THE CURTAIN has gone up on land acquisition in the Indian political theatre. Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal assured farmers land would not be forcibly acquired for a Jalandhar township. Farmers staged a sit-in at Fatehabad in Haryana to oppose a proposed nuclear plant. In Uttar Pradesh, three people died during a protest by Aligarh farmers against land acquired earlier; after the state government scrapped the project, another group of farmers is demanding it be revived.
Every report on the subject ends with calls for passing the Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill and its twin, the Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill. Actually, the Lok Sabha had passed the bills in 2009 but before Rajya Sabha could follow suit, General Election set in. The government is to reintroduce the bills. But this time, Mamata Banerjee is in the Cabinet. It is her opposition that has kept the Cabinet from tabling the bills again.
The first bill is an attempt to rewrite the Land Acquisition Act of 1894, which gave the government eminent domain and the right to acquire land for public purpose. The catch: the government gets to decide what is public purpose, especially after a Supreme Court ruling gave the government this right.
Successive governments have taken land from millions of people without adequate compensation. Land rights activists have demanded since forever that the government repeal the 1894 law and define public interest so it cannot be misused for projects that promote private profit. They say the definition in the new bill is too vague and can be misused.
Pushed by the National Advisory Council in 2005, the then rural development minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh went to business on the promise made in the National Common Minimum Programme to amend the law. In the new version, a company had to acquire 90 percent land before asking the government to acquire the remaining 10 percent. This is to prevent holdout, a situation in which one person or a small group of people can prevent the acquisition by not giving their land. After Raghuvansh and Jaipal Reddy got isolated in the cabinet, Sharad Pawar hammered out a compromise, namely, 70:30.
Political groupings have varying positions on this, sometimes ineffectual. The BJP’S Rajnath Singh has argued that land should not be taken away forcibly and fertile land should not be acquired. The Left says acquisition should be a government monopoly. After Singur and Nandigram, its political postures have been muted.
IT FINDS allies in capitalism; industry wants the government to buy land and make it available. “Agglomerating land from numerous owners is not a task that the corporate sector can do effectively, especially in the absence of proper land records and with small, scattered land-holdings,” says Chandrajit Banerjee, director general of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). “Any attempt on the part of the government to transfer this task squarely on industry, without improving the system, will badly affect industrial development.”
Land rights activists want a watertight bill that precludes the possibility of unjust acquisition. Researcher and activist Manshi Asher says the bill will be pointless if eminent domain stays, public purpose is not defined, and consent is not obtained from local government. There is largely an agreement on the second bill on R&R, but Asher says it will not be effective if the acquisition is flawed.
Word is that Mamata has agreed to deal and the bills will get fast-tracked and be tabled in the winter session.
Illustration: Anand Naorem