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Whose land is it anyway?

Whose land is it anyway?
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 a key, 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 said social impact assessment, etc. 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 and political meddling.

Support for the ordinance also stems from the glaring fact that India is a country direly in need of robust infrastructure. It needs roads, bridges and working ports if it seeks to fuel growth. The pace of infrastructure growth has been abysmally slow because of policy paralysis and bureaucratic indifference in the previous regime. Moreover investors refuse to invest in an economy where they have to jump through seventy hoops of fire before their project even becomes operational. Hence the magic bullet solution is to remove unwieldy government regulation and pave the way for big business to invest and stimulate growth. The only problem is that such a narrative is extremely reductive and simplistic.

Despite the stealthy emergence of a shadowy business class that can afford to throw money from the window to acquire land, there is still a large majority of stakeholders, who will be left unsatisfied by the current land acquisition ordinance. This dissatisfaction stems from a complex set of factors.
The first and most obvious factor is the difficulty of enacting a set of land reforms which satisfies all stakeholders concerned. Land reforms were and will continue to be a hot button issue in a country where more often than not the only source of economic security is land itself. Entry 18 of List II of the Constitution brings land, and rights over land, under the domain of the State Legislatures. As a consequence, the statutory framework of land reform in the country has been diverse. Since independence there has been no one size fits all land reform in India, with dissent being a regular feature of the political process. A recent example of this is Assam, which has rejected the Centre’s land acquisition ordinance and sought to introduce a new land reform legislation altogether.

This diversity in statutory framework has led to policy innovations too. An example is Kerala where field visits were initiated by the land record officials to ensure accurate documentation of land boundaries.

The second cause for concern is the diluted requirements for social impact assessment and consent. The land acquisition bill exempts industrial corridors, national security related projects, rural infrastructure, housing for the poor and social infrastructure projects from social impact assessment requirements. The consent clause has also been reduced.

This raises two important questions. Now that the mandatory consent clause has been removed for a vast swathe of projects, won’t farmers and others landowners be more vulnerable to land grabbing? If there is no need to assess the social impact of a particular class of infrastructure projects on landowners then on what basis would they be compensated? Hopefully any compensation provided would not solely be on the basis of market prices, which are readily susceptible to manipulation from the land mafia. In an effort to protect the farmer, has the land acquisition ordinance ensured that the farmer gets very little value for the land he sells? It remains to be seen whether this is true.

Combine the exemptions for social impact assessment in the land acquisition ordinance with the TSR Subramanian committee recommendations (which if implemented fully leave a vast majority of forests in the country deeply vulnerable to polluting projects) and you have a potentially nightmarish scenario where forests and ecologically sensitive areas are wantonly destroyed in the name of building infrastructure. This would be a deadly cocktail of public legislation to say the least.

Critics of the ordinance have also pointed out that in the past land has been acquired for the sake of public purposes and used in deeply unethical ways. The CAG report on special economic zones contains the rather disturbing revelation that the Reliance industries promoted SEZ in Navi Mumbai had got over 1,250 hectares of prime real estate at Dronagiri in Maharashtra in 2006 for a multi-product SEZ. No industrial unit has however been built on the land till now. The CAG also found that several industrial houses had raised loans of Rs. 6,309.53 crore mortgaging leasehold government land. This raises the pertinent question-would such transgressions-committed ostensibly under the name of land acquired for public purposes become more common under the present land acquisition ordinance?

Last but not the least is the often overlooked reality 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 stakeholder concerns in a timely, just and reasonable manner.
Rinchen Norbu

Rinchen Norbu

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