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Drastic changes in land acquisition law

The “land acquisition law” bearing Rahul Gandhi’s imprint, enacted by the UPA government last year, came under all-round attack from states, including those ruled by Congress, raising the prospect of drastic changes in its provisions.

The meeting of state revenue ministers called by Union rural development minister Nitin Gadkari on Friday saw Congress-ruled states joining those under BJP and others to unanimously seek changes in the law, dubbed as a hurdle in acquisition and industrialization. West Bengal was the sole exception as it maintains that forcible acquisition should not be allowed even for government projects.

While the vociferous demand of BJP-ruled states like Goa, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Gujarat to repeal the law was unlikely to be met, sources said there could be significant changes in the existing act.

The meeting may put Congress in a cleft-stick, given that its own state governments opposed important provisions that UPA had projected as a “fair deal” for farmers who have been at the receiving end of the outdated acquisition law of 1894.

Maharashtra and Haryana opposed the retrospective application of the law as laid down while Karnataka, Kerala, Meghalaya, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh protested against specific clauses.

Uttar Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal, ruled by regional parties, expressed serious reservations against the law. Delhi lieutenant governor Najeeb Jung opposed key provisions and sought exemption for the capital.

The consensus will encourage the Centre to go ahead with its plan to change the law about which BJP and other parties had serious reservations. However, they went along with UPA since they were chary of opposing an initiative which Congress aggressively touted as ‘pro-farmer’. The build-up against the act across the entire political spectrum will fortify the government against any charge of betrayal of farmers’ interests.

However, while the stand of Congress governments at the meeting on Friday bolsters its case for amendments, it is likely to avoid any cut in compensation and rehabilitation package to pre-empt attacks from the civil society.

Coming just ahead of the budget, the consensus against the bill should bode well for the effort of the Modi government to revive investment climate. Industry has criticized the bill as “impractical” and a “stumbling block”.

The widespread opposition to the bill became evident as soon as the Tamil Nadu government complained that there had been no acquisition in the state since the last six months when the law came into force. The lament was endorsed by other states..

Now, it may be up to the Congress leadership to decide if to flow with the tide or to up the ante to make a political point by accusing the Centre of “putting industry ahead of farmers”.

But the outcome of the meeting has clearly emboldened those who seek major changes in the law. As a government source said, “Our amendments to the law would be based on what Congress states have demanded. Now, let the Congress decide for itself what it wants.”

Report to PM Modi in 10 days

Nitin Gadkari told reporters that he would send a report to the Prime Minister within ten days on the changes sought by the states, making clear that the Centre is in a hurry to seal the issue. Thus, whatever the political reaction would be evident in the budget session of parliament starting on July 7.

The brunt of the attack was borne by the clause on Social Impact Assessment (SIA), mandatory consent of gram sabhas (up to 80%) to acquisition, urgency clause, restriction on acquisition of cultivable land.

Most states demanded scrapping of SIA, claiming it would put off any acquisition by two years. The same reason was cited against the ‘consent clause’ that states that an acquisition for a private project should be approved by 80% of affected families and for Public Private Partnership by 70% families.

Congress-ruled Kerala was the most vociferous in its opposition, questioning virtually every important section ranging from consent to fixing of compensation, social impact assessment and the urgency clause.

Uttarakhand and HP said the restriction on acquisition of cultivable, multi-cropped land was unfair since most of it in these states was notified forest land. Uttarakhand said that it be allowed to treat degraded forest land as wasteland so that it could be acquired or developed in lieu of acquisition of cultivable land as the law requires.

The hill states as well as UP demanded that the states be allowed to determine “urgency” that allows them to acquire land without following the elaborate procedures. As of now, any urgency other than national defence and calamity would have to be cleared by Parliament.

Union territories like Andaman Nicobar, Lakshdweep, and Daman and Diu lamented that the interests of the small states were ignored in drafting the bill. Lakshdweep said it was just 32 sq km.

The call for changes to “right to fair compensation and transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013” started with the very title of the law that was said to be unnecessarily long and unwieldy.

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