Government’s move to reintroduce the Land Acquisition Bill, 2007, which had been passed by 14th Lok Sabha on February 25, 2009, but lapsed with the dissolution of the House, without being passed by Rajya Sabha. Banerjee was opposed to the Bill, particularly because she felt that it went against the political commitments she had made while leading the stir against land acquisition in Nandigram and Singur, which helped her oust the Left Front Government from power in West Bengal.

For public purpose only

The present draft Bill says the Government will only acquire land for its own use or for the private sector only for stated ‘public purposes’, and not for ‘private purposes’. ‘Public purposes’ will include national security reasons, requirements for armed forces, infrastructure and industrial projects in which benefits largely accrue to general public, needs arising from natural calamities, planned development, including the ones needed for residential projects for poor as well as educational and health schemes. The Government will be able to acquire land for private companies for public purposes only when at least 80 per cent of the affected families give consent to a proposed acquisition.

The Bill seeks to put in place a blanket ban on acquisition of multi-crop irrigated agricultural land and says that the Government can use the urgency clause only in the rarest of the rare cases – national defence and security purposes or for rehabilitation and resettlement in the event of an emergency or a natural calamity.

 This is expected to end misuse of the urgency clause, which the Bahujan Samaj Party Government in Uttar Pradesh wantonly resorted to for acquiring huge chunks of farmland, including in Greater Noida – the latest scene of the ‘land wars’.

The compensation package proposed in the draft Bill – six times the market rate in rural areas and not less than twice the market rate in urban areas – also seems to have been designed to meet the Congress’ objective to trump BSP supremo Mayawati ahead of next year’s crucial assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh.

In the wake of widespread agitation by farmers against land acquisition and Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi’s campaign, the Chief Minister of the northern State had recently come up with a new compensation package for acquisition of land. But the deal proposed by the Union Government now outweighs the one announced by her.

Recognising right to livelihood

A remarkable feature of Ramesh’s draft Bill is that it recognised the right of farmhands, sharecroppers, cattle grazers, fishermen and others, who do not own the land, but dependent on it for livelihood.

 They will also be entitled to almost same rehabilitation and resettlement package that the displaced land owning families will get: Rs 3000 a month in the first year, Rs 2000 a month in annuity for the next 20 years with appropriate index for inflation, a house for homeless, a one-time resettlement allowance of Rs 50,000, another Rs 50,000 for transportation, mandatory employment for one-member per affected family or Rs two lakh. The land losers will be entitled to a few additional benefits.

Ramesh said that the draft Bill did not seek to preclude private companies buying land directly from the farmers and others. It would, however, ensure rehabilitation and resettlement benefits to the landowners, if they sell land directly to private companies and in case the land bought by private companies measures 100 acre or more.

The draft Bill was by and large welcomed by the industry bodies like Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and Confederation of Indian Industry as well as by most of the activists, who have since long been demanding a fair land acquisition process, which the Rural Development Minister, himself, described as ‘imperfect’ and marked by “asymmetry of power (and information) between those wanting to acquire the land and those whose land were being acquired”.

Retrospective effect must

There are, however, quite a few who feel that more needs to be done. Eminent activist Medha Patkar of National Alliance for People’s Movement pointed out that the draft Bill did not make it mandatory for the Government to take prior consent of affected people when it would acquire land for its own purposes.

It means that the Government can go ahead with its projects like nuclear and thermal power generation plants, dams and airports and acquire land, ignoring protests by local people, she added.

There are also concerns over the calculation of the market value of the land acquired. The draft Bill proposes a formula, which some believe will end up yielding a low pre-industrialisation value in rural areas.

A delegation of the activists opposed to land acquisition met Ramesh recently and expressed concerns over the definition of public purposes, which they believe could be misused to include private interests too.

Patkar also argued that the Bill would not be able to undo the injustice the displaced landowners and livelihood losers had been subjected to due to earlier land acquisitions, unless it had retrospective effect.

Ramesh recently said that though most of the new legislation came with prospective effect, some had been made effective from a particular date in the past. He indicated that the MoRD would consider if the proposed new land acquisition law too could have retrospective effect.

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