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Pointless concession

After weeks of protest over the land acquisition ordinance by opposition parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party government has blinked and made some concessions. The government has withdrawn the controversial amendment which stipulated that land could be acquired by the government for the ostensibly noble purpose of building private hospitals and educational institutions. Another notable change the government has introduced is allowing courts to take cognisance of an offence if committed by a government employee. The original ordinance promulgated by the government provided a blanket protection to civil servants from criminal prosecution as long as the civil servant had acted in good faith. This was problematic to say the least, primarily because it is hard to distinguish acts of good faith and those made with an ulterior motive. 

While opposition parties may claim victory, it is a pyrrhic victory at best as the original ordinance and its essence remain unchanged. The exemptions for social impact assessment remain in place along with the diluted requirements for consent. The present government has claimed that the ordinance will help clear bottlenecks in the process of building much needed infrastructure. Much skepticism has been heaped at this claim in the course of the past few months. For one the government’s claim that there is a humongous backlog of stalled infrastructure projects does not hold much water. Closer inspection reveals that a majority of infrastructure projects have been stalled because of a lack of clearance from the relevant government departments rather than a scarcity of land as the government is claiming.

The land acquisition ordinance is being touted by the present government as a much needed piece of public legislation aimed at creating direly needed public goods like bridges, canals for irrigation, roads and working ports. Here in lies the catch. By removing the consent clause and social impact assessment the government has effectively nullified the rights of the biggest stakeholders-the landowners themselves. This is particularly troublesome given the instances where previous governments have tried to acquire land forcibly under the guise of industrial development. Events at Nandigram, Niyamgiri,Kalahandi were prominent examples of the state’s annexation tendencies.

What was needed was a surgically limited intervention as public policy, instead the BJP has tried to promulgate a one-size fits all ordinance. The ordinance also fails to tackle the hard problems of the land acquisition process. The foremost question is whether the state should land only for public use or does it have a stake when a private commercial enterprise wants to buy land? This question becomes pertinent when the land is owned by a large number of owners each of whom may have differing expectations when it comes to the resale value of their land. Simply pegging the resale value at a predetermined rate won’t do. As a thumb rule, government should almost never be in the position of determining prices of land in the first place.

This problem becomes even more knotty when the project in question requires the land to be contiguous. Most land holdings in India are fragmented with land records and titles being in a mess. How does the government propose to acquire land when in most regions it’s unclear who the legitimate owner of the land is? By devising a piece of legislation which fails to resolve both the ethical and legal quandaries in the land acquisition process the government has not only opened itself up to charges of crony capitalism in the future, it has also opened a pandora’s box of sorts.

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