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Misplaced priorities

In a significant development, the Union Cabinet on Monday exerted its executive powers to make it easier to acquire land in five key sectors including power, affordable housing, security and defence and infrastructure. Speaking at a press conference, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitely said that the sectors mentioned above would neither require the approval of 80 per cent of affected landowners nor would they need a social impact study involving public hearings, as per the land acquisition bill passed by the previous regime.

The Modi-led government’s move comes at a time when Indian industry has been lobbying hard for the dilution of what it deems to be ‘restrictive rules’ for land acquisition.  Restrictions on acquiring land, among other barriers, had reportedly held up projects worth $300 billion, according to various news reports. Although the government has not amended a provision in the previous bill, which stated that compensation to landholders will be four times the market price in rural India and two times in urban India, civil society groups have said that relaxing other norms will lead to land grabbing in the name of development.

The amended law explains at length how rehabilitation and resettlement is to be done, but for the time being it is all on paper. However, the fears raised by civil society groups are not unfounded considering prior experiments by the previous central government to boost investment in the manufacturing sector, for example projects that were set up in Special Economic Zones (SEZ). Last month, a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General said that the policy ended up diverting huge tracts of land acquired for setting up manufacturing facilities and generating jobs towards real estate projects, which provided quick profits for the corporate entities involved. However, the present government has not yet answered a fundamental question. Who owns a particular piece of land is still unclear. Without definitive and coherent rules for issuing land titles, the whole issue surrounding monetary compensation falls into a right mess, leaving farmers vulnerable to forcible eviction. In fact land records in many regions have not been updated for decades. Therefore, one fears that the government’s priority in this regard is misplaced.
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