A good Bill that disappoints
RAMASWAMY IYER IN THE HINDU
The Land Acquisition and Resettlement and Rehabilitation Bill 2011 seems to be driven by a desire to make acquisition for industrialisation and urbanisation easier.
One started reading the new Draft National Land Acquisition and Resettlement and Rehabilitation Bill 2011 with expectations of a great improvement over the 2007 Bills. There are indeed some very good features in the new Bill but, on the whole, one must regretfully report disappointment. Let us see how the Bill deals with some of the key issues involved.
(i) Acquisition of agricultural land: The Bill rules out the acquisition, not of all irrigated agricultural land, but of multi-cropped irrigated agricultural land. That limited exclusion seems rather half-hearted.
(ii) Avoiding or minimising displacement: A serious concern about the trauma of displacement does not seem to be the driving force behind the Bill. The principles of ‘no forced displacement’ and ‘free, informed prior consent’ are not mentioned. (Incidentally, the condition of consent by 80 per cent of the land-owners applies only to land-acquisition by the government for companies including PPP cases, and not to governmental acquisition for itself. It appears that there has been no dilution at all of ‘eminent domain’.) There are indeed a number of good provisions relating to displacement (SIA, review of SIA by an Expert Committee, consideration of ‘less displacing alternative’, public hearing, etc.), but the final decision is that of the bureaucracy. If a statutory clearance is needed for cutting a tree or for causing an environmental impact, should it not be required for displacing people? If the National Rehabilitation Commission mentioned in the 2007 Bill had been retained, a statutory displacement clearance by it could have been prescribed, but the present Bill envisages no such Commission.
(iii) Inadequacy of compensation: The present Bill increases the compensation amount significantly. This is welcome. Whether the earlier problems of delays and corruption in the payment process will disappear or diminish, remains to be seen.
(iv) The acquisition of land by the state for private companies: A view, held by many for a long time, is that there is no reason why the state should use its sovereign power to acquire land for private companies which are primarily in business for profit and not for conferring benefits on the public.
The 2007 Bills had sought to reduce the extent of land acquisition by the state for a company to 30 per cent , if the company purchases 70 per cent of the land needed by negotiation. The present Bill does away with the 70:30 formula, but provides for ‘partial’ acquisition by the state for a company if a company so requests. Presumably ‘partial’ acquisition could go up to near-full acquisition by the state. This seems a retrograde step.
(v) Private purchase: As for private negotiation, the Minister himself refers in his Foreword to the “asymmetry of power (and information) between those wanting to acquire the land and those whose lands are being acquired”, but the Bill provides no mechanism to reduce that asymmetry. It doubtless extends the R&R provisions to private negotiated purchases of land but provides no safeguard against unfair negotiation. (Even the extension of the R&R provisions to negotiated purchases — the legality of which may be challenged — applies only where a company buys 100 acres or more, and that threshold can be easily side-stepped in ways that need not be spelt out here.) One wishes that the Minister had strengthened the hands of the weaker party in the negotiation by providing — this is merely an illustration — that the compensation that the land-owners would have got under this Bill if the land had been acquired by the government (to be determined by the collector) would be the floor below which the price negotiated by the company with the land-owners shall not fall.
(vi) Change of land use: That safeguard might ensure a fair price, but there is also the question of transfer of agricultural land to non-agricultural use and the implications for food security. One possibility might be to say that all acquisition of land, including acquisitions for companies, must be only by the state; but that does not seem desirable and, in any case, it is not really an answer to the problem of land-transfer away from agriculture. Another possibility is that private purchases of agricultural land should be subject to state regulation from the point of view of land-use. That might be open to the objection of undue interference with a landowner’s right to sell his land. On the whole, the answer to the question of minimising transfers of agricultural land to non-agricultural use might lie in policies supportive of agriculture rather than in control or regulation over land transactions.
(vii) Definition of ‘public purpose‘: An issue that has persistently figured in the debate during the last decade or two is the need to narrow the definition of ‘public purpose’ and limit it to a few strictly governmental purposes (schools, dispensaries, etc). The present Bill moves in exactly the opposite direction. It defines ‘public purpose’ very broadly and leaves it to the bureaucracy to decide each case. Is it right to assume that any industry ipso facto serves a public purpose warranting the alienation of agricultural land? For instance, in the Singur episode land acquisition was for ‘industry’, i.e., Tatas‘ small car factory; was that ‘public purpose’? It can be so declared under the present Bill. Again, ‘infrastructure’ includes ‘tourism’, which would permit the acquisition of land for building hotels. It seems desirable to define ‘public purpose’ somewhat more stringently.
(viii) Coverage of ‘project-affected persons’: The Bill refers to loss of primary livelihoods but links it to the acquisition of land. The term ‘livelihoods’ is illustrated by a reference to the gathering of forest produce, hunting, fishing, etc; there is no reference to sellers of goods and services to the people in the project area, who will lose their livelihoods when the people whom they serve move away to resettlement areas. It is not clear whether they will be regarded as project-affected persons.
(ix) Social Impact Assessment: On Social Impact Assessment the present Bill is an improvement on the 2007 Bill, but the idea of SIA still falls short: it does not cover the disappearance of a whole way of life; the dispersal of close-knit communities; the loss of a centuries-old relationship with nature; the loss of roots; and so on. It is good that the SIA will be reviewed by an independent multi-disciplinary expert body, but it should first be prepared by a similar body. The Bill leaves the SIA to be prepared by the “appropriate government.”
(x) Rehabilitation package: The rehabilitation package is distinctly inferior to the packages already established in certain projects. The principle of ‘land for land’ has been abandoned. It figures only in the case of irrigation projects, and there the Bill envisages one acre per family instead of two acres as in the Sardar Sarovar Project. There are two points here. First, it is not clear why the Bill specifies irrigation projects; hydroelectric projects and flood control also have the same impacts as irrigation projects, and in any case many projects are ‘multi-purpose’ projects. Secondly, compensation and rehabilitation should have reference not to the nature of the project but to the nature of the impact. Whatever be the project, if an agricultural community is uprooted from its land and homestead, it has to be enabled to practise agriculture elsewhere, and not expected to become carpenters or weavers or traders.
(xi) Other matters: A number of officials and institutions are specified in the Bill, such as the Collector, Administrator of R&R, Commissioner of R&R, etc., but it is only in the R&R Committee that there is a significant non-official presence. The National Monitoring Committee is not ‘participatory’; apart from officials, it includes only a few experts. As indicated earlier, the idea of a National Rehabilitation Commission has been abandoned.
Incidentally, it is not clear why displacement by natural calamities should be brought within the purview of this Bill. There is a vital difference between unavoidable displacement caused by nature and deliberate displacement caused by human decisions.
Summing up, the Bill seems to be essentially driven by a desire to make land acquisition for industrialisation and urbanisation easier. It is clear that the Bill, which does contain many good features, nevertheless requires substantial improvement.