Since the past several months we have seen the NDA government aggressively pushing through changes in land acquisition policy, first in the form of Ordinance in December 2014 and then, as it was passed as a Bill with nine changes in Lok Sabha but faced roadblock in Rajya Sabha, re-promulgating it before its expiry in April 2015. With the government calling the Bill pro-farmer and pro-development and most of opposition parties and social activists opposing it as anti-farmer, it is useful to sieve through the noise and look at the changes proposed and what existed earlier.
The 1894 Land Acquisition Act and cost of development-induced displacement
Until now all land acquisitions in India were being done under the colonial Land Acquisition Act of 1894. That Act allowed the governments to acquire huge lands for so called ‘public purpose’ and industrialization, but did not give any say to the farmers in the process. Therefore rapid growth of industries and infrastructure in the past several decades saw forcible evictions of farmers and tribals from their lands and forests. Working Group on Human Rights in India and the UN (WGHR) reported in 2012 that since independence 60-65 million people are estimated to have been displaced by development projects. Majority of these are farmers, including tribals, dalits and other rural poor. Although the industrial and infrastructure projects contributed to India’s economic growth, the farmers and others previously dependent on land and later uprooted were never consulted or made participants in the development process.
The 2013 Land Acquisition Act: A partial step towards democratic process
The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Resettlement and Rehabilitation (Amendment) Act brought in by the UPA government in 2013 was an imperfect attempt to resolve the conflicts. However it was a significant step that gave a negotiating right to the farmer in the process of his/her land being acquired for private companies or public-private-partnership (PPP) projects. The 2013 Act mandated that consent of 80% of affected land losers in case of private projects and 70% in case of PPP projects is required. It also required that Social Impact Assessment (SIA) is to be carried out by the government before acquisition. SIA included assessment of impacts on potential land losers, the landless, and the environment. The 2013 Act also increased the rates of compensation to four times the market rate for rural land and twice for urban land. In order not to disrupt food security the Act prescribed that agricultural land be acquired within certain limit and multi-crop land be avoided as far as possible.
However there were several major gaps in the 2013 Act. For example, 13 of the 16 Acts under which forcible land acquisition is possible were still not covered under the new compensation, resettlement and rehabilitation measures prescribed in it, and government projects still did not require consent and SIA.
Amendments made by NDA to the 2013 Act: Undoing of democratic process
The Ordinance for amending the 2013 Act introduced by the NDA government in December 2014 (re-promulgated in April 2015), and presented as a Bill in February 2015 with some amendments made in March 2015, has undone almost all positive achievements of 2013 Act for the sake of easing up procedures for private industry and facilitating ‘make in India’ campaign.
The conditions of 70% (or 80%) consent and SIA have been exempted for five areas – industrial corridors, PPP projects (excluding private hospitals and colleges), rural infrastructure, defence and defence production, and affordable housing. It must be noted that practically any major project of private sector can be included in one of these areas. In addition, the prescription to limit use of agricultural land and to avoid multi-crop land has been removed. This is bound to compromise India’s food security. Furthermore, if an offence is committed by a government official or the head of a department, no citizen can file FIR or go to court for the official’s prosecution without prior sanction of the government.
The only positive aspect of the 2015 Bill is that it has retained the higher compensation levels of the 2013 Act and made them applicable also for the remaining 13 Acts. However by depriving farmers from having any say in the process of land acquisition, the core principles of latest Bill have become similar to the colonial Act.
Strengthen the 2013 Act and make farmers stakeholders in 'Make in India'
In order to reinforce the democratic process and give a respectable negotiating right to farmers, the key provisions of consent and SIA of the 2013 Act must be retained. Not only private but also all government projects must be brought within its purview. In order to assure India’s food security, fertile and multi-crop lands must not be acquired for non-agricultural purpose. No permission must be needed by anyone to initiate prosecution against an official who is suspected of offence or violation of law or due process.
It is strange that amendments to the 2013 Act are being proposed citing shortage of land for industry, whereas lakhs of acres of unutilized lands are already lying with the Central and State governments. For instance, over 35% of land earmarked for SEZs lies unutilized and lakhs of acres is locked with sick industry.
It is also inexplicable that the government is doing all this damage for the purpose of boosting ‘make in India’. For a ‘make in India’ process to succeed in true sense, it must include agriculture, forestry and related economic activities, and involve farmers and forest dwelling people as stakeholders in form of owners and participants in those activities. A strategy that connects small farmers to local clusters of small manufacturers and markets can meet multiple goals of employment, economy, equitable wealth distribution and sustainable development.
(Dr Rahul Pandey is academic-entrepreneur-activist, an adjunct faculty at IIM Lucknow, and was formerly a faculty at IIT Bombay and IIM Lucknow. Dr Sandeep Pandey is Vice-President of Socialist Party (India), a visiting faculty at IIT BHU, and a Magsaysay awardee for his work on education, peace and grassroots empowerment. Email Dr Rahul on: email@example.com, and follow Dr Sandeep Pandey on Twitter: @Sandeep4Justice)