Re-promulgation a huge misstep
India’s agrarian discontent is fast brewing due to nascent weather-related aberrations. Nevertheless, the Modi government continues its inexplicable, yet single-minded pursuit of the land bill. The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 enacted by the UPA government was passed after an all-party consensus. However, when the NDA government came to power in May 2014, it sought to bring new amendments to the Act. To pull this off, the Modi government had to resort to promulgating an ordinance for the first time last year. The ordinance was later replaced by a bill.
Even as all the nine amendments moved by the ruling party were approved by the Lok Sabha, it could not take this to the upper house where the Bharatiya Janata Party lacks the requisite majority. So, for a second time, the ordinance was re-issued in March of this year. In the meanwhile, a joint committee of 30 members of Parliament was set up to study the amendments and come out with its report in the forthcoming monsoon session.
But even as the Joint Committee was holding its first meeting, the very next day the Union Cabinet decided to promulgate the ordinance amending the 2013 LAA for the third time. Given the reality that there is a parliamentary process under way, the Cabinet’s decision to proceed with re-promulgating the ordinance betrays the nervousness of the treasury benches. It is small wonder that the All India Kisan Sabha urged the government to treat the ordinance as “null and void” till the House panel completes its tasks and Parliament takes a considered view of the amendments proposed and carried out by the ruling party in the Lok Sabha.
In just a year, with an absolute majority in the lower house, the ruling party has clamped as many as 13 ordinances including the third time on land acquisition. An exasperated President Pranab Mukherjee was reportedly against the frequent use of ordinance route. However, still he signed off on the ordinance!
With the Modi government holding the manifestly erroneous view that expediting the land bill would ensure ease of doing business in India so that acquisition of land for projects does not come in the way of the economy cruising on a high growth path, the issue is bound to be sticky. Most Opposition parties trying to re-group found a cause in farmers at a time when rural distress is acute. No wonder there is a virtual scramble among all and sundry to take up the cudgels on behalf of the beleaguered domestic farmers albeit the government’s justification that it had to resort to the ordinance route only to “ensure continuity” so that “farmers don’t face hardships on compensation.
The 2013 land law, the direct successor to the 1894 Land Acquisition Act that emerged after several rounds of stakeholders’ meeting including with the then leading Opposition the Bharatiya Janata Party had its first draft placed in public domain in July 2011. The catch of that 2013 Act was that the time expended to acquire land under it would increase significantly but in the process it ensured minimal social conflict that inevitably followed the process of land acquisition. In essence, the 2013 Act ensured the enforcement of a minimum acceptable standard vis a vis four things, according to the former Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh, who piloted the Bill and got it into Act after protracted talks with all stakeholders over a couple of months.
These include, he contends, consent, social impact assessment (SIA), compensation and rehabilitation and resettlement. But the NDA which came to power in May 2014 suddenly found no merit in the 2013 Act and gratuitously introduced certain questionable amendments including the removal of social impact assessment and consent clause that created a new opportunity to stage protests politics by disparate Opposition parties.
With Prime Minister Modi asserting that the land bill is “not a matter of life or death for me” as it is an initiative in response to a demand from the States (land acquisition being on the concurrent list with States having their own land acquisition laws), wisdom lies in evolving a certain minimum acceptable standards on basic things like consent, SIA, compensation and rehabilitation and resettlement.
This is crucial because those who part with their land holdings do so with their livelihood asset and they need fair compensation in a transparent and efficient manner with assured re-settlement for any one member of their family. So from the standpoint of farmers, it is a matter of life and death to them and the State needs to be sensitive and project owners, who eye their lands, should have a modicum of mercy to see that the farmers do not lose outright by trading their small holding for myriad misery and poverty in perpetuity.
When the government extends so many open and hidden concessions and tax sops to entrepreneurs of all types with banks particularly oblivious to the massive borrowings of the big industrial houses, it
is time the small farmer is not deprived of his fair compensation.
The State has a moral duty to be on the side of the weak and the vulnerable and not on the side of the robber barons who bamboozle their way with impunity. There is substance and substantial merit in the weighty words of the distinguished farm scientist Dr M.S Swaminathan when he lamented that “suicides by farmers have not stopped and agrarian distress has become more severe. The land acquisition act has generated considerable controversy”. If what he adverted to is the land acquisition act of 2013 or the still-born one that remains equally controversial, the authorities need to be more watchful of the game and gambit they play on hapless farmers lest the fallout should be frightening.
With the Modi government’s first anniversary celebration over, the farmers of the nation ought to get the deserved focus so that their hard labour is rewarded. Political parties of varied hues across the country including the regional satraps need to introspect on how best they could help the domestic farmers to cope with the vagaries of nature and a volley of man-made policy fallacies that threaten to drive them to despair. Unless rural India’s and agrarian health are in the pink, the economy will sink into a mire of slow growth momentum, the recovery from which would be intractable. IPA