Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's recent assurance that the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 would be amended is welcome though delayed. There are many compelling reasons why this inept and outdated Act should be changed and the farmers' protest over disruptive acquisition in Uttar Pradesh is only one of them. The 1894 Act, last amended in 1984, has not helped balance the land needs of rapid economic growth and the grievances of those who are divested of the land. The definition of public purpose that justifies acquisition is ambiguous; the compensation offered is unjustifiably low; and the provisions lack clarity, often requiring courts to intervene. In addition, the procedures laid down are cumbersome. As early as in 1994, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Urban and Rural Development pointed to some of these shortcomings, but the government was slow to respond. After a prolonged review of the Act extending over almost a decade, an amending bill, which had its own deficiencies, was introduced and hustled through the Lok Sabha in 2009. Even that bill has lapsed. The result: the archaic Act is still in force.

The latest promise by the Prime Minister must see a whole new comprehensive law in place. Occasional intervention by the state to facilitate genuine development — as for instance when landowners hold up the acquisition process or legal tangles stall possession of land parcels — is understandable. But that route cannot be used indiscriminately or misused to acquire and supply cheap real estate to private companies. Nor can two unequal measures of compensation — one for land directly acquired by the company, and another for land acquired through the government — be acceptable. The scope for compulsory acquisition must be clearly defined and the concept of compensation widened to go beyond the theoretical principle of equivalence — the person who loses land will not be monetarily worse or better off after acquisition. There is more to land than its tangible value. Alternatives such as including the land losers as the beneficiaries of acquisition must be considered. Another good practice to adopt is to allow affected persons to engage experts for determining the market value on their behalf with the costs paid. This provision is needed since land records and transactions are poorly administered. For a land acquisition law to be effective, related legislation such as the Rehabilitation and Resettlement and the Agricultural Land Acquisition Regulatory Authority bills must also be pursued earnestly.

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