Millennium Post

Honesty paradigm and the land acquisition bill row

Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States, said, ‘Honesty is the best policy’. Honesty is a relative term in politics. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) made it an election issue and ran a blistering campaign. Honesty is a strong political message, but it is detrimental if it’s delusive. The recent row on the amendments in the land acquisition law is a potent example to examine the scope of honesty in politics.

In the August 2013 parliament session, top leaders of the BJP, Rajnath Singh and Sushma Swaraj, applauded the Congress party minister Jairam Ramesh’s ‘hard work’ to make the bill acceptable. The bill replaced the 1984 land acquisition law, and it was considered a statute promising transparency and fair compensation. Then BJP, in opposition, supported the bill, and now BJP, the ruling party, refers the bill as a ‘stringent land acquisition law’, which it wants to amend without the opposition’s support. An apparent reason is change of leadership and its newly installed vision. 

Earlier Swaraj was the leader of the opposition and now Narendra Modi is the prime minister, and she is a minister in the cabinet. But could this change of leadership alter the long-term vision of the party and its stand on important laws? The answer was evident in finance minister Arun Jaitely comments on the law, ‘Some changes are necessary. We will first try to reach a consensus and if that is not possible we will go ahead and take the decision...’ BJP’s honest stand on the bill has been diluted. The honesty in politics, which  the party referred to, during the election campaign seems to have become a matter of perception and interpretation.

The 1894 Land Acquisition law was a draconian set of rules, which became an instrument of abuse. The debate on the amendments in the British Raj law centred around two key clauses: what type of land is to be acquired by the government? and what mechanism would it involve- the issue of ownership acquisition or lease? The law was replaced after close to two years of intense intra party consultations and parliamentary debates.  Singh, who is now home minister, was part of an 11-hour-long debate over the bill, and said the party was going to vote in favour of the bill.

The amended bill was an easy win for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, as recommendations of most political parties and state governments were introduced in the bill. Swaraj asked the house to thump the desk for the minister. Then, BJP believed that a consultative approach reinforces belief in democracy. The passage of the bill highlights the importance of political sensitivity on the issue of consent (70 per cent of land owners) before acquiring the land for government or private use. But the prime minister, who was not in the parliament, last year, seems to reckon that the bill has shortcomings, and it should be changed without opposition’s support.

Reportedly, the government intends to exempt public-partnership (PPP) projects from the need to obtain consent of families along with the mandatory social-impact assessment, through amendments. The risks associated with the proposed land acquisitions are grave. Poor and small farmers without formal land titles currently occupy much of the land involved in these transactions. The previous government acknowledged the importance of consent and social-impact assessment, therefore adopted a pro poor approach. A staggering number of families are rendered destitute by acquisition carried out for dams, irrigation projects and power plants. One of the important clauses of the bill is the retrospective clause.  Recently the Supreme Court upheld and cited the retrospective clause of UPA’s land acquisition law to free the land of a housing society in Tamil Nadu from arbitrary acquisition by the state and ordered to return the land to its original owners. This is one of the key features of the current law; and it saved several families.

The BJP leadership believes it has an honest approach for development and it is important to remove obstacles in the path. The leadership reckons the land bill is a deterrent to investment, which benefits the country. The current land law would derail the development process. Carl Jung, Swiss psychiatrist, observed people with delusions are ‘consumed by a desire to create a new world system....’ Therefore delusive honesty would have a radicalised belief, which would prompt haste and disapproval of a consultative dialogue. The over bearing size of this very new and different vision from what is traditional may lead to singular control over the system, which might undermine the process of consultation and reaching a consensus.  

The pro poor agenda of the bill will be vitiated by obvious rapidity. Investment opportunities cannot supersede the consent of the land owners. The Constitution of India guarantees the right to livelihood, and consent is a powerful tool to uphold this right. The UPA government valued this consent and gave it a constitutional validity via amendments in the land acquisition law. The ruling government talks implementation of the concept of smart cities in India and development for all, but loses its focus on key policy issues. In a developing economy, opportunities and risks abound but if the government is not willing to mitigate the risks, then the land acquisition law has the potential to benefit few and marginalise many.

The government can look into policy suggestions for equitable investment and benefit-sharing for all stakeholders. To ease the investment opportunities, the government should develop a sustainable model to address issues regarding land acquisition and fair compensation. For example, in case of forest land, consent of forest dwellers and tribals is very important, as the forest is the only source of their livelihood. The government cannot snatch their livelihood and expect them to stay silent. If this is the state to be inclined at, then it should foresee the unrest. Unrest is not a positive sign for a developing economy. But the road to development begins with the consent of the people.
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