The Parliamentary Standing Committee for Rural Development has made critical and bold recommendations to reduce the anomalies in the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, and make acquisition fair and just. Not only has it strongly disagreed with the government's specious claim that land acquisition to aid for-profit private companies would constitute public purpose, it has also rightly recommended that the government not acquire land for such companies. A complete overhaul of the archaic Land Acquisition Act (1894) was long overdue. Two issues in particular needed radical revision: the definition of public purpose that justifies forcible acquisition, and the award of compensation. The Act, which was originally limited to acquiring land for only government projects, was amended several times to dilute the definition of public purpose so that land can now be acquired for all kinds of projects and for anyone. The dangers of this course came to the fore a few years ago when thousands of acres of land were violently acquired for Special Economic Zones, displacing many farmers. Expectations were high when the government announced last year that it would improve the Act. The new and revised Bill did well to increase the compensation amount and mandate public consultation; but it persisted with ambiguous definitions of public purpose and supported land acquisition for private companies.
Extending help when small parcels of land, for reasons of legality in property title, hold up a large commercial project is understandable, but wholesale State intervention reeks with dangers of abuse. Lessons from the farmers' agitation in Bhatta Parsaul, U.P., against the acquisition of agricultural land to favour private developers, which was condemned by the Supreme Court as a ‘colourable exercise of power,' were not learnt. The Parliamentary Committee has now made it clear that clauses vulnerable to misuse should be deleted. It also has done well to recommend that local participation through Gram Sabhas must extend beyond mere ‘consulting' to include review of rehabilitation measures, enquiries into objections and the final determination of compensation. The 2011 Bill exempts projects covered by Central Acts such as pipelines from its purview. This would have resulted in about ‘95 per cent' of government land acquisition escaping the pro-people provisions of the Bill. To its credit, the committee has questioned such large-scale exemptions and has strongly suggested that all land acquisitions be treated on a par. If the UPA government is serious about enacting a just land acquisition legislation, the well-considered recommendations of the committee must be adopted without delay.