The Indian government led by Modi has proposed a series of wide-ranging reforms to the Land Acquisition Bill which, in my personal view, will have a deleterious effect on the nation and her people.
The long and the short of this new Bill is that it will allow for the government to take over land from landowners without sufficient due diligence or understanding the social impacts in the name of ‘public interest’ whilst not actually defining what this ‘public interest’ may mean.
The proposed Land Acquisition Bill fails the most material principles of the Indian Constitution – that of democracy, welfare, justice and equality.
For almost one hundred and twenty years, India’s land acquisition was governed by the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 which was a fundamentally exploitative, oppressive and inherently unjust piece of colonial legislation. Since Independence, over 50 million people have been displaced in the name of development. A large segment of the displaced includes entire scheduled tribal communities. The vast majority of the displaced have faced declines in the quality of life, received inadequate compensation and have ended up being marginalised in their own lands.
The Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (LARR) Act of 2013 was subsequently passed with the official mandate to support the twin objectives of farmer welfare along with the strategic development of the country.
When Modi and his government took over, they decided that they wanted to amend a number of major aspects of the LARR as one of their core priorities. The proposed amendments have drawn widespread condemnation and flak, not just from the opposition, but from within the ruling party itself and more importantly the majority of the populace, particularly those within the rural community.
Flawed analysis leading to incorrect conclusions
Part of the problem arises from the fact that current Indian administration’s economic analyses predicated on the notion that greater freedom by the State and large commercial interests in acquiring land and property will promote accelerated economic growth. Land acquisition is often cited as an impediment to India’s growth and India’s policymakers and a number of corporate-sponsored industry bodies would have us believe that having a draconian bill to confiscate land is the panacea to India’s economic ailments.
On the contrary, according to a Ministry of Finance-led Economic Survey of 2014/2015, it is less than 1% of projects that have stalled in India as a result of land acquisition issues.
India’s true obstacles to economic progress include corruption (which imposes a cost of between 1% to 3% of total GDP), tax evasion and ultimately a lack of a consistent and coherent economic policy.
Land grabs by the State actually have a huge cost, both economic and societal, for India. An unfair and unjust land acquisition campaign will only serve to further exacerbate the problem of rising income inequality and social disparity that remains a stain on India. The economic, social and environmental cost of displacement and conversion of forests/agricultural land towards industrial assets have never been truly understood or analysed by the government.
The ownership of land is a fundamental basis of livelihood and subsistence for a majority of Indians. Mere monetary compensation, without a resulting benefit in the form of employment will have devastating consequences for farmers, farmhands, artisans and other individuals whose livelihoods depend on agriculture and farming. Forest tribes, adivasis (large segments of tribal and aboriginal groups in India) and dalits (the most marginalised segments of the Indian population) who have been impacted as a result of past land acquisitions will in turn be even more marginalised and suffer even more inequity and exploitation.
The current Indian government is pushing for its “Make in India” slogan. There is no point making in India, if it does not benefit the majority of Indians and only serves to undermine and taint India.
The problems with the proposed amendments
There are a number of serious problems with the amendments being proposed by the government.
First and foremost is the deletion of the clause to consider the social impact assessment of the land acquisition. Without the ability to assess the possible adverse impact a potential land acquisition has on people in an area, how can we truly understand the externalities (negative or otherwise) and make an informed judgement about the wisdom of acquiring the land. How will we be able to say, to a high degree of comfort, that the benefits of the land acquisition will indeed be substantively higher than the resultant costs and consequences and benefit a broader segment of society?
Secondly, agricultural land has to be viewed as strategic assets designed to support the development of the nation in order to preserve food security. We have seen countless nations, who in their rush to convert viable agricultural land into vast sweeping industrial or tourist outposts, have lost their ability to feed and serve their people and have had to resort to food import in order to sustain themselves. It can be argued that agricultural efficiencies have improved and that the same output can be delivered with a smaller land area – but in order for this to be truly understood, there has to be a clear understanding and assessment of impacts, which this government does not want to do either. India cannot surrender her independence in her ability to feed, serve and protect her people.
Thirdly, the previous Act had a provision which required the consent of 80% of affected individuals prior to the land acquisition. The amendments proposed will allow for the government to unilaterally acquire land without the permission of the people who depend on the land. The principles of democratic conventions are being violated here. Unlike a few other countries, India’s rule of law is not enforced by a dictatorship of some nature or under a command economy where all ownership belongs to the State. India is a democracy – a government of the people, by the people, for the people. With the proposed amendment, the state will be a government of a very small group of people, by the faceless/nameless corporates and industries, and certainly not for the people.
Fourthly, the amendments themselves are vague and, it appears, intentionally ambiguous. ‘Public purpose’ has not been clearly defined and no indicators are being proposed to indicate whether the nation benefits and aids the welfare of all. Five categories of projects are being proposed (national security and defence; rural infrastructure; affordable housing; industrial corridors; and infrastructure (including public-private partnership projects (PPPs)) which are being defined in the broadest possible way which will allow for the government and their industry and corporate partners to acquire/confiscate land without a robust case. It is the absence of a sufficiently strong check and balance that is the biggest cause for concern here.
As the law stands, if no development takes place on acquired land within five years, it has to be returned to the people. This has also now been amended and the land can be held on indefinitely from the time of purchase with no recourse made available to the people who are being impacted. Under the amendments, more land than is required can also be acquired by the government, including the purchase of an additional one kilometre of land on both sides of an industrial corridor – which again will have severe debilitating effects on farmers and small land owners. There is also no consideration of efficiency on the part of the industries and the state looking to acquire the land for their uses and it does not spur or promote more efficient use of the land and instead ends up subsidising the absence of efficiency improvements made by industries.
Finally and most fundamentally, the proposed amendments to the Land Acquisition Bill violate the principles of individual liberty and human rights. What this Bill does is redistribute land away from the poor and the most vulnerable to the richest and most privileged segments of society. The principles of prior consent and recognition of the societal and economic impacts on the people most directly impacted by any land acquisition is essentially a land grab by those who can from those who cannot do anything about it.
Land is not just a mere economic commodity or factor of production to a large number of people who will be affected by the proposed amendments of the Land Acquisition Bill. Land is a source of life, of sustenance, of faith and of hope. It is a function of the culture of the people who depend on it, be it the farmers, the forest tribes or the dalits. It is a source of livelihood, of dignity through employment and of a symbol of progress and growth.
India can only truly progress, economically and socially, if there is an improvement in the lives of all Indians and not just a select and privileged few.
A nation must be judged not just on what economic progress it has made but on how it has enhanced the welfare of its most vulnerable constituents.
The proposed amendments violate the principles of the Indian Constitution which dictate that India remains a sovereign, socialist, secular and a democratic republic. Socialism and democracy will be the first casualties if this Bill comes to pass – for how can a nation claim to be democratic when it tramples over the rights of its own people to own land without a proper recourse and safeguards.
The amendments to the Land Acquisition Bill must be opposed at all costs. At stake here is not just about India’s principles of fairness and equity for her people but about the future of a prosperous India which benefits all and not just a select few.