The longstanding demand to correct anomalies in the Land Acquisition Act (1894) and check its misuse, and the impending Uttar Pradesh Assembly election have compelled the United Progressive Alliance government to come up with a much-improved piece of legislation. In speedily reshaping the proposed Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, which has been placed in the public domain as part of a pre-legislative consultative process, Jairam Ramesh, the new Cabinet Minster for Rural Development, has wisely departed from his predecessor's approach by integrating acquisition with rehabilitation and resettlement measures. Following the National Advisory Council's recommendations, the bill has commendably increased the compensation amount and enhanced the solatium to 100 per cent. It rightly prohibits the acquisition of irrigated multi-crop agricultural land. A pre-notification discussion with local bodies is a procedural innovation that should help reduce litigation and speed up the process of just acquisition. By making it mandatory to obtain consent from 80 per cent of the affected people before the acquisition notice is issued, the proposed legislation seeks to ensure that consultations are held with those affected.
An unambiguous definition of public purpose is critical. Unfortunately, the draft bill misses out on this. Of the four categories of public purpose mentioned in the final draft, two — especially the section on acquiring land for private companies — are the most debatable. The bill does not clarify how private and public purpose in a private project will be evaluated. To argue that private projects contribute to economic growth and improve employment is to resort to specious justification. As witnessed in the past, vague definitions tend to be grossly misused. The state can extend its help when small parcels of land, for reasons of legality in property title, hold up a large project, but it must not intervene wholesale. To make up for the rampant undervaluing of land transactions, the bill proposes to triple the value of rural properties identified for acquisition. But it ignores similar problems that plague urban areas and deny fair valuation. On the other hand, the proposal to look at alternative forms of compensation, such as allocation of a share of the developed land, is confined to urban projects. The proposal to return unused land five years after its acquisition is to be welcomed, but allowing the government to transfer the unused land from one public purpose to another, as suggested by the draft, will abet misuse. The shortcomings of the qualitatively improved bill must be removed without delay.