Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill: In whose interest and with what aim?

An amendment to the Land Acquisition Act is expected to be tabled in Parliament during the monsoon session this year.

It may be recalled that the Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill, 2007 was introduced in the Lok Sabha by the then Rural Development Minister, Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, on December 6, 2007 (Bill No.97 of 2007). It was then referred to the Standing Committee on Rural Development. The committee submitted its report to Parliament in October 2008, and official amendments to the Bill were cleared by the Group of Ministers in December 2008. It was rechristened the Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill, 2009, and passed by the last Lok Sabha on the penultimate day of its tenure, February 25, 2009 (Bill No.97-C of 2007). The government tabled the Bill in the Rajya Sabha on February 26, 2009, but could not ensure its passage before the House adjourned. The Bill lapsed after the constitution of the current Lok Sabha and the return of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) to power in May 2009.

The existing legislation concerning the acquisition of land is the colonial 1894 Land Acquisition Act, which allows the state to acquire whatever land that it deems to be necessary “for public purpose” and “for companies”.  Starting in the 1990s when the liberalisation and privatisation program was initiated, the appetite of the biggest capitalist corporations to acquire large tracts of lands for mining, industrial and commercial projects has been growing at an accelerated pace.  The first UPA Government passed the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) Act in 2005, to complement the colonial legislation.  Backed by these central laws, state governments have been acquiring massive tracts of land for profitable investments by capitalist monopoly houses.

The acquisition of land for the benefit of capitalist projects has met with sustained opposition in various states all over the country.  Masses of people have opposed such land acquisition on numerous grounds, including that (i) they are deprived of their vital assets and main source of livelihood, with unreliable promises of being compensated in the future; (ii) such promises are rarely fulfilled, and whatever compensation they have received in the past is grossly inadequate; and (iii) the aim is to maximise capitalist profits and not to promote any ‘public purpose’. Such conflicts and the use of brute force by the state in many cases have highlighted the fact that the existing laws are loaded in favour of the capitalist corporations and in violation of the people’s rights.

This is the context in which the UPA Government is now proposing to amend the law governing land acquisition.  In the meanwhile, the National Advisory Committee (headed by Sonia Gandhi) had set up its working group to go into the issue. On May 25, the NAC announced its recommendation and guidelines on the issues land acquisition. The government is yet to reveal what it will accept from all the suggested amendments to the existing legislation made so far.

Proposed amendments

The 2007 Amendment to the colonial Land Acquisition Act proposed replacing the clause “for public purpose and for companies” by “for public use”. This amended law would allow land to be acquired for any project of “public use” undertaken by “a person”, with the provision that if such a ‘person’ (which legally includes corporations) were to purchase 70% of the land required for the project, the remaining 30% would be forcibly acquired by the state. 

The proposal was based on the premise that those who do not wish to part with their land have no rights if they are in the ‘minority’.They can be compelled to part with their land if many others have sold their plots. This means that even if the people of an entire village or a tribal community are unwilling to part with their land at any price, they can be overruled if they constitute less than 30% of a larger group. The definition of this ‘larger group’ is entirely arbitrary. It consists of all those affected by a project proposed by some capitalists. It depends entirely on the extent of land that some capitalist investors wish to acquire.

The recommendations made by the NAC deal in the main with the issue of compensation to be offered to the affected families. It has recommended that compensation to the owners of the land be set at 6 times the value of the registered sale deed; it has also talked about compensation to non-land owners who will be deprived of their livelihood, with a grant amounting to 10 days of work per month for 33 years at minimum wages. It also promises first preference in available employment in commercial projects in conformity with their skills.

The NAC has recommended that the law should ensure that the process will explore all possible options of acquiring more barren and less fertile and waste land before acquiring agricultural land. It has also suggested combining the Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill, and Resettlement and Rehabilitation Bill into a single National Development, Acquisition, Displacement and Rehabilitation Bill. 

These recommendations are being presented as being more people-friendly than the 2007 and 2009 Bills.

Real reasons underlying the proposed amendments

In colonial times, when agriculture was the predominant occupation of the vast majority of people in our country, there was hardly any peasant who was willing to sell his plot of land.  In such conditions, acquisition of agricultural land for industrial investments by capitalist companies could be achieved only through the use of force by the colonial state.  The land acquisition law of 1894 served this purpose.

In today’s conditions, when agriculture has become increasingly risky and less remunerative, peasants are generally divided between those who are willing to sell provided they get a good enough price, and those who are not willing to sell at any price.  In many places, the capitalists expect that the majority will agree to sell if the price offered is made more attractive.  They know that in any case, the price of the land in question will multiply several times once it is converted for industrial or commercial use.

Given that the old colonial Land Acquisition Act has led to violent conflicts, and has been exposed as being pro-capitalist, anti-peasant and anti-tribal, the big capitalists think they can make some ‘concessions’ and still achieve their goal.  This is the real reason why they want to amend the law at this time.

While pretending to be in favour of the peasants and tribal peoples who stand to lose their land and livelihood, the NAC is in fact proposing changes for the benefit of the capitalists. “The government will be acquiring 100 per cent of the land for public purpose by offering very good compensation to landowners. If the public purpose is being served by a private industry, then government will acquire land for them as well,” a NAC member is reported to have told the media, after the May 25 meeting of the NAC chaired by Sonia Gandhi. The NAC has suggested that written consent of 75 percent of the farmers and gram sabhas must be obtained before acquiring their land for development projects. It implies that the rest 25 percent will have to follow suit.

While it claims to be interested in ensuring a higher level of compensation, one of the NAC members has clarified that the entire cost of compensation to be borne by the big industrial houses comes to only 3.5% of the project costs.  Most importantly, the NAC member has gone on record that its recommendations are aimed at facilitating rapid acquisition of land and smooth transfer of control into the hands of the capitalists, while trying to give a better deal to those who will lose their land.

Conclusions

Those who till the land have the right to security of tenure and of livelihood.  This cannot and must not be negated for the benefit of capitalist profiteers.

Any law that allows agricultural, forest or mineral-rich land to be acquired in the interests of capitalists against the will of any set of peasants or tribal peoples is in violation of their basic rights and must be opposed.

The proposed amendments to the Land Acquisition Act are aimed at legitimising the so-called ‘right’ of capitalist monopolies to get hold of whatever tracts of land they want in order to reap maximum profits.

We must demand immediate repeal of the 1894 Land Acquisition Act and the 2005 SEZ Act.  We must agitate for new land legislation based on the principle of harmonising the interests of different users of the land with one another and with the general interest of society.  Such a law should protect the rights of the tillers, of forest dwellers, tribal peoples and other traditional users of land.  We must demand an immediate halt to private purchase of land or purchase by government on behalf of private interests, pending the adoption of such a new legislative framework.

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