Monday, March 23, 2015

Snatching away the rights of farmers

The land law promulgated by the Modi-led government is blatantly anti-farmer

23 March 2015, New Delhi, Pankaj Sharma

Few months back, I saw the prime minister, back from one of his visits abroad, telling the country with mist in his eyes, that even during his foreign trip he was thinking about the farmer and the tribal. I did not believe him at that time. But now I fully trust Narendra ‘Bhai’ Modi; I believe that his mind was busy overtime to find out ingenious ways on how to grab the land of poor farmers and tribals, this he promptly did by enacting a law for the acquisition of land in the name of development that is heavily tilted in the interests of the captains of industry and their corporate colleagues.

A few days ago, Nitin Gadkari, a senior minister in the Modi-government and former president of the Bhartiya Janta Party had asked Congress President Sonia Gandhi and social activist Anna Hazare to have a open debate on the bill. Does he think that any discussion in the parliament will not be open in nature? Can he enlighten us as to why the bill is facing extraordinary opposition across the country? Why is this move being seen in favour of ‘Big Business’ to the detriment of farmers and landless labours? Sonia Gandhi led a march to Rashtrapati Bhawan with leaders and members of the parliament of 13 opposition parties to oppose the land bill. The Modi-government is planning to counter this opposition push by sending union ministers belonging to different states to canvass support for the bill and spread the message that the Lok Sabha has already approved the amendments in the bill and opposition is playing obstructionist politics in Rajya Sabha. This is a tenuous claim at best.

The erstwhile Congress-led UPA government’s 2013 land law was a fine balance between the need to acquire land for industrialisation and urbanisation and the need to protect interests of farmers, landless labourers and livelihood losers. But the Modi-government’s amendments to that law do away with the critical clause of Social Impact Assessment(SIA): The SIA is an essential safeguard to prevent illegal diversion of acquired land, to prevent acquisition of excess land and to ensure that acquisition of multi-cropped irrigated land would only be a last resort, if at all. The Social Impact Assessment was to be carried out in no more than six months; it would also identify livelihood losers entitled to compensation and Rehabilitation & Resettlement benefits. The BJP has essentially nullified this vital safeguard. The amendments by the present government also do away with clause which made it compulsory to seek the consent of 80% of farmers in case of acquisition for private projects and consent of 70% of farmers for Private Public Partnership projects; this exemption for consent has been made for a large number of key projects. This opens the doors for forcible acquisition as was permitted under the Land Acquisition Act, 1894; which the 2013 law replaced. In addition to this, industrial corridors which have been exempted from seeking consent and earlier would have been evaluated through the SIA, can now acquire a large area of additional land. This would have been virtually impossible under the original 2013 law. The amendments remove the time limit of five years for return of land to farmers if the acquired land is not put to use; thus leaving the issue of usage to the discretion of the acquiring body.

The BJP government has also changed the retrospective provision present in the 2013 bill; which returned land to farmers, This is a significant change which goes against recent Supreme Court judgments on these provisions. As a result, lakhs of farmers whose land had been acquired under the 1894 Act, but had not accepted compensation or their land had yet to be taken physical possession of, will be immediately disqualified from the benefit of having their land returned under the 2013 law as was originally intended. If the Modi-government wants to tell the nation that these amendments are not anti-farmer and do not go against all democratic principles, one can only pray to lord Ram to give long and prosperous lives to our farmers. No pro-people government can ever think of promulgating a law which gives additional protection to officers who violate the law. But the Modi- government did not hesitate much in making this amendment. The concession to give jobs to dispossessed farm labour is nothing new as it was already the case under the 2013 law. What is worse is that while land acquisition could only have been carried out by the Government itself or on behalf of companies under the 2013 Act; the new amendments allow acquisition for any plausible entity including NGOs and sole proprietorships. This means the Government can now acquire land for agencies such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

The land law Modi wants to enact creates a Special Category of Projects; by introducing a new Section 10A, these projects are completely exempt from the consent requirements, the Social Impact Assessment requirements, the review by the Expert Group and the previous bar placed on acquisition of multi-cropped agricultural land. The five items placed in the special category include industrial corridors and infrastructure projects-including projects under Public Private Partnership. Since most acquisitions fall in these two aforementioned categories this has the impact of completely nullifying the safeguards contained under the original 2013 law. ‘Social Infrastructure’ was included in this newly created category and then withdrawn by the Government.

The Modi-government has added two more so called safeguard provisions to the new category 10A. These basically ensure that the Government will first try to determine if the land is the bare minimum required for the project in question. The second provision enjoins the Government to undertake a survey of wastelands. A significant amendment to Section 24(2) of the previous law, the Retrospective Clause has also been inserted surreptitiously in the proposed new law. The section has been amended to exclude the time spent under litigation. Furthermore the definition of ‘compensation paid’ as laid down by the Supreme Court has been nullified. The Supreme Court had defined compensation paid as an amount deposited in the court. The new section states that any amount paid into any “designated account” maintained for the purpose shall be sufficient to disqualify a person from having his land returned even if the person has not accepted the compensation. The bill also has several other provisions which are anti-farmer. For instance, defaulting civil servants are now to be prosecuted only after sanction has been obtained for such prosecution. The new amended section allows for prosecution only after taking sanction from the Government under section 197 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. This will definitely embolden the corrupt amongst the bureaucracy. Provisions for return of land, which has not been utilised stand diluted. The Ordinance amends the clause negating the period of five years by introducing the proviso “the period specified for the setting up of any project or five years, whichever is later”. Special Powers retained with the Government to implement the Law have been extended from two years to five years. This allows the government sweeping residual powers and significant leeway to take any action necessary to support their interpretation of the Act. Definition of ‘Private Entity’ has been broadened to include proprietorship, partnership, non-profit organisation or any other entity. This means that any of these entities can now make a request to the Government to acquire land for ostensibly public purpose.

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