The issue of land acquisition in India has been a bone of contention ever since the Indian independence, at which time we were a largely agrarian nation. Despite several agitations, especially since increased acquisition of land since economic liberalisation in the 1990s, the draconian Land Acquisition Act of 1894 continued to exist until as recently as 2013. Eventually, this was replaced by the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 (LARR 2013), passed by UPA 2 and interestingly supported by BJP in the opposition as well.
Unlike the previous, out-dated act, LARR 2013 mandated a social impact assessment survey, steps for transparency in acquisition, such as preliminary notification stating the intent for acquisition, and due compensation (four times the market value in case of rural areas and twice in urban areas) to be given by a certain time. Significantly, rehabilitation and resettlement were to be provided to the people affected by the acquisition. Also, land thus acquired by private companies or public private partnerships required the consent of 80 per cent of the displaced people, and purchase of large pieces of land by private companies required the provision of rehabilitation and resettlement. However, the provisions of this act would not have applied to acquisitions under 13 existing legislations such as the Special Economic Zones Act, 2005, the Atomic Energy Act, 1962, the Railways Act, 1989, etc.
Soon after assuming power in 2014, the Narendra Modi-led BJP government passed an ordinance that turned around or significantly altered several above-mentioned milestones set by LARR 2013. Perhaps the only non-controversial aspect of the subsequent Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Amendment) Bill, 2015 (let’s call it LARR Bill 2015), which has been passed by the Lok Sabha, is that it brings the compensation, rehabilitation, and resettlement provisions of the 13 laws that were previously exempt in consonance with the LARR Act, 2013. That said, the LARR Bill 2015 creates five special categories of land use: (i) defence, (ii) rural infrastructure, (iii) affordable housing, (iv) industrial corridors, and (v) infrastructure projects including Public Private Partnership (PPP) projects where the government owns the land. Now, we compare the highlights of LARR 2013 with the LARR Bill 2015 and quickly look at the apparent implications of the amendments thus proposed.
|LARR 2013||LARR Bill 2015||Implications of amendment|
|1.||Consent of 80% of landowners to be obtained for private projects and that of 70% of landowners for PPP projects.||The 5 above-mentioned categories are exempt from this provision, with a notification.||The indifference to consent of landowners, social impact assessment, and allowing agricultural land to be acquired for these projects clearly takes us back to the draconian 1894 act. Such acquisition of agricultural land has long since been argued to severely affect food security and of course, the farmers.|
|2.||Social Impact Assessment (SIA) to be conducted to identify affected families and calculate the social impact when land is acquired.||The 5 categories are exempt from SIA, with a notification.|
|3.||Certain restrictions on acquisition of irrigated multi-cropped land and other agricultural land. E.g., irrigated multi-cropped land cannot be acquired beyond the limit specified by the appropriate government.||The 5 categories are exempt from this provision, with a notification.|
|4.||Land acquired under it when remained unutilised for 5 years to be returned to the original owners or the land bank.||The suitable period for return will be (i) five years, or (ii) any period specified at the time of setting up the project, whichever is later.||Not utilising acquired land for long time periods has been known to be a method to largely improve the real estate returns on the land; this is not only unjust and corrupt but also problematic due to delays in the projects for which land is thus acquired.|
|5.||Excluded the acquisition of land for private hospitals and private educational institutions from its purview.||This restriction is removed.||This only increases the number of moneyed groups that can grab land in India.|
|6.||Applicable for the acquisition of land for private companies.||The Bill changes this to acquisition for ‘private entities’.||A private entity is any non-governmental entity, which could be a proprietorship, partnership, company, corporation, non-profit organisation, or other entity under any other law. Thus, more number of players in the land-grab process.|
|7.||For an offence committed by the government, the head of the department would be deemed guilty unless they can show that the offence was committed without their knowledge, or that they had exercised due diligence to prevent the commission of the offence.||This provision is replaced; if an offence is committed by a government official, they cannot be prosecuted without the prior sanction of the government.||Government sanctions in judiciary process are known to be severely tainted, to put it simply.|
For reasons such as the above, LARR Bill 2015 is being dubbed by many as the ‘land grab bill’, and has seen continuous protests right from the news of the ordinance. To the question on the urgency of this ordinance, the government claims that land acquisition for industry and infrastructure is necessary to increase employment and promote development. At this juncture, it is important to note that the CAG Performance Audit Report on the Special Economic Zones in India states that from the large areas of land acquired, a good chunk remains unused and that the employment targets were not met. Thus, mere provision of land and resources to companies does not guarantee rise in employment; if this is true for SEZs, it’s all the more expected with the various industries, infrastructure, and institutions for whom even a social impact assessment is not conducted.
LARR Bill 2015 would have a worse effect on agriculture, with the sanction of acquiring agricultural land, including irrigated multi-crop land with little restriction. Although agriculture’s contribution to Indian GDP dipped from 40% in 1970s to about 15% in 2014, this sector employs 50% of India; 70% Indian population, which is rural, is dependent on this sector. This is the percentage that gets directly affected by the land grab, not to mention the impending food security issues that would affect the entire nation.
Thus, the Indian civil society has a lot at stake in the passing of LARR Bill 2015 in the Rajya Sabha. The farmers, artisans, other activists, and intellectuals, some of whom also pointed out the flaws of LARR 2013 apart from welcoming it as the much-required change in the right direction, now have a daunting task ahead of them in fighting for the several just provisions regarding land ownership, food security, rehabilitation, compensation, and employment, all of which are now categorically denied to the Indian masses.
Keywords: Land acquisition; Rehabilitation; Resettlement; Compensation; LARR 2013; LARR Amendment Bill 2015; Food security