The revised Land Acquisition Bill before the Group of Ministers set up by the Union Cabinet following differences amongst ministers in the wake of land being a State subject, primarily seeks to protect the rights of the States. It, however, merely offers a baseline for compensation, offering the State the liberty to fix the final award based on a sliding scale of distance from urban centers. To that extent, the decision is justified, but what comes as a surprise is the “roll back” ~ so to say ~ of the initial plan. The original Bill sought to implement the proposed legislation with retrospective effect, even for ongoing land acquisition.
There is no satisfactory argument for the government to enact a Bill without considering the loss of land with retrospective effect. Doing so will defeat the very purpose of the Bill because the impact of those who have lost their land and got peanuts in return has a direct bearing on their economic and social condition today. Whenever land is acquired for a public purpose, it is the community in general which either benefits or is ousted from its land with adequate recompense. Where the case is of the latter, the Bill should certainly look seriously at compensating them with retrospective effect. A so-called welfare state, even a not very affluent one such as India, cannot continue to have a policy hangover of the colonial, paternalistic land acquisition policy where land-losers inadequately compensated were, in essence, told ~ too bad!
The manner in which land acquisition has been carried out over the years under an antiquated and repressive piece of colonial legislation that doesn’t even define public interest virtually violates the directive principles enshrined in the Constitution. Worse still, most of the victims of land acquisition end up in prolonged litigation and by the time civil courts endorse their claims for enhanced payments it is often too late as a palliative. We have seen this happen in areas where huge industrial projects came up with the landowners of the adjacent land reaping the benefits, while the landowners whose land was acquired, facing not just huge losses but even psychological trauma. The person whose landholding is taken away usually emerges as the loser, while the adjacent landowners see his or her land value appreciate over the years, specially when the industrial project takes off.
The new Bill also empowers the Collector to exclude transactions that he feels are outliers and not indicative of true value of the land while calculating the market price. But then considering that it is the politicians in government who are the first to know of a proposed “public project”, what safeguards have been incorporated in the Bill to ensure that politicians’ proxies do not purchase land at an inflated rate in and around the area in an effort to boost their compensation package when the land is acquired?
As for the fears of land price escalating in the vicinity of a proposed project for which land is to be acquired, imposing curbs on the price of land for a specified radius around the acquired site for a few years, though not entirely fair, may be the least of the evils. But it would be better, for precisely this reason, that instead of offering a hefty compensation up to four times the market value of the land being acquired, a fairer compensation package for those ousted from their land could include staggered payments, rehabilitation of oustees for a 25-year period, free medical and education facilities up to university level for their children and being given first preference for employment in any industrial unit envisaged in the area where applicable. Such a package would offer land-losers social security as well as arrest land price escalation.