Kill bills

By Ragini Letitia Singh
Published: Tuesday 31 March 2009

Left and right unite to stall twin bills in Parliament

THE land acquisition bill and the resettlement and rehabilitation bill, criticized for harming land rights of people living in rural areas, were turned down in the Rajya Sabha on February 26. This was a day after the twin bills were rushed through the Lok Sabha.

The bills, that complement each other were the government's response to civil unrest against hostile land takeovers for industrial zones and infrastructure projects. The land acquisition or LA (amendment) bill reduced the government's role in acquiring land. It put the onus of assembling 70 per cent land, required for industrial activity, on private companies and industry. The government was to step in to acquire the remaining 30 per cent land. The resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) bill was meant to prevent large-scale displacement of people when land is acquired for infrastructure projects and economic activity.

The Left parties aligned with their rivals, rightwing bjp, to defeat the two bills in the Rajya Sabha. To become law these bills will have to be introduced afresh in the Lok Sabha after the general elections.

The rural development minister, Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, went to great lengths to push the bills through before elections are announced. On February 24, he convinced the group of ministers, headed by union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar, to approve the bills. The next day, Singh saw to it the bills were passed unopposed in the Lok Sabha.

There were just 65 members in the lower house. The opposition bjp was missing and the bills were passed in one and a half hours. The cpi(m) MP Hannah Moolah proposed some changes in the bills. His suggestions were not heeded. Moolah is a member of the parliamentary standing committee on rural development that suggested changes in the bills. The committee's recommendations were neither debated nor considered.

The parliamentary standing committee report pointed out under the existing LA act, land acquired for public purpose denotes genuine public purpose such as schools and hospitals. The bill, amending the LA act, expanded the meaning of public purpose to include mining, road, highways and airport expansion. The committee felt this clause could be misused. D Raja, cpi member, said the government made a mockery out of parliamentary proceedings. "Their (the government's) business has become real estate," he said.

Other opposition members in the upper house criticized the government for showing undue haste in pushing the bills through Parliament. Lok Sabha member Anil Basu of cpi(m) said the bills were not in the list of businesses. Rajeev Pratap Rudy, bjp member in the upper house, said the bills were passed in the Lok Sabha without the requisite quorum. The Congress party dismissed the accusations. "The bills were in the business protocol and discussed in the lower house before they were passed," said Tom Vadakkan, party spokesperson.

Researchers working on land rights said farmers' interests were not served by the proposed legislations. Smita Gupta, member of the cpi(m) research cell, said the proposed amendments in the LA act allowed open-market purchase of land by private sector under the garb of public purpose.

Shekhar Singh of civil rights group, National Campaign for People's Right to Information, said land acquisition should remain with the government. "We recommended 75 per cent people must agree to vacate their land, only then acquisition should be done," he said. Singh said the LA bill created a divide between landowners, whose land is bought by private companies, and those whose land is acquired by government.

"Under the R&R bill provisions only 30 per cent land owners, whose land is acquired by the government, would have got rehabilitation benefits," said Raja. It was one of the reasons why the left parties obstructed the bill in the Rajya Sabha, he added.

There were discrepancies in the provisions in the two bills relating to giving shares and debentures to displaced persons.

The R&R bill proposed that affected people could be given 20 to 50 per cent shares in the project. The LA bill made this mandatory. Gupta said the R&R bill was inadequate and the LA bill was downright harmful as there would have been no government control over land acquisition. This would have given a free hand to land sharks, she said.

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