Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Land Bill's bumpy ride

Sangita Jha/ New Delhi

It's not clear if govt will be able to pass the Bill in next session of parliament

In all developed democracies, private purchase of land, not state acquisition is the norm. The Parliamentary standing committee, while submitting its report on the "Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation and Resettlement (LARR) Bill, 2011" threw the moot question at the government if it should play any role at all in acquisition of land for private companies for profit purposes. This has been at the core of the recent controversies at various places in the country where farmers faced the police to protest acquisition of their land.
"Even for a key infrastructure project that sought to expand Tokyo's Narita International Airport, the primary mode of obtaining land in the surrounding areas was through extensive negotiations and higher compensation packages offered to those who were willing to sell their lands," the standing committee mentioned as one of the example to drive home the point that the government should desist from acquiring land for private companies for profit purposes.
The bone of contention is the inclusion of schedule VIII, which states that the government would acquire land for private companies for production of public goods, in the definition of "Public Purpose". This schedule, experts say and the standing committee concurs, would allow the government to keep acquiring land for all kinds of activities. The standing committee lamented that in place of the definition of the public purpose being specific it is rather quite broad and vague.
Union rural development minister Jairam Ramesh did not lose much of the time in rejecting the core recommendations of the standing committee. "No country in the world gives kerosene or LPG subsidy either. India is not developed countries and as a developing nation it would have to play a role in facilitating the economic progress and development," asserted Ramesh. He, however, missed the point that the standing committee had stated "developed democracies" and not developed nation in arguing for the government to limit its role in land acquisition.
The standing committee clearly wanted to say that as a developed democracy India should not be forcefully acquiring land.
The assertions of the standing committee were based on the aftermath of large scale acquisition of land for setting up of Special Economic Zone in various parts of the country. Interestingly, the government has no data base to inform how much of land has been acquired and its resultant displacement on people since Independence.
"An official database of persons displaced by projects is not available. However, some unofficial studies, particularly by Dr. Walter Fernandes, peg this figure at 60 million for the period from 1947 to 2004, involving 25 million hectare, which includes 7 million hectare of forest and 6 million hectare of other common property resources (CPR). Whereas tribals constitute about 8 per cent of the total population, they are 40 per cent of the total displaced/ affected persons by the projects. Only a third of the displaced persons of planned development have been resettled," the standing committee asserted to substantiate its set of recommendations. Clearly, the standing committee should be taken more seriously than what is being suggested by Ramesh, who had taken pride in the fact that he got the LARR Bill, 2011 prepared and introduced in the Lok Sabha in record 60 days. It's a different thing that the standing committee also rapped his ministry for giving inadequate time to seek public feedback, while highlighting that a number of Union ministries were at variance with the Bill, which included Ministry of Power, Ministry of Panchayati Raj, and Ministry of Urban Development. However, Ramesh is again gearing up to live up to his reputation of getting the job done in quick time by asserting that he would get the revised LARR Bill passed in the Monsoon session of the Parliament.
The Delhi Metro Rail Corporation submitted before the standing committee with the note: "Acquisition of land on requests of private companies for setting up of Special Economic Zone or for any other public purpose should not be permitted." The Metro clearly has high credibility for having put up one of the massive infrastructure in the Independent India.
One of the salient features of the LARR Bill, 2011 was inclusion of the rehabilitation and resettlement (R&R) clauses in the same legislation. Not only the land owners were to be compensated but also those who lost their livelihoods. The Bill mandated that the R&R clauses would be applicable in the event of acquisition of 100 acres of land in rural areas and 50 acres of land in urban areas. Representatives of the real estate had been livid with this provision. The standing committee has incorporated objections of a number of states, including Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Maharashtra, who have claimed that the Central legislation would hurt the federal principles, while asking the issue to be left for the state legislatures to decide depending on the local factors.
Ramesh clearly does not want to be caught in the Centre-state crossfire and therefore was quick to clarify that the Central law would fix the minimum compensation and the states would be free to improve upon if they think so with their respective legislations. The minister hastened to add that he would like the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to call a meeting of all the chief ministers to arrive at a consensus on the contentious issues, while also dropping hints that he would be keen to incorporate reasonable suggestions of the state governments.
Another key issue on which environmentalist Medha Patkar and others have long protested is the extent of land acquired for mega projects like airports. They have contended that with the help of the government the private players acquire thousands of acres of land even though only 10 per cent of them are used for the core activities, while rest of the land is used for commercial exploitation. The standing committee has also thrown this question at the government, while seeking clarity. It sought that not mere 80 per cent consent of the affected persons be obtained for acquiring land but the Gram Sabha in the presence of neutral person must give its consent.
The government maintains that it's in agreement with the standing committee recommendation and capping the size of land to be acquired would be arrived at through the Social Impact Assessment (SIA) in which the Gram Sabha and other local bodies would play key roles.
The standing committee has also made it clear that no land be acquired in the schedule V areas, which are inhabited by the tribal. The government is in agreement on this recommendation.
However, the standing committee, while stressing on the needs to protect the Food Security concerns, has sought that any cultivable land be not acquired. The LARR Bill sought that the multi-cropped irrigated land would not be acquired. However, the issue appears too tricky.
"A number of state governments, including Punjab, Haryana, Kerala, have opposed the move not to acquire multi-cropped irrigated land. We have to see how well we can strike a balance between the needs of agriculture and industrialization and also urbanization," said Ramesh, when asked to comment on the standing committee suggestion.
It very well appears that quite a bumpy road lies ahead for Ramesh to pilot the Land Bill in the Parliament in the Monsoon session. It's to be seen how soon the Land Bill becomes a law, as the standing committee has also sought amendments in 16 other related laws also to make rules consistent with respect to compensation.

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