Land Acquisition Act 2013: Rehabilitating Land Grab

The recently concluded monsoon session of Parliament witnessed not just wrangling between the Congress and the BJP, but more intriguingly, also a high degree of collusive cooperation that enabled the government to pass a series of key legislations on subjects like food security, land acquisition and opening up of pension funds for foreign investment. Let us take a close look at the major provisions and implications of the newly legislated land acquisition law.

In Shakespeare’s famous tragedy ‘Romeo and Juliet’, Juliet says, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. Paraphrasing Shakespeare, one could say the reality of land acquisition would remain as harsh in whatever name or whatever way land is acquired. The managers of corporate land grab however evidently feel there is a lot in a name and hence in the name of repealing the infamous Land Acquisition Act of 1894 they have essentially resurrected it with a fancy long title that seeks to obscure the reality of acquisition by sandwiching it between words like transparency and compensation and rehabilitation and resettlement.

Jairam Ramesh tells us that the new title “The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement” is a Rahul Gandhi brainwave; and that Rahul Gandhi referred to the draconian PATRIOT Act passed under the Bush Presidency after 9/11 in this context. Just as the American invaders of human rights and individual privacy coined the acronym PATRIOT to trample upon the freedom of the American people, Rahul suggested that acquisition should be packaged as compensation, rehabilitation and resettlement! And BJP President Rajnath Singh indeed praised this new name in Parliament while Sushma Swaraj thumped the desk to thank the minister!

The new Act talks of various conditions for acquisition, but effectively leaves the field open for accelerated and unfettered transfer of agricultural land without any effective provisions of compensation or resettlement. Let us see how.

The Act is essentially about the procedure to be generally adopted – exemptions are always allowed as ‘a demonstrable last resort’ – for acquisition of land by the state. ‘Private purchase of land through private negotiations’ is completely outside the ambit of this entire legislation. And contrary to the text of the 2011 draft, the final version does not specify any limit for such privately negotiated private purchase (read corporate land grab by hook or crook) and leaves it entirely to the whims and fancies of ‘the appropriate government’.

The acquisition of land by the state is legitimized by invoking ‘public purpose’. The new Act has evolved a most flexible definition of public purpose by virtually including any and every purpose other than agriculture! Any supposedly strategic purpose is obviously designated as public purpose and that includes ‘purposes relating to naval, military, air force, and armed forces of the Union, including central paramilitary forces or any work vital to national security or defence of India or State police’ or ‘safety of the people’. And then all kinds of infrastructure projects, industrial corridors or mining activities and investment or manufacturing zones designated in the National Manufacturing Policy, and projects for sports, health care, and tourism also come within the purview of ‘public purpose’. Private hospitals, private educational institutions and private hotels are excluded, but public-private partnership projects where the ownership of the land continues to vest with the government or private companies involved in any activity defined as ‘public purpose’ are all covered by the Act. In other words, the pursuit of private profit is also being sanctified as ‘public purpose’.

A major grievance against the 1894 Land Acquisition Act concerned the forcible nature of the acquisition where the affected people had little say. The government claims to have addressed this aspect and the new Act requires the state to obtain 70% prior consent in the case of acquisition of land for public-private partnership projects and 80% consent where land is being acquired for a private company. But no prior consent is needed where the state acquires land for its own use or for Public Sector Undertakings. Indeed, the word ‘consent’ is conspicuously absent in the otherwise elaborate title of the Act.

Instead of seeking the consent of the affected people, the Act talks about consulting concerned local bodies and conducting a social impact assessment study and getting it evaluated by an expert group. The recommendations of the expert group are however not mandatory and any government can overrule them provided the ‘reasons’ are recorded in writing. Moreover, the requirement of a social or environmental impact assessment study does not arise if and when any government invokes the ‘urgency’ provision relating to any strategic purpose.

Next comes the question of compensation, rehabilitation and resettlement. Here again, the question does not arise in cases of ‘privately negotiated private purchase’. A private company attracts the provisions of compensation, rehabilitation and resettlement only when it requests the state to acquire some land over and above what it has already purchased. It has been widely seen that land acquisition affects a whole lot of people beyond the owners of the concerned land plots. The new Act recognizes this reality while defining ‘affected families’ but leaves out the landless from the ambit of compensation. Those who suffer displacement are offered something by way of rehabilitation and resettlement, but landless agricultural labourers and share-croppers or people engaged in sundry professions whose livelihood is affected by land acquisition hardly get anything.

Beyond the direct loss of land and livelihood, acquisition of agricultural land, existing or potential, adversely affects food security. The new Act has a small section entitled ‘special provision to safeguard food security’ which however offers no concrete safeguard. Projects that are ‘linear in nature such as those relating to railways, highways, major district roads, irrigation canals, power lines and the like’ are exempted from this provision and recent experience clearly shows that huge amounts of agricultural land are being diverted in the name of expressways and corridors. Acquisition of agricultural land is however not restricted to only such projects of ‘linear nature’. The Act allows acquisition of all kinds of agricultural land including irrigated and multi-cropped land for any project in ‘public purpose’, and that too, without specifying any limit. The limit stipulated in the 2011 draft has been dispensed with leaving it to the decision and discretion of concerned state governments and district administration.

Finally, section 106 (1) of the new Act makes a mockery of the whole issue by stating that the provisions of this Act shall not apply to the enactments relating to land acquisition specified in the 4th schedule. The 4th schedule contains 13 such enactments. Initially, the government wanted to exempt the SEZ Act 2005 too from the applicability of the provisions of the new Act. But in the face of growing mass resentment against the SEZ Act, the government has had to exclude the SEZ Act from the 4th Schedule list of exempted enactments.

Interestingly enough, before the passage of the new Act, the ministry of rural development issued a draft National Land Reforms Policy document. The draft admits to the failure of the Indian state in enforcing ceiling on land holdings and other reform measures and calls for revisiting the ceiling limit, lowering it to 5-10 acres in the case of irrigated land and 10-15 acres for non-irrigated land. The draft policy also calls for ending ‘exemptions to religious, educational, charitable, research and industrial organizations as well as plantations and aqua farms’, and not allowing any of these institutions to use more than one unit of 15 acres. The draft also calls for enforcing the same ceiling on ‘operational’ holdings as on owned land so that no individual or institution can increase their holding by leasing in land in excess of the ownership limit. Now contrast this to the SEZ Act and the provisions allowing large-scale land acquisition and diversion of agricultural land under the new Land Acquisition Act, and the hypocrisy of the state becomes all too glaring.

Equally glaring is the official hypocrisy on food security. The same Parliament session that passed the Land Acquisition Act has also passed the Bill on Food Security. The quantum (5 kg food grains per head per month), content (only food grains and no pulses) and coverage (75% in rural areas and 50% in urban areas) provided in the Bill are clearly inadequate, but even to ensure whatever has been promised the country will need to increase food production and increase the effective area under cultivation. Yet the state is actually paving the way for a steady decline in effective availability of agricultural land. And then In the name of increasing yield, the state wants to force farmers to go for dubious and dangerous GM crops and growing corporatization of Indian agriculture. Far from strengthening food security, it can only be a recipe for a more acute agrarian crisis.

The colonial legacy of the 1894 Land Acquisition Act has not been repealed – it has been extended and reinforced first by the SEZ Act 2005 and now by the Land Acquisition Act 2013. All who care for saving the country and its precious resources must reject this recipe for disaster and fight for conservation and protection of India’s agricultural land by all means.

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