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Hold on to your backyard, folks!
Violence, protests and controversies have always surrounded land acquisition in India. The latest spate of violent clashes at Bhatta-Parsaul in UP over acquisition of farmers’ land has only brought to fore the urgent need for amendments to the existing archaic law.
Issue Date - 19/01/2012
George Bernard Shaw once wrote: “There is no love sincerer than the love of food”. He was an Irish. Good for him. Had he been an Indian, he would have probably ended the first Act of his play, Man and Superman (1903), with the line “There is no love sincerer than the love of land.” Why? Of course, the law that was enacted less than a decade before he penned down the play, would have given him some food for thought. Call it ‘The Land Acquisition Act’, which was carved out on stone literally, by the British in 1894, with the purpose of compulsory acquisition of privately held property or land by the State for ‘public purpose’. Post-independence, the Act was adopted by the Indian government as a tool to grab land. Though various amendments were introduced to the original script of the Act from time to time, the administrative procedures and the parameters dealing with determining the compensation which is to be paid to those displaced remains almost the same. Quite almost, proving how the Indian lawmakers have been quite hostile to innovation – at least in this regard. Expectedly, over time, the archaic Act has become a tool for exploitation of land owners and farmers. And it has all happened behind the facade of a convenient-yet-cosmopolitan scenario of economic development.

The existing Land Acquisition Act gives the government the right to acquire private land without the consent of the land owners if the land is acquired for “public purpose” projects, such as the development of towns and village sites, building of schools, hospitals and housing. Ironically, it is this controversial clause in the Act, which has been misused time and again for forceful acquisition and has also led to the maximum number of protests over land acquisition. Take the case of UP, where the latest aggravation in Bhatta-Parsaul villages in Greater Noida has turned the otherwise neglected area into a political battleground, with all major political parties eyeing for their share of limelight. Over 15,000 hectare of land have been acquired in the Greater Noida region over the last 20 years, using a controversial clause in the Land Acquisition Act. The clause empowers governments to acquire land without giving landowners or others the right to “a hearing”. Under the Act, governments which want to acquire land, must give any person affected by the acquisition, a right to make objections. In certain cases, however, where land is needed urgently, the government can skip the potentially time-consuming process of hearings, and acquire the land immediately after issuing a notification. This has been a key provision that the UP government has used for land acquisitions for years. Call it common sense, but it isn’t hard to guess that this ‘urgency’ clause to acquire land has been used conveniently by local governments across the country, to speed up an otherwise slow process of land acquisition. “In the last 20 years, almost all the land acquired by the government in Greater Noida has been done through the use of section 17 (the urgency clause),” says Akhilesh Singh, Deputy CEO of the Greater Noida Authority to B&E. Since mid-April, courts have struck down the UP government’s acquisition of a total of 433 hectare of land acquired through such means in Greater Noida. Many similar cases are pending in courts.

Another bone of contention is property valuation. The techniques being flawed, there are claims that given a chance, land owners let go of no opportunity to demand higher values for their backyards than the real market value. This, using the much debatable concepts of ‘potential value’ and ‘opportunity value’ of their property. The government claims that this results in a huge strain on public finances and restrictions on the scale of development and re-development projects. There is also an opposition to the additional payment of solatium over the property value (which is a form of compensation for emotional than physical discomfort or financial loss).

People who argue that the act is draconian, claim that a number of projects with no public purpose attached, as in the case of SEZs, have also resulted in land being snatched away from property owners, with the help of the Act. That too, at well below market value. And preachers of market-based solutions cite evidences proving how, even in the case of projects that are genuinely meant for public purposes, there have almost always existed a considerable difference between the market value of the property and the value that the land acquisition officer paid the land owners. Blame is also imposed on the authorities of not following up adequately on the issues of relocation and rehabilitation of land owners displaced by the actions of the Act. While speaking with B&E on this matter, CPM leader and MP Nilotpaul Basu says, “There is absolutely no mention or recognition of the crucial resettlement and rehabilitation policies in the existing legislation which makes confrontations inevitable.”

The protests over acquisition of land had until now been an executive premise of the civil society. Despite huge ruckus (and many heartbreaks) over which political party scores over the other in terms of the huge vote banks that the farmers and landowners command, surprisingly, there is also a form of consensus emerging between these very parties over what the current legislation falls short of. Following the incidences that have occurred in the past month, all major political parties, seem to have woken up to realise that the contours of the more-than-a-century-old legislation are outdated and that either the political cartographers must do something urgent in the name of amendments or the clause should be totally scrapped. In their discussions with B&E, Salman Khurshid (the Union Minister for Minority Affairs), Shahnawaz Hussain (a BJP spokesperson), Ajit Singh (Founder & Chief, Rashtriya Lok Dal & a prominent leader of the farmers) and Nilotpaul Basu (Senior CPM leader & MP), all took a similar stand, denouncing the “mess” of a land act that we inherited from the British, and terming the existing law as obsolete. Amendments to the Act, as per them, is an immediate and necessary need.

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