Saturday, June 15, 2024
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LAAR – 2011: Half hearted reconciliatory approach – I

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By  Phrangsngi Pyrtuh

The Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation & Resettlement bill ( LARR) 2011 currently with the Standing Committee of parliament is viewed as one of the many radical policies of the UPA government (along with those of the NREGA, NRHM, RTE etc) with profound effect across the country and described as a new vision by the government. Different articles written for this paper reflect the (fear) effect the new law may have on land acquisition in this part of the country which has special mention in the Constitution. Nevertheless I seek to divert the readers’ attention towards the larger picture and the immense debate that this bill is generating across the country. The bill is necessitated to apparently replace the perceived defunct 1894 land acquisition act which has been the backbone of most land acquisition and possession in the country since independence keeping in mind that it has in fact institutionalized involuntary acquisition. Mention must be made of the constitutional protection of certain lands often described as tribal lands etc., that do not come within the purview of this act. This provision has lately become a thorn for the government when it realized that protection of such lands had hindered many of the developmental activities especially those of mining activities and infrastructural construction such as big dams. Bringing forest areas and Fifth and Sixth schedule areas within its ambit, the LARR 2011 carries a caveat – that the law relating to land transfer in scheduled areas shall be followed whether they are privately owned or communally owned.

The proposed modification on the 1894 act will also give the state an upper hand on land acquisition over certain kinds of land rights hitherto enjoyed such by tribals such as cultural or historical land. The draft paper (in public domain till it is supposed to be legislated in the winter session) speaks of special acquisition legislations to be devised for acquisition in tribal areas after much ‘comprehensive Impact Assessment and Relief and Rehabilitation’ not just in respect of the area to be acquired but the ‘zone of influence’ and effect induced by the land acquisition. This loosely worded sentence indicates the ultimate objective of the law- to make land acquisition possible even if such lands were so far insulated from such acquisition laws. The new law does not mention the requirement to pursue further protection of special lands on either cultural, ethnic or religious ground. By replacing the notion of ‘person interested’ by ‘family affected’ the new law seek to define those affected to include tribal and forest dwellers within its ambit (for rehabilitation) post acquisition.

Development always entails some costs especially when land is involved. India is no alien to mass displacement of the dispossessed and pathetic rehabilitation packages (most of which have become court battles between the state and the displaced). In order to understand the bill we should go back in history in particular to the 1980s when debate on mass displacement (victims of development) had assumed a national interest such as the Narmada valley project etc. This debate took a different form towards the 1990s (post 1991 to be precise) up to the current period which basically focuses on corporate and private control of national resources. It must be noted that a major amendment was made in 1984 of the (1894) Land Acquisition act which was then re-formulated to address mass internal displacement as a result of development activities (especially those affected due to construction of massive dams -the temples of modern development). But though the present draft (during the introduction in the Lok Sabha) uses adjectives such as ‘humane’, ‘participatory’, ‘consultative’, ‘transparent’ it also reiterated that the juggernaut of development should not stopped.

According to Usha Ramanathan though the LARR adopts some of the languages and concerns from the sites of conflict but the draft proposal rests on a flawed assumption which is that land is already acquired- the proposal simply seeks to mention, define and elaborate the multi-faceted role of land compensation and rehabilitation. In fact what is obvious is this- that land when required shall be acquired- the sole objective that remains is to properly ensure compensation and rehabilitation packages- the aim is to mitigate judicial intervention which so far have impugned the state vis-à-vis land acquisition. The idea of reconciling conflicting interests has produced interesting elements such as ‘legitimate and bona fide public purpose’ or ‘minimum displacement of people’ etc which captures some of the causes of discontent which shall become indicators to be used by an expert committee on social impact assessment before the acquisition.

Most of the debates (and subsequent amendments) underlies the lack of rehabilitation package and petty compensation to the displaced. However, what is amiss in this rigmarole is the fact that land acquisition is a coercive law where an unwilling seller and a forceful buyer are compelled to enter into such a relationship which further restricts their legal rights. For example the 1984 Act says that any objection to land acquisition should be addressed only by the acquiring authority- in which case the landowner is reduced to a ” person interested” or a claimant to the compensation. This amounts to replacing land – the only possession that a person has with only ‘money’ despite the fact that the claimant does not want money. In a country like India where land attachment is strong and has to do with different factors, money is the last thing that a poor land tiller desires. To replace land with money has in fact resulted in worsening the condition of the displaced. What is appalling is that the promises of such policy on compensation or rehabilitation is usually not kept and there is no mechanism to check the consequences if such promises are broken. For instance the state may snatch away land even prior to the resettlement or rehabilitation for the displaced has taken place (despite the fact that the apex court has mentioned that acquisition should only take place after the displaced are resettled and compensated appropriately) but his has been violated time and again and there is no guaranteeing mechanism to check such administrative loopholes in the new act. In many cases the affected lot complain that no compensation was given and the implementing agencies actually have no knowledge of any rehabilitation package whatsoever. The state in the new law wants to pass the buck to the private companies for resettlement and rehabilitation, a job that the latter shudder from and are definitely not capable of.

(The author is research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University)

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