The draft law on acquisition strikes a balance between development and justice for those who will be displaced in the process
India is a rapidly industrialising economy and society with intense demands for better infrastructure from its people. The last 20 years have seen a great acceleration in this process, with India becoming one of the world’s fastest growing economies. However, for those whose lands were acquired for these purposes and the even more vulnerable people whose livelihoods depended on the lands acquired, a great human tragedy has unfolded. Independent estimates place the number of people displaced following development projects in India since independence at 60 million. This is the highest number of people uprooted for development projects in the world. Only a third of these people were resettled in a planned manner. Most of them were the asset-less rural poor, marginal farmers, poor fisherfolk and quarry workers. Around 60 per cent of the displaced belonged to the Adivasi and Dalit communities. Given that 90 per cent of our coal, more than 50 per cent of minerals and most prospective dam sites are in Adivasi regions, there is likely to be continuing contention over issues of land acquisition in these areas.
Two sides of a coin
We need to move decisively away from the colonial Land Acquisition Act 1894, which treats the Indian people as “subjects,” towards a vision of citizens, whose rights are guaranteed under the Constitution. This is what the proposed Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act seeks to do. The most significant feature of the new law is that it combines land acquisition with resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R). For these must inescapably be seen as two sides of the same coin. R&R must, in each instance, necessarily follow upon significant acquisition of land. Not combining the two within one law risks neglect of R&R, whose provisions need to be made mandatory and not reduced to being conditionalities without consequences, as they have largely been thus far.
The bill has been shaped over the last one year through an incredibly transparent process of consultations with all stakeholders and has taken on board almost all the suggestions of the Parliamentary Standing Committee. The most important provision in the bill is Social Impact Assessment (SIA), a practice well established across the world that has greatly helped carry forward development in a more just and inclusive manner. The SIA includes an assessment of whether the proposed acquisition serves public purpose, an estimate of project affected families (PAFs) and of the extent of land to be affected by the acquisition. The SIA will study the social costs of the project vis-à-vis its benefits. It will ensure that the views of the affected families are assiduously recorded and included in the SIA Report. For this purpose, public hearings will be held at the affected area, after adequate publicity about the date, time and venue of the hearing. The SIA report will be evaluated by an independent multi-disciplinary Expert Group, which will include two non-official social scientists, two representatives of Panchayati Raj Institutions, two experts on rehabilitation and a technical expert in the subject relating to the project. If the Expert Group is of the opinion that the project does not serve any public purpose or the social costs and adverse social impacts of the project outweigh its potential benefits, it will make a recommendation that the project be abandoned forthwith.
However, in the event the Expert Group gives the go-ahead to the project, the bill contains powerful provisions protecting the interests of PAFs. Inclusive of 100 per cent solatium, compensation for land losers will be twice the market rate in urban areas and 2-4 times the market rate in rural areas. The exact value in rural areas will be determined through a sliding scale, reflecting the distance of the project from urban areas, the precise scale being left to the State governments to determine.
Each PAF will be entitled to a comprehensive R&R package. In irrigation projects, each landed PAF will get one acre of land in the command area. SC/ST families will get more, being provided with land equivalent to land acquired, subject to a maximum of 2.5 acres. PAFs will also be allowed fishing rights in the reservoirs. House for house lost will be given in every project. Where jobs are created through the project, PAFs will be entitled to employment. In urbanisation projects, 20 per cent of the developed land will be reserved for landowning PAFs, in proportion to the area of their land acquired.
To support relocation, each PAF will get a subsistence grant, resettlement allowance and a transport allowance, which will be higher for the SC/STs. As far as possible, no acquisition of land will be made in the Scheduled Areas. But if this happens, the approval of the concerned gram sabha/panchayats/autonomous district councils will be obtained and they will be resettled preferably in the same Scheduled Area in a compact block so that they can retain their ethnic, linguistic and cultural identity.
Each resettlement area will be provided a number of facilities including roads within the area and an all-weather road link to the nearest pucca road, transport services, proper drainage and sanitation facilities, assured sources of safe drinking water, including drinking water for cattle, electric connections and public lighting, schools as per the provisions of the Right to Education Act, primary health centre, basic irrigation facilities, seed-cum-fertilizer storage facility, fair price shops, panchayat ghars, village post offices, burial or cremation ground, anganwadis, veterinary service centre, grazing land, playground for children, community centre, places of worship, etc.
Protest to recognition
The initial chorus of protests from the corporate sector appears now to have settled down in a clear recognition that the price to be paid for compensation and R&R will only be a small fraction of the potential returns from these projects. They are also reassured by the fact that land compensation provided will not be taken as the base for circle rates for subsequent acquisitions, so as to avoid a speculative price spiral. However, a valid remaining concern is about the new processes visualised under the law becoming endless. This is something that is of equal importance to the PAFs for historically R&R processes have dragged on painfully, exacerbating the tragedy of displacement.
Thus, the latest version of the bill being currently reformulated seeks to provide strict time-lines within which the land acquisition as well as the R&R process have to be completed. This includes a provision of six months for the SIA process and an overall limit of 35 months for the land acquisition process. Full payment of compensation will be made within a period of three months and the monetary part of the R&R will be paid within six months from the date of the Award. It has also been provided that in case of irrigation or hydro-power projects, R&R will be completed six months before submergence.
Questions have been raised about the government acquiring land for private or PPP projects. But we must first recognise that a lot of infrastructure development already occurs in India through this route. And given the huge asymmetries of information and power in the land market, there are innumerable instances of distress sales by farmers to more powerful entities at throwaway prices. In many instances, these sales have been followed by use of the land in ways that are completely contrary to the original stated purpose and have yielded windfall profits to land and real estate mafias, with the sellers receiving no share in these. That is why there has to be a role for the government — to put in place a transparent and flexible set of rules and regulations and to ensure its enforcement that protects the interests of land and livelihood losers in every instance of large transfers of land. In all private or PPP projects, acquisition will need the consent of 80 per cent of land losers. Indeed, the bill makes a historic provision of mandatory R&R even for very large private purchases of land, the limits for which will be determined by each State government.
The bill also seeks to protect food security by placing definite limits on acquisition of multi-cropped irrigated land as also on total agricultural land acquired. The limits will again be left to the State governments to determine in line with their development priorities, since these can vary widely across States. The operation of the draconian urgency clause of the 1894 law has also been strictly circumscribed, to be applied only to the minimum area required for defence, national security or emergencies arising out of natural calamities.
It is to be hoped that Parliament will be allowed to function and the winter session will see the passage of this ground-breaking legislation that will help avoid several historical injustices, while making development much more inclusive and participatory.
(The writer is Member, Planning Commission)