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Land bill: Govt has to fight Opposition politically

The question is whether the new-found unity among the Opposition is really an attempt to protect the interests of farmers or a desperate effort at extracting political mileage out of the burning issue.

Opposition lands a blow

Congress President Sonia Gandhi (centre) marches along with members of opposition parties to the Rashtrapati Bhavan on Tuesday. (Photo: Pankaj Nangia)

Sonia Gandhi-led Congress has united a ragtag Opposition against the amendments to the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Amendment) Bill 2015 - popularly known as the land acquisition bill. Gandhi took it upon herself to lead the agitation after the BJP-led government passed the Bill in Lok Sabha by brute force because of its overwhelming majority in the House. Gandhi calls the amendments 'anti-farmer' and 'pro-corporate' compared to the original bill passed by the UPA government.

The question, however, is whether the new-found unity among the Opposition is really an attempt to protect the interests of farmers or a desperate effort at extracting political mileage out of the burning issue. Incidentally, most of those who participated in the protest march along with Gandhi, would be taking the BJP head on in the forthcoming state assembly elections in Bihar and West Bengal, where the BJP is gaining more groundswell.

Despite the vehement protests on the streets and inside the House, by most accounts, the Bill is not anti-farmer as it is being made out to be. Here's why.

13
The number of Acts brought under the land acquisition bill

For one, the Narendra Modi government was prudent enough not to tamper with the most critical clause of farmers' compensation for the acquired land. It was the UPA chairperson who had overruled her national advisory council to provide the farmer with four times the market price as compensation in rural areas and twice the price in urban areas. Her decision derived from the fact that land sharks had, for decades, disadvantaged the farmer in the land acquisition process - the main cause of grief among landowners.

In fact, most farmer agitations in the country were triggered by sky-rocketing prices of farmland following the change in land use after acquisition. Whether it was at Barnala where Trident Industry was at loggerheads with the locals in Punjab, or the protests at Bhatta Parsaul, in Uttar Pradesh, against Jaypee Group for the construction of Yamuna Expressway, farmers have always felt cheated as they were kept in the dark about the end use of the land. In fact, farmers have always been more than happy to part with their land if they got fair compensation. Take the case of the land acquired in Mohali district of Punjab for the airport project in 2009/10. Farmers were paid Rs 1.5 crore per acre for the 310-acre project and there has never been a murmur about it. To make the deal sweeter, the state government gave farmers 10 per cent extra as no-litigation benefit, among other goodies, such as stamp duty waiver, if they wanted to buy a new patch of land anywhere in the state.

One of the most significant amendment is the government's decision to bring in 13 other Acts under the Bill, so that, unlike earlier, farmers get a substantially higher compensation (as per the Bill) even in case of land acquisition under those Acts. These include: Atomic Energy Act, 1962; Railways Act, 1989; Petroleum and Minerals Pipelines (Acquisition of Right of User in Land) Act, 1962; Electricity Act, 2003; Requisitioning and Acquisition of Immovable Property Act, 1952; Metro Railways (Construction of Works) Act, 1978; National Highways Act, 1956; Land Acquisition (Mines) Act, 1885; Coal Bearing Areas Acquisition and Development Act, 1957; Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958; Damodar Valley Corporation Act, 1948; Resettlement of Displaced Persons (Land Acquisition) Act, 1948; and the Indian Tramways Act, 1886. So far, when land was being acquired under these Acts, they were not governed by a uniform policy on resettlement and rehabilitation that the new Bill provides.

Next, the move to keep preliminary grievance redressal at the district level with a quasi-judicial authority is a very significant concession to the farmers since it will ensure he does not waste time and money in travelling long distances from his place of origin. Compulsory employment to a member of the family displaced by land acquisition will also ensure a regular source of income, besides the high compensation. This income could act as a buffer for the family since past experience shows that farmers often fall into a debt trap by splurging compensation money on liquor and non-productive assets such as cars.

The move to keep preliminary grievance redressal at the district level with a quasi-judicial authority is a very significant concession to the farmers

Instead of exempting social impact assessment (SIA), which requires approval from 80 per cent of land owners, the Bill has left it to the discretion of the state government. Local farmers' bodies will clearly have greater influence over the powers-that-be in the state governments. Hence, they can ensure projects of a certain size do go through SIA. From the industry's point of view, this clause would mean that most industry-oriented states, such as Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana and Maharashtra (mostly ruled by the NDA), will have an exit route. In fact, regional parties ruling in states such as Odisha, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh are also extending support to the Bill by keeping quiet on SIA.

In acquiring land, the government will prioritise use of wasteland. It will conduct a nationwide survey of wasteland to help identify land that could be used for industrial and social infrastructure projects. The argument of not acquiring land where more than two crops are cultivated, does not carry weight, though, as this will push states like Haryana and Punjab, as well as western UP, behind.

Meanwhile, the Ordinance - unless ratified by both Houses of Parliament - is set to lapse on April 5, 2015. Given the ongoing opposition and the government's inability to make a breakthrough, it's highly likely that it will have to re-promulgate it and risk itself of being branded anti-democratic and anti-Parliament. But the real test will be to avoid being labelled anti-farmer.

(Follow the authors on Twitter at: @rajeevdubey; @anileshmahajan)

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