THE LAND Acquisition Act, 1894, enacted during the colonial period, allows the government absolute power to grab land, leaving the landowner no legal outlet to resist. This process of acquisition is unfair to the persons losing land and livelihood on several counts:
• While the Act grants unrestricted power to the government for acquisition of privately-owned land, it does not cast any obligation on it to rehabilitate the persons so affected, providing alternative land and livelihood.
• The acquisition of land has to be justified on the ground that it serves a ‘public purpose’ i.e., the larger good of society, which is not precisely defined and is stretched to include acquisition of land even for profit-making private companies.
• The provision for payment of compensation also suffers inadequacies. The land for which compensation is admissible is also restricted to those having valid ownership documents. But people in villages, whether landed or landless, extensively use common lands, water bodies, forests etc. usually called the ‘common property resources’ which are shown in land records under the name of the government or one of its agencies. The loss of this land through acquisition does not entitle them to any compensation, as they have no property rights over these lands or documents authorising their use. The tribals are the most adversely affected in this manner as they are overwhelmingly dependent on forests.
• The amount of compensation awarded to the landowners is meager because the assessment of ‘market value’ is carried out on the basis of documents preceding the acquisition, showing an amount lower than the actual, to reduce tax liability. The compensation is then insufficient to purchase alternative land in the vicinity of the resettlement site. The compensation, paid in cash rather than land, is quickly spent in meeting consumption needs in the absence of any livelihood after displacement, making the landowners landless.
1 Acquisition of land for companies is removed from the scope of the Act, making land grabs illegal
2 The new National Rehabilitation and Resettlement Policy for the displaced
3 Compensation Settlement Authority will ensure compensation reaches within 60 days
The changes proposed in the Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill, 2007 have sought to address some of these concerns. The Bill removes acquisition of land for companies from the scope of the Act. It also makes a provision for resettlement and rehabilitation of persons affected by involuntary displacement, including acquisition of land. For this purpose, the National Rehabilitation and Resettlement Policy, 2007, has been notified and the Resettlement and Rehabilitation Bill, 2007, has also been introduced. The ‘public purpose’ has also been precisely defined to cover strategic purposes relating to defence forces or any work vital to the state and infrastructure projects. In addition, it also includes any other purpose useful to the general public for which 70 percent of land has been procured directly from the landholders. The remaining 30 percent would be acquired by the government for ‘public purpose’. The tribals and other traditional forest dwellers have been included in the definition of ‘persons interested’ so as to entitle them to claim compensation for loss of access to forestland. Land records are required to be updated before the final decision on acquisition is taken so that eligible persons are not excluded from consideration for payment of compensation. Land transactions, after initiation of land acquisition proceedings, have been disallowed to prevent motivated transfer of land immediately before its acquisition so as to thwart vested interests from cheating poor land holders of their entitlements. The market value is to be assessed using the intended future use of land, rather than its existing use at the time of acquisition, thereby increasing the amount of compensation. The compensation shall have to be paid now within a period of 60 days from the date of declaration of award. A new Compensation Settlement Authority is being created for expeditious disposal of reference cases, and a time limit of six months has been prescribed for disposal of a case.
Despite these and some other changes proposed in the Bill, the government has shown no willingness to dilute its absolute power to acquire land without the consent of the landowners. The Act, therefore, continues to retain its undemocratic character. The new definition of ‘public purpose’, far from restricting the scope of acquisition, which the people wanted, increases it further because of the very wide meaning given to the infrastructure projects and inclusion of ‘any purpose useful to the public’ in its ambit. The exclusion of acquisition of land for companies is also cosmetic because the requirement of land for companies, by and large, would be covered under ‘infrastructure projects’ where private investment is most concentrated. Even for other purposes, the government is committed to acquire 30 percent of their requirement of land, if 70 percent is met by direct purchase from the landowners. The enormous pressure of companies would force the poor to sell their land at a low price due to their weak bargaining power.
1 Definition of ‘public purpose’ is vague allowing corporates loopholes to acquire land
2 Compensation scheme excludes non land owners dependent on land for livelihood
3 Resettlement compensation is given only if minimum number of persons will be displaced
Still worse, there would also be no entitlement to rehabilitation and resettlement in such cases. Tenants and sharecroppers would suffer most in this mode of acquisition, as the owners would not associate them in the deal. The compensation scheme continues to exclude agricultural labourers, artisans, fishermen, unrecorded tenants and sharecroppers etc. who may be using the acquired land for their livelihood. Compensation for loss of access to common property resources continues to be ignored. The provision for resettlement and rehabilitation has also been restricted to only those projects where a specified number of persons are displaced and would consequently exclude a large number of those not satisfying this criterion of eligibility. The unwillingness of the government to return the unutilised acquired land to the erstwhile owners after its reversion deprives the latter of any benefit. As for the policy, the contents of rehabilitation and resettlemen fail to provide a firm commitment either to alternative land or secure employment to the displaced persons. The compensation amount would be inadequate to replace the land lost and would, therefore, fail to check landlessness and consequent impoverishment.
The thrust of the Bill is more towards quicker acquisition of land. The changes proposed in the land acquisition law neither provide to the affected persons respite from forced displacement on account of acquisition of land, nor adequate alternatives to them with regard to the loss of land and livelihood. They are, therefore, least likely to be enthused by these provisions to part with their land willingly.
KB Saxena is with the Council for Social Development, Delhi