Tuesday, 30 September 2014

In Defence of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013

Photo source: FRONTLINE
The post liberalization Indian economic boom continues to create a voracious appetite for space to meet the demands of industrialization, infrastructure building, urban expansion and resource extraction. The emerging modern market completely depends on land resources, but Asian countries like India and China are facing a scarcity of land, specifically non-agricultural land. Indeed, land acquisition has become a most vexing problem for policymakers in India. Names like Singur, Nandigram, Kalinganagar, Jaitapur, and Bhatta Parsaul have entered the human lexicon as poignant metaphors of social conflict. The Left Front, which built a remarkable political hegemony in West Bengal largely on the basis of Operation Barga and land reforms, has been brought to its knees after a botched attempt at wresting a thousand acres for a car factory, illustrating how land issues have seismic potential in our political landscape. For those whose lands were acquired and people whose livelihoods depended on the lands acquired, a great human tragedy has unfolded. Independent estimates place the number of people displaced following development projects in India since independence at 60 million. Only a third of these people were resettled in a planned manner.

In this context, the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 offers a genuine protection and expansion of the rights and interests of the poor and vulnerable - as seen in its decentralized, participatory and time-bound approach, its emphasis on a just and informed and transparent process, inclusion of hitherto ignored aspects like rehabilitation and resettlement, comprehensive compensation package, ensuring improvement in standards of living of the all affected. In view of the recent criticisms from the right wing, several other political parties and the industrial lobby, there is need to protect the said Act from any amendments that would fundamentally alter its democratic principles and its ideal of social justice. At the heart of the matter, the question is not that of higher GDP on the back of the neoliberal political agenda but rather how can broad based development be achieved, keeping in mind the reality that growth effects are diffused through a political-economy of difference – that of class, caste, region etc. 

It has been suggested that the consent clause of the 2013 Act has virtually halted the process of land acquisition, that the Act violates federal provisions of the Indian constitution and the process of acquisition outlined, including the social impact assessment (SIA) exercise, is too cumbersome and impractical. Is there any merit in these criticisms?

The Act requires consent of 80% of all land losers in case of acquisition by private companies and 70% in case of PPPs. This provision has been severely criticised for making land acquisition virtually impossible, for dissuading private investment and industrial development and consequently being anti-growth, anti-jobs and therefore anti-people. What is not being voiced enough is that these provisions have been introduced in light of the experience of the previous colonial legislation which gave draconian powers to the state without any safeguards against the abuse of this power or against acquisition.

Criticisms against the Act for being against the federal spirit do not hold ground. It should be noted that though land is a state subject, land acquisition is mentioned in the concurrent list. The new Act is explicit on active state participation in the process of acquisition. Furthermore, crucial decision-making powers pertaining to whether land should be acquired, purchased or leased; the extent to which multi-cropped irrigated land can be acquired; ensuring rehabilitation and resettlement; determination of compensation etc vest with the states. Clearly then, all efforts have been made to protect the federal principle.

The importance of SIA and public hearings is unquestionable. It allows for a dialogue amongst stake-holders, to establish who will be affected (individual or community), what will be consequences of acquisition for them, what is it that the affected want and moreover, SIA encourages participation, sharing of information, transparency and accountability. This mechanism is now being critiqued as a complex and time-consuming administrative hassle for it involves an initial socio-economic profiling of the area, multiple hearings at different levels, allows time for information dissemination at various stages of the acquisition process etc. However, it should be highlighted here that the SIA exercise is time bound and the Act states that it has to be completed within six months. Removing or diluting this clause goes against the very grain of a just polity.     

There are various other clauses regarding which changes have been sought. For example, one observation is that penalty provisions against civil servants in case of any misconduct are too severe. It should be remembered though that assigning responsibility for one’s acts and holding them liable to them should not be considered as a negative feature, particularly given the way things work in this country. The comprehensive compensation package is seen as impractical, unsustainable and as substantially increasing the cost of land acquisition and making projects unviable. But for the first time, the interests and rights of the most vulnerable and marginalized sections of the Indian society have been protected and expanded. In India, land is not just a factor of production, a source of monetary income and employment; it is much more, land is an identity, and is an emotional and a social asset, the value of which cannot be gauged or is very difficult to be estimated only within economic and livelihood frames. 

The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 was drafted and subjected to extensive public debate before being enacted. Now changes are being proposed to it without any substantive basis, without public discussion and dialogue amongst the stakeholders. The Act is pro-poor, pro-tribals and pro-farmers; and is seen as an important mechanism to counter Naxalism. In fact, this legislation provides an opportunity for wider reforms, for instance, digitisation of land records, in the arena of registry etc. It has been in operation for too short a duration to judge its performance and any unilateral top-down changes may well spark violence – the very anti-thesis of the new Act’s objective. A briefing was organised by RGICS on 7th August 2014 to discuss the proposed amendment to this Act. The representatives of the farmer organisations such as Delhi Grameen Samaj, Bharatiya Kisan Union and Ekta Parishad have expressed their concerns to the over ten Members of Parliament. Shri. Jairam Ramesh, who was the main architect of this Act has an extensive discussion with the representatives. The Members of Parliament and farmer groups came to a consensus that a continuous nation-wide awareness campaign to mobilise support against the amendments is need of the hour to protect such well-crafted pro-poor revised Act, which came into existence after more than a century by replacing the colonial pro-corporate Act of 1897.  

Ishita Mehrotra