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To Amend Or Not To Amend Land Law

It is apparent that Prime Minister Narendra Modi failed to achieve his purpose of resolving the outstanding issues relating to his proposed amendments to the land acquisition law (Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act) passed by the UPA in 2013 at his meeting with chief ministers at the NITI Aayog on Wednesday. Reports suggest that while BJP CMs backed the amendments, the opposition CMs did not, or, as Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said in his briefing after the meeting, called for a “cautious” approach. Congress CMs skipped the meeting. So, if the Prime Minister thought he might be able to thrash out the issues with the opposition before the monsoon session of the Parliament begins a week later he must have been disappointed. For the positions of the Congress and the other opposition parties on the amendments proposed by his government do not seem to have changed.

The meeting seemed even otherwise irrelevant as far as progress on the thinking on amendments was concerned as the issues are under examination by a Joint Committee of Parliament, which was set up after the opposition parties had raised a number of issues in the two houses. The committee is going to place the report before Parliament, and it is hardly unlikely that the Modi government can overrule or undo its recommendations. A joint committee is presumed to express the consensus among all parties. The deliberations at Wednesday’s meeting of PM with CMs are therefore not going to influence the recommendations of the Parliament which is awaiting the report of the joint committee. What could be the purpose behind the NITI Aayog meeting then? It could have been only aimed at softening the approach of the opposition parties other than the Congress. Modi knows that the Congress is never going to accept any amendments to the law passed by it. If he could get other opposition parties round with some changes in the amendments proposed by him he could isolate Congress. Wednesday’s meeting could thus have been intended by Modi to get to know the latest positions of the other opposition parties and see if he could accommodate all or some of them.

The problem is if Modi starts accommodating the issues raised by the opposition parties he would end up dropping his amendment proposals and allowing implementation of the 2013 law. As a matter of fact, he does not seem to have much of choice as of now. It would be better for him and for the country’s development to go on with the existing law. After all, the existing law is a great advancement from the colonial 1894 law which did not provide for rehabilitation and resettlement of displaced families. The 2013 Act, which came into force in January 2014, not only provided for rehabilitation and resettlement of the owners of acquired pieces of land but also to the landless that depended on the land acquired for their livelihood. The new law also for the first time imposed requirements for a clear definition of “public purpose” for which the land was sought to be acquired. Wrong representation of private purpose as public purpose has been a common feature behind vast illegitimate land acquisitions across the country. In order to ensure the acquisition was for public purpose, the new law provides for a Social Impact Assessment (SIA) to be conducted for the project. Apart from determining whether the acquisition is really for public purpose, an SIA is also expected to ensure that the project acquires only the minimum area required by it. This was provided for in order to prevent acquisition of vast amounts of land in the name of a project by a purchaser (public or private) who often used the land not needed by it to make profits by selling it when the land prices were higher in the later years.

Above all, the new law provides for determination of fair compensation to land owners. Across the country, farmers bear the grudge that land was acquired from them at very low rates and later sold at phenomenal rates. They often saw it happening in their vicinity. The new law raised the compensation from 1.3 times the price of land to 2 times the price of land in urban areas, and 2 to 4 times the price of land in rural areas. The law permitted states to provide higher compensation to land owners if they wanted. Several states actually pay much higher compensation, including other amounts such as bonus and gratuity. The best safeguard provided is consent of 80% of land owners for private projects and of 70% of land owners for public-private partnership projects. The Modi government should therefore let the existing law be implemented. Even otherwise, farmers are not in a very happy situation this year. There is no harm in continuing with the existing law for a year or two and then deciding whether it needs amendments or not.

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