September 13, 2011
The draft Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill 2011 circulated two months ago for public comments was a significant step forward but the amended version tabled in Parliament recently is two steps back. A thorough overhaul of the archaic Land Acquisition Act was overdue. To his credit, Jairam Ramesh, Cabinet Minister for Rural Development, proposed a new bill with progressive changes and put it up for public consultation. The draft had commendable features such as mandatory public discussion and enhanced compensation. It also had its share of shortcomings such as a dubious definition of ‘public purpose.’ True to form, the United Progressive Alliance government has diluted the provisions that would have clearly benefited farmers. The most regressive move is the reduction of the compensation amount. Poor management of land records and the undervaluing of properties have been impediments to determining a just compensation amount. Much of the dissatisfaction and protest of farmers across the country has been on this account. Responding to this, the draft circulated for public discussion recommended increasing the registered value of a property six-fold in rural areas and two-fold in urban areas. Unfortunately, the bill tabled in Parliament has reduced it by one-third in rural areas, leaving the compensation amount unchanged in urban areas.
The draft was certainly more equitable. It not only tried to compensate landowners, but also proposed to extend the resettlement and rehabilitation benefits to all the tenants and agricultural labourers dependent on the land. The bill introduced in Parliament restricts the benefits to those who have been living or working in the place for more than three years prior to acquisition. Such a cut-off date is arbitrary and may keep a substantial number of people out. As past experience has shown, it also bristles with practical difficulties. The draft was particular about protecting fertile, irrigated multi-crop lands and prohibited their acquisition — but the bill allows for that. Though such acquisition is limited to a maximum of five per cent of the total irrigated multi-cropped area in that district, in terms of absolute extent this could get damagingly large, particularly in the bigger districts. Moreover, fertile lands can be acquired for private companies using this provision. If the UPA government presses ahead with these dilutions, it will be clear that all the rhetoric and posturing in Bhatta Parsaul and Singur were only for opportunist political gain. If it is serious about enacting just and defensible land acquisition legislation, the well-conceived provisions of the earlier draft must be restored.