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23 April, 2013

New phase in land war

BRP Bhaskar
With the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party agreeing to cooperate in the enactment of a new land acquisition law, the government has crossed a major hurdle in the way of its effort to create an industry-friendly environment. However, it is too early for it to rejoice.

The land acquisition law now in force was enacted by the British in 1894. It gives the state the power to seize citizens’ property for public purposes without their consent and casts no responsibility on the state to rehabilitate and resettle the dispossessed.

Invocation of this law, which is inimical to the interests of vulnerable sections of society like the poor and the marginal farmers, has provoked widespread anger and protest in various parts of the country and stalled implementation of many government and private projects.

In September 2011 the government placed before Parliament a draft law which will allow it to acquire property to meet the requirements of state units as well as public private partnerships (PPPs) and private companies. While land owners’ consent is not required when land is acquired for public sector units, acquisition for PPPs and private sector units will require the consent of 70 per cent and 80 per cent of the owners respectively.

A standing committee of Parliament which examined the draft suggested that the government should not acquire land for PPPs and private companies. The government has not accepted the suggestion.

In a bid to meet criticism from the corporate sector and from civil society groups, the government has made some changes in the draft. Some of its provisions are no doubt an improvement on the colonial law. For instance, it provides for a social impact assessment survey before the government notifies its intention to acquire land and for payment of compensation within a specified period. The proposed compensation is four times the market value for property in rural areas and two times in the urban areas.

The draft also contains provisions which can make the position of the poor worse. For instance, it brings mining within the ambit of ‘public purpose’. Many mines are in areas where the tribal population lives. Extension of the measure to these areas will involve violation of the provisions of the Constitution aimed at protecting the tribes and their homelands. 

The draft has a provision which gives the government the power to acquire land temporarily, for a period of three years, without assuming responsibility for rehabilitation and resettlement.  The government has made temporary provisions of many laws permanent features by repeatedly reissuing notifications on the expiry of the time limit.   

At last week’s all-party meeting the BJP pledged support to the proposed measure after the government accepted some of its suggestions.  Land mafia has grabbed vast tracts of land from marginal farmers in recent months, hoping to profit from the liberal compensation formula. The government agreed to the BJP’s demand that if land has changed hands after the bill was introduced in Parliament half of the compensation must be paid to the original landowner. 

The government is keen to put the new law in place to carry forward economic reforms before its five-year term ends next year. While the measure may have a smooth passage in Parliament, its implementation may lead to an intensification of land wars which, in turn, may invite harsh governmental measures, resulting in bloodshed. Determined local opposition to land acquisition has already blocked huge projects of the UK-based Vedanta group and South Korea’s Posco group in Odisha state for several years.

The state government allowed Vedanta to set up a $1.7 billion bauxite mining project in the Niyamgiri hills. The tribal population objected to it, citing its traditional cultural and religious links with the hills. Last week the Supreme Court ruled that the project cannot be allowed to interfere with the tribes’ religious rights. It said the village councils, and not the state, must decide on their claims. 

For seven years the government has not been able to acquire enough land for Posco to set up the world’s largest integrated steel plant. Repressive measures could not subdue the people. Aware of the people’s mood, the company has been reluctant to take over the land acquired so far. -- Gulf Today, April 22, 2013.

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