While the parliamentary standing committee’s report on the land acquisition bill suggests many improvements it is the continued trust in the government’s discretionary power to decide rehabilitation and resettlement (R&R) issues that may prove its undoing.
The bill, Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (LARR) Bill of 2011, exempted the union government from R&R liabilities in case land acquired for ‘public purpose’ is less than 100 acres in rural areas and less than 50 acres in urban areas. Instead of doing away with it, the parliamentary panel proposes that this discretionary power be given to the state governments, ‘land’ being a state subject.
It doesn’t matter who exercises this power – the union government or state governments. Discretion of this nature will only mean giving R&R a go by, defeating the very purpose of the legislation. Historical evidence proves that both union and the state governments are equally guilty of not rehabilitating and resettling people who lose their land and livelihood to acquisition of land.
It is well documented how similar exemptions have defeated environmental laws and regulations. No environment clearance is needed in case of mining leases of 25 hectares or less; thermal plants of less than 500 MW and hydel projects of less than 25 MW. As a result of these, we are saddled with hundreds of such projects falling under the exemption rules in the Western Ghats, in Andhra Pradesh and Uttarakhand, putting the environment in severe stress.
Logic demands that the law provide no room for discretion.
The parliamentary panel does something worse. While the original land acquisition bill only talked about 100 acres or less for rural areas and 50 acres of less for urban areas, the panel proposes no ceiling at all, saying that the states should be free to set their own ceilings/limitations.
It is an invitation to virtually write off R&R.
Two more discretions have been proposed by the panel, which are decidedly undesirable.
1. The original bill provided exemption to social impact assessment (SIA) studies in case land is acquired under the ‘emergency’ provision (land needed for defence, national security and emergencies arising out of natural calamities). SIA is key to determine if a project is in ‘public purpose’, scope and nature of R&R and if the land being acquired is in line with the requirement (often land is acquired far in excess of the need). The parliamentary panel leaves this provision to the discretion of the government.
2. The original bill also proposed that multi-crop agriculture land can be acquired only as a last resort, subject to the condition that it is less than 5 percent of total arable land of the ‘district’. The panel says let the state decide the limitation at the ‘state’ level.
To be fair to the panel, however, there are elements which are welcome. Some of the key ones are:
• Sixteen laws that empower acquisition of land (for railways, roadways, power plants, ports, SEZs etc) should be amended, and not exempted from LARR.
• ‘Consent’ of gram sabha, not ‘consultation’ with it, is required for acquisition of land and R&R, especially in the scheduled areas (both V and VI).
• ‘Public purpose’ be restricted to only linear infrastructure (rail, road and utilities like power), irrigation and social infrastructure like school, hospital, drinking water etc, and not be left open ended.
• No land acquisition on behalf of private companies and even PPPs.
• ‘Consent’ of local self-governing bodies must for SIA studies.
• Recognise and allow greater role for states in land acquisition, land being a state subject.