The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government’s land acquisition ordinance has come under fire from social activist Anna Hazare, the face of the Indian Against Corruption movement, and 5,000 farmers. On Monday they will walk to Jantar Mantar in the national capital to assert their disgruntlement against the ordinance, which they believe will go against the rights of those in rural India. Allied with Hazare, the protest, under the banner of P V Rajagopal’s Ekta Parishad, will see the likes of Medha Patkar, Dr Sunilam, RSS ideologue K N Govindacharya and Aam Aadmi Party. It is, however, imperative to establish context before discussing the matter. The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 (LARR Act), was enacted by the erstwhile United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. It replaced an antiquated colonial era law which enabled the government to grab land arbitrarily in the name of public purpose. In December 2014 the present government promulgated an ordinance which made substantial changes to the LARR act. In the past few months this aforementioned ordinance has quickly become an emotive issue against which opposition parties have spoken out in unison. The ordinance has become a call to arms of sorts for opposition parties who have questioned everything regarding the ordinance, from the legitimacy of trying to push such an important piece of public legislation through the means of an ordinance, the diluted social impact assessment and consent clauses, for profit hospitals and educational institutions being exempt from the said assessment, among others. Supporters of the ordinance, who are equally vociferous, point out that the LARR act was too rigid and would have dissuaded investors from investing in big ticket projects by making the process of land acquisition too costly, time consuming and prone to bureaucratic meddling. In addition, the BJP believes it has the backing of the States on the Land Acquisition Ordinance after holding meetings with several State revenue secretaries, who all allegedly demanded that the process of acquiring land for major projects be made easier.
A key element, however, which many have overlooked, is that there exists no ready market for agricultural land. Supporters of the ordinance state that there is no dearth of people willing to sell their lands and relocate. While this may be true it is next to impossible to sell agricultural land in most parts of the country. This is because of a variety of reasons. The most prominent reason is that land title and records in the country are an unseemly mess and it is extremely difficult to discern who owns what. Most land owners have no valid land deeds and if they do contain several inaccuracies. As of the present moment there is no national register of land deeds, which is universally accessible. Given this reality how would the land acquisition process even proceed? How do you compensate someone fairly for land in the absence of valid land records? How does one litigate land disputes which arise during the acquisition process? Before moving forward with getting the land acquisition ordinance passed it is imperative that the present government address these concerns.