In her article in The Hindu, (“Nailing the lie of the land,” Op-Ed, August 23, 2012), Ms Medha Patkar has forcefully and with reason argued against the devastating consequences of land acquisition. Without getting into the concerns raised with regard to the larger “development model” we would like to respond to the issues she has raised with the proposed Bill on Land Acquisition which seem predicated on an understanding of the Bill that is not entirely tenable. A brief response to some of these is given below:

Discard eminent domain: the article argues that since capital and labour are not acquired forcefully then neither should land. The argument seems valid on the face of it but land, unlike capital and labour, is not fungible. In other words, land is finite and immovable. Land for local needs cannot be substituted by the acquisition of land elsewhere. To illustrate; if a road has to be built to connect two towns then land at another location cannot be acquired for this purpose. To take such decisions the State, which is the ultimate arbitrator of public good, has to be vested with the power of eminent domain. At the same time, it is important to also acknowledge the myriad ways in which the doctrine of eminent domain as present in the 1894 law, is sought to be significantly attenuated in the proposed new law. The State must have a role in acquisition given that land markets are highly imperfect in India and given that there are huge power and information asymmetries between the buyers and sellers of land.

No acquisition of agricultural land: citing the Standing Committee report, the article argues for a complete ban on the acquisition of agricultural land without distinctions as to single or multi-crop. Again this is not a feasible suggestion as such a sweeping provision will create insurmountable obstructions to growth and development particularly in rural areas. Carte blanche provisions, especially in a law that can only be repealed by Parliament, have to be drafted with caution and in a manner that accommodates need for future growth of the area in question. Each State in India faces unique development challenges and as several States represented before the Standing Committee, many of them regard industrialisation as a key element of their strategy to generate employment. Keeping this in mind, the new Bill retains the restriction on acquisition of agricultural land but leaves the exact limits to be determined by each State in line with its own development priorities.

The Bill also makes it clear that acquisition of multi-crop land is only to be undertaken as a last resort and under “exceptional circumstances.” Furthermore if such land is indeed earmarked for acquisition then an equal plot of alternative land has to be delineated for agricultural purposes. In addition, the Bill provides for States to impose ceilings on such acquisitions taking place within the district as a unit.

Definition of public purpose: The article makes the charge that public purpose has been poorly defined “in a manner worse than in the British Act.” This might be the author’s opinion but it is not representative of the facts. Not only does the new Bill define public purpose comprehensively it also qualifies it by establishing processes whereby such “public purpose” needs to be clearly and compellingly validated. The Social Impact Assessment Process is one where all those affected (including those whose livelihood has been impacted), including representatives from Panchayati Raj Institutions, are invited to deliberate as to whether public purpose is indeed served by such acquisition. This is then vetted by an independent expert group and finally pronounced upon by the high level committee headed by the Chief Secretary of a State. These safeguards are compounded by the high quorum of consent required (80 per cent). None of these processes exist under the 1894 Act.

Rehabilitation: the article argues that the Bill is especially weak on rehabilitation. It suggests that “only cash” is being offered to ameliorate the impacts of acquisition and adds that “cash was offered by the British as well.” This is inaccurate. Over five chapters and two entire Schedules have been dedicated to outlining elaborate processes for resettlement and rehabilitation. The Second Schedule in particular outlines the benefits (such as land for land, housing, employment and annuities) that shall accrue in addition to the one-time cash payments. In fact, the very industry that the article accuses the Ministry of Rural Development of sharing some vague nexus with, has been vocal and vehement in its criticism of these R&R provisions stating that the same render the process of acquisition non-feasible.

Another far-reaching provision that the article fails to draw attention to, and one that draws squarely upon the lessons learned from the past displacements, is the guarantee that none of those individuals whose land has been acquired shall be dispossessed unless alternatives, as enumerated in the Bill, are provided for (Section 37). No such protection, enshrined in a statute, has ever been afforded earlier.

Conclusion: as regards the Standing Committee recommendations, which the article seems to take as the touchstone for its critiques, it may be pointed out that the committee made a total of 28 broad recommendations of which 25 have been accommodated in some form or the other (including the one mentioned in the article regarding the return of unutilised land).

The article is right in its detailing of the lack of justice and parity that has accompanied acquisitions in the past. What it fails to realise is that it is precisely in acknowledgement of such historical injustices that such a legislative revisit is being undertaken. The new Bill is under attack both from “progressives” like Ms Medha Patkar as well as from organisations like the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and the Confederation of Indian Industry. Therefore, we believe something must be right about the Bill.

(Jairam Ramesh is Minister for Rural Development & Drinking Water and Sanitation; K. Raju is Joint Secretary, National Advisory Council, and Muhammed Khan is OSD, Ministry of Rural Development.)

Medha Patkar responds

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