The high-decibel debate on land acquisition, playing out in Parliament and media since the opening of the budget session, is asking the wrong question. Asking whether the Land Acquisition (Amendment) Ordinance 2014 promulgated by the president is anti-farmer or not is simplistic and misleading. It forgets that the issue under consideration is establishing a workable mechanism for acquiring land, not laying down the contours of a successful kisan vikas patra scheme.
To understand the genesis of this mischaracterisation, go back to 2013 when the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act was passed. At that time a view was formed that the Act was a revolutionary pro-farmer legislation, whose noble intentions are now said to have been undone by the ordinance.
This assertion concerns clauses that require consent of 70% of affected families in PPP projects and 80% of affected families in private projects prior to acquisition and a mandatory social impact assessment (SIA) of all acquisitions. These clauses, present in the Act, have been exempted from applying to five types of projects in the ordinance.
The rationale for providing for consent was to give the citizenry a say in how the state would deal with their land. As a statement of principle, this is difficult to dispute. However, when the letter of the law is at such variance with the principle, the inference that consent was used to capture a moral high ground with little attention to actual benefits to farmers on the ground is inescapable.
As an illustration, according to Section 2(2) of the Act, consent will have to be sought simultaneously with the SIA process. But whom will consent be sought from? At the stage of conducting SIA, it is neither clear who owns the land, nor whose livelihoods depend on it. Seeking consent without having conclusively identified whom to seek consent from is an inexplicable instance of putting the cart before the horse.
Equally importantly, the incorporation of consent suffers from a fundamental conceptual confusion. If as a polity we have taken a decision that the power of eminent domain is necessary in certain instances, as is evident from both the Act and the ordinance, it implies that we have assented to a core feature of its exercise – the involuntary nature of acquisition.
While the involuntariness of the acquisition must be mitigated by setting certain minimum requirements for compensation and rehabilitation, as both the Act and the ordinance do, to flip the concept on its head entirely, incorporate consent and still call it an instance of 'acquisition' demonstrates befuddled thinking. If a transfer of land is wholly consensual, it is a purchase; if it is compulsory, it is an acquisition. There is no halfway house between the two.
Several other provisions in the Act similarly protect farmers' interests symbolically and not substantively. But this is the wrong lens to be viewing a land acquisition law through. Farmers' interests are only one, albeit significant, part of designing a workable land acquisition legislation. Since there is a larger social consensus that acquisition for public purpose projects by government and the private sector is necessary, then the law reflecting such consensus must optimally protect the interests of all stakeholders – farmers, other land-losers, industry and government itself.
It is in everybody's interest that a workable process of land acquisition is established. This will undoubtedly involve tradeoffs, some which will benefit farmers, some of which won't. To assess each tradeoff solely from the perspective of the farmer, as the public discourse is currently doing, is bound to lead to a misguided assessment of issues. Instead, the key question that ought to be debated now is this: How do we establish an efficient, fair and workable process of land acquisition?
As it stands, any land acquisition process under the Act is estimated to take a minimum of 50 months from the initiation of SIA to payment and possession, with multiple layers of review. There is an SIA team, an independent expert group for appraisal, the collector to oversee compensation, an administrator, the R&R project committee, and national and state monitoring committees for rehabilitation and resettlement. This is nothing short of a bureaucratic nightmare that benefits no one other than those occupying the multiple offices created.
Unfortunately this bureaucratic nightmare has been seen in public discourse as a problem only for private companies who are keen on acquiring land quickly. However, as experience under the 1894 Act shows, lengthy acquisition procedures benefit no one. The old Act originally had no timelines – they were introduced after multiple court interventions pointing out that delays in acquisition cause immense hardship to land-losers. Taking away one's land and making one wait interminably for compensation is a severe double whammy.
Unfortunately the ordinance has done little to undo this core flaw in the Act. By seeking to exempt certain projects from certain stages of the procedure, it has taken resort to a shortcut that solves part of the problem for a few, but leaves a bulk of land-losers and acquirers subject to the onerous procedures that the Act sets up. If the country agrees that a land acquisition law is necessary, let it debate how to make such a law efficient, fair and workable without being sidetracked into rhetorical grandstanding using the guise of farmers' interests.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author's own.