STATES MAY HOLD KEY TO LAND ACQUISITION

The search for a consensus on the land acquisition bill between the Narendra Modi government and large swathes of the opposition landscape doesn't seem any closer to resolution. A recent meeting called by Prime Minister Narendra Modi under the aegis of NITI Aayog, the successor to the Planning Commission, was boycotted by the chief ministers of all Congress-ruled states as well as Tamil Nadu and West Bengal.Given that the Congress has staked its revival on a pro-poor, pro-farmer and decidedly anti-industry stance, there is little chance of it coming around to support the NDA's amendments to the 2013 land bill that has brought acquisition across the country to a grinding halt.The two main sticking points are the provisions for taking the approvals of 70 per cent of land losers in the case of PPP projects and 80 per cent for private projects. The second contentious issue is the proposal to do away with the social impact assessment that could tie up acquisition proceedings in endless wrangling and delay projects for years if not decades.By positing the NDA's amendments, which does away with these two clauses for five classes of projects, as an anti-farmer provision designed to enable land grabbing by industrialists, the Congress has clearly drawn the battle lines in red.But the recently released Socio Economic Survey shows that the Opposition stance may be based only on a partial reality. It shows that a majority of India's rural population survives on seasonal casual labour and that in an overwhelming majority of rural households, the highest earner has an income of only Rs 5,000 ($83) per month.The only way to improve their lot is to provide them with alternative employment opportunities that agriculture cannot offer. The way out: fast industrialisation, rapid ramp-up in rural infrastructure and a massive roads and highway building programme that can absorb large numbers of unskilled and semi-skilled workers and provide them with sustainable livelihoods.Given this background, there is merit in the central government acquiescing to the demand from some states to allow them to come out with their own state-specific land acquisition laws that take into account local sensitivities and circumstances.States like Punjab and Uttar Pradesh already have laws that have been used to acquire vast tracts of land without any major disputes or agitations. For example, Uttar Pradesh recently acquired 3,000 hectares of fertile agricultural land for an important highway project by doing away with acquisition proceedings altogether.Instead, it negotiated the purchase of the land from owners by offering a price that was four times the circle rate (the official rate fixed by the government for land across the country) in rural are as and twice the rate in urban centres. Incidentally, the UPA's land acquisition law fixes the same quantum of compensation. This provision has been retained in the NDA law as well.If the states are, indeed, allowed to go ahead with their own land acquisition laws, it could make them relatively more attractive destinations than states that follow the UPA-era law. This would exert pressure on other industrialised states such as Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, which are opposing the NDA's amendments to come out with competitive legislations to stay in the race.Admittedly, this wouldn't be the ideal solution for the messy situation prevailing on the land bill but given the intractable logjam that shows no sign of resolution, it would be better than no law. In other words, half a loaf is better than no bread.

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