Both god and devil are in the details. The parliamentary standing committee report on the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (LARR) Bill, 2011 is already tabled in Parliament; its recommendations grabbed news headlines, and as expected, it has polarised the political class. Ministers are opposing two “radical” changes—keeping land acquisition for private companies out of the definition of “public purposes” and partial restriction on acquisition of agricultural land. The opposition on government's part is unfathomable, thus suspicious; the ministers for both rural affairs and the trade and commerce speak in one voice: include land acquisition for private enterprises as public purpose.
Read the 220-page report of the standing committee that captures discussions in the committee, responses from state governments, various Central ministries and many more representations from non-government organisations to get a clearer picture. The most intense deliberations were on the issue of what comprises public purpose. Barring the non-profits, all others (mostly state governments and the ministry of rural affairs' department for land resources) spoke in favour of including land acquisition for private concerns as public purpose. In another related aspect of the Bill that pertains to ensuring food security, the states have been more than proactive in opposing the clause on not acquiring irrigated and multi-cropped land for non-agricultural purposes.
Throwback to British raj times
Just to put things in context, defining land acquisition for companies as public purpose has been debated for decades, even before Independence. During the 1890s and early 20th century, the Land Acquisition Act had a provision which allowed land acquisition for private companies because the railways was a company. In any case, there were not much differentiation at that time between the East India Company and the evolving British Empire.
In 1962, another provision was added to the Act, which said that land could be acquired by the government for a company engaged in public purpose work; for example even a needle manufacturing company or a drug manufacturing company could claim to be working for public purpose. In 1984, the Act had a very direct and overriding addition: it just said “for a company” in its definition of public purpose.
The public debate on the clause “public purpose” started then onwards. In 1989, the first effort to change this definition started with a draft bill in 2004. During the 2000s, given the large-scale land acquisitions across the country, mostly for private companies, the debate sharpened its thesis: most land acquisition is for private companies so how does that fit into the definition of public purpose. While private companies may be serving some public purpose, but ultimately they have the end objective of making private profit.
The parliamentary standing committee questioned the department of land resources on this. The department replied thus: “As the country is developing, the distinction between private and the government sector is blurring....we have defined public purposes in such a way that such projects are taken up where benefits of the projects accrue to a large population.” It is a throw back to the porous situation of East India Company and the British Empire.
What defines public purpose?
The Bill already exempts 16 Central Acts from the proposed Bill, thus keeping aside around 90 per cent of the land acquired, at least for now. If we assume that the rest are for the private companies, the Bill basically ends up serving as a land bank for private companies. In this situation, we need to seriously explore what is public purpose? It must be remembered that the land acquired was also serving some fundamental public purpose: food to the farmers and food self-sufficiency of the country in general. Does this mean the Bill pushes for a priority list in “public purposes”? One could also interpret it this way: land for agriculture is less a public priority than steel for export. The Maharashtra government in its representation to the parliamentary committee said that the Bill provisions shouldn't be applied at all when land owners and company buyers enter into a deal outside the government purview.
On the Bill's restrictions on acquiring irrigated and multi-cropped lands, the states have voiced vehement opposition, citing incredible reasons. Madhya Pradesh sees these restrictions as an onslaught on the federal structure of the country and calls for doing away with it. It says: “This entire chapter should be scrapped altogether. The idea of never acquiring irrigated multi-cropped land is obnoxious and impractical. The chapter is too inflexible to be part of any intelligent legislation. It does not esteem or defer to the exigencies of the times to come.”
Bihar, a newly industrialising state, says it has vast stretches of irrigated land and that the provision would lead to virtual halt of industrial growth. Chhattisgarh says the provision will curtail its food processing industries in future. It is in one way an anti-climax of the recent high voltage debates and protests over land acquisitions revolving around single point: to protect lands of the poor from hostile private take overs.