It is only about six months since the new land acquisition Act came into force, but demands to dilute it have already started coming in. The State governments and industry representatives, probably perceiving the newly elected Bharatiya Janata Party government as industry-friendly, have pressed for a revision. They want easy and inexpensive land acquisition norms. Are demands for changing the compensation and consent provisions reasonable? The answer is an unambiguous no. For more than a century, various government agencies have used the archaic Land Acquisition Act 1894 to acquire property compulsorily. On many occasions, governments have even taken advantage of the ambiguous definition of ‘public purpose,’ which is critical to justify compulsory acquisition of land, and pursued contentious acquisition procedures. Since 1998, attempts have been made to change the Act, but nothing much had come of them. Even the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Rural Development had in three instances reviewed the proposals for revising the Act and consulted various stakeholders. Finally, after an inordinate delay, the previous United Progressive Alliance government repealed the Act and passed a new one in September 2013. The new law, the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, came into force in January 2014.
The new legislation is a vast improvement over the previous one. It has enhanced compensation, insisted that governments should obtain consent from at least 80 per cent of the project-affected families, streamlined procedures and mandated social impact assessment. Equally important, it seeks to ensure the compulsory rehabilitation of affected families. As a result, land acquisition has become relatively fair, and not impractical as detractors often complain. Many overlook the fact that the new Act in itself represents a dilution of some of the early proposals. For instance, the previous government first proposed to fix the compensation amount for property acquired in rural areas at six times the market value, but later reduced it to three. It has lifted the prohibition on acquiring irrigated multi-crop areas and overlooked contentious aspects of acquiring land to be given to private companies for industrial and housing development. Attempts to reduce transparency, deny stakeholder participation and impose unjust compensation cannot pass for efforts to reduce anomalies and improve the efficiency of the acquisition process. The BJP government should focus on working with the new Act which was legislated after a long delay and debate, and not amend it in haste. The government can review the legislation after it has been in force for a reasonable period, and after studying its impact carefully.