The amended version of the Land Acquisition Act has been passed, but it does not entirely settle the issues of dubious takeover of land and failure to pay fair compensation. Although renamed the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, it leaves open the possibility of the Central and State governments being able to bypass it and deny vulnerable property owners much-needed relief.
Impact of exemptions
The seriousness of the purpose behind bringing forward reforms in land acquisition was in doubt from the start. In 2011, when the government published the draft Bill for public comments, it was found to have exempted 16 Central Acts, including the infamous Special Economic Zones (SEZ) Act, 2005 from the proposed provisions. Given that reckless acquisition of land for SEZs had precipitated protests against forced acquisition, these exemptions understandably created outrage.
As pointed out by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Rural Development that reviewed the draft Bill in 2012, as much as 95 per cent of all land acquisitions by the Central government were done through the 16 Central Acts, and that exempting them from their purview would make the proposed amendments meaningless. It recommended the removal of the exemption clause. It went further and suggested that the 16 Central Acts, which had provisions for acquiring land, should be amended to bring their compensation and entitlements package on a par with the proposed Bill.
However, the United Progressive Alliance government decided to overlook the recommendation. In its final form, the Bill exempted 13 Central Acts from the new provisions. The fewer number of exemptions — from 16 down to 13 — did not indicate any change of heart. The government had to drop the SEZ Act since it could not defend it by any stretch of logic. Two other Acts — the Cantonments Act and the Works of Defence Act — were removed on the request of the Ministry of Defence. In other words, the government has kept a substantial part of its land acquisition process outside the purview of the new Act.
The position of the State governments in this issue is no better. Land and development are State subjects, but acquisition is in the Concurrent List. State governments have their own pieces of legislation to take over property, and these too are riddled with problems.
For instance, Maharashtra acquires large tracts of land under the provisions of its Industrial Development Act. It uses this Act to create exclusive industrial and economic zones. It has started acquiring 67,500 acres from 78 villages to create a Mumbai-Delhi industrial corridor. Farmers are agitating against this and are concerned about forcible acquisition. Tamil Nadu too has a similar legislation. A few years ago, it creatively deployed the Acquisition of Land for Industrial Purposes Act to take over land for the expansion of Chennai airport. Affected residents unsuccessfully challenged such extended use of the Act.
Many States try to justify such special Acts and use them frequently since it allows for speedy acquisition. The sad fact is that compensation offered under these Acts is low compared to the revised Central Act. And they hardly talk of rehabilitation and resettlement packages.
Going by the deposition of State governments before the Standing Committee, and recent statements made by Chief Ministers, it would appear that States are not keen to amend their laws. For example, the Madhya Pradesh government told the Standing Committee that it did not want its own Municipal Corporation Act and the Madhya Pradesh Land Revenue Code, which have provisions for land acquisition, to be affected by the stringent measures provided for in the new Bill. It argued that as in the case of 16 Central Acts, State Acts too should be exempted.
Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan’s reaction to the Central Act betrays the typically narrow concerns of State governments. Mr. Chavan, who remained silent on the higher quantum of compensation offered to affected farmers, expressed his worries over the fact that the new Act would increase project costs. It appears that State governments, including those of National Democratic Alliance constituents, would revise their laws to do more than what the Central Act promises.
In Uttar Pradesh
In 2011, the Mayawati government in Uttar Pradesh announced changes in land acquisition policy that sought to outdo the then prevailing Central Act in many ways. The government decided not to directly involve itself in acquiring land for private developers, and promised to give 16 per cent of developed land to farmers affected by acquisition, and pay cash compensation. It committed itself to providing jobs for affected people. Widespread farmer protests in Bhatta-Parsaul and an impending round of elections then may have compelled the U.P. government to make those changes. But it clearly demonstrated the fact that State governments, if they wish to, can improve over the Central Act and bring forward a more people-friendly legislation. The question is: will they?