Rural Development minister Jairam Ramesh’s maiden interaction with the industry captains following the Parliamentary nod to his pet project, the new and somewhat controversial land acquisition act, was not as smooth as he tried making it out to be. For at the end of the nearly two hour long meet several questions remained unanswered. Even though the minister promised to individually respond to queries at a later date and revert with further details, not all were satisfied. The nervousness of India Inc. with the ‘Right To Fair Compensation & Transparency In Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation & Resettlement Act, something it has never tried to hide, remains.
Speaking at the Federation House of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) house, he began by ripping apart the Land Acquisition Act of 1894. Terming it an act which allowed ‘zabardasti’ acquisition, he said it did not provide adequate compensation, define what public purpose meant and more over, left the execution of its Rehabilitation and Resettlement (R&R) to the whims of the local authorities. These policies, he mentioned, had given rise to social discontent something which he believed had fuelled the Maoist insurgency across the mineral-rich central India too.
More than once, as if sensing the discontent among his audience, the minister made concessions to the audience by mentioning, “I am the last person to block rapid industrialisation” and “If the implementation is flawed, you have my support in amending this act”. He was also quick to incorporate a suggestion to constitute a Rules Advisory Committee, which was made by FICCI in their introductory speech. By September 30, the draft of the new rules and guidelines will be in place after which it will be kept in the public domain for 30 days, inviting suggestions and objections. He also mentioned how this act would only govern acquisitions undertaken under the govenrment’s authority and not private leasing or purchasing of land. He however did not mention the impact this act would have on them.
The minister, who constantly referred to his ministerial staff seated among the audience for clarity while replying to queries from the industry members, said the new act, “Addresses the issues of consent, compensation, R&R and procedure in a way that will make industrialisation socially and politically more harmonious even though financially, a bit expensive.” On the issue of retrospective application of the act, he said it was not a blanket rule but only applied in specific cases. Referring to the controversial provision announced by Pranab Mukherjee in his last speech as the Finance Minister, Ramesh said, “It isn’t as bad as the GAAR.”
Reacting after Ramesh’s talk, a Mumbai-based entrepreneur Hussain Rasai from Knowledge Beneficient Parks & Properties Limited asked, “We have a project in Andhra Pradesh where despite acquiring land and inviting foreign exchange, there are labour issues from the very locals whom we have given compensation to? Does this act help me?” Jagdish Prasad Agarwal, Vice President Legal of Welspun, “This act is flawed. You are talking about providing four times the compensation to farmers. But in effect, it is going to jack up land prices.” Ramesh did not respond when Agarwal put this question to him.
Similarly, concerns were also raised regarding R&R impacting operations. Though Ramesh insisted that the act mandates that R&R needs be ‘started’ before project can start, insiders pointed to section 39 of the act which mentioned R&R needed to be completed before displacement can take place. “Obviously it will delay things,” said another industrialist. “Intentions are good but implementation also needs to be practical. This is done keeping an eye on the elections,” mentioned another. Ramesh did not respond to media queries following the event. There was lack of clarity of the computerization and modernization of land records, an issue which can derail the implementation of the new act. Questions like whether there lower bureaucracy in districts which will implement this act will be sensitized or not as well as duplication of impact studies were left unanswered.
Before concluding, Ramesh said he hoped that in the next twenty years, an act to acquire land will not be needed. “My vision is that there will be and should be, direct purchases between all parties,” he added.