By Mudit Kapoor
The political difference between Congress and BJP over land acquisition is fundamentally a clash of ideologies between two concepts of individual liberty: the negative liberty versus the positive liberty. (This is from an essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” by Isaiah Berlin (1958)). The notion of negative liberty refers to defense of the individual “freedom from” other individuals or the state. It consists in the “negative” aim of guarding the individual from interference, in particular, by the state. While the positive notion of individual liberty consists in the “positive” aim – the individual to be his own master or the “freedom to” do what one wills. These two concepts of individual liberty are ideologically very different and their clash is at the heart of the great political battle between the Congress and the BJP.
In 2013, the UPA government headed by the Congress party repealed the draconian Land Acquisition Act of 1894 by passing The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act. The primary objective of the act was to defendindividuals right to property and work from arbitrary invasion by the state.Through this act the Congress attempted to defend the “negative” notion of individual liberty. In essence the act made it extremely difficult for the government or the state to coercively or forcefully acquire individual property no matter how lofty or noble the purpose might be. The act introduced several impediments, such as, the “consent” clause where for private and for the PPP (public private partnerships) projects consent of 80% and 70%, respectively of the affected families, which included both the owners of the land and those working on the land, was required prior to acquisition. Moreover, the act also required a preliminary investigation of the social impact and the public purpose of the land acquisition. This would happen in consultation with local political representatives at the panchayat or the municipal level. Last but not the least the act repeatedly emphasized that in the event of land acquisition “the absolute bare minimum extent needed for the project” is acquired. The act was historicalin defending the individual independence from interference by the state and it went far beyond the simple issue of increasing compensation. By adhering to defend the negative notion of individual liberty I refer to the congress as the “negative” congress.
In 2014, BJP came to power by promising governance, growth and development. According to the BJP poverty and backwardness are a big impediment to individual “freedom to” be the master of their own will.They fundamentally believe that every individual irrespective of their race, religion and creed is united in their aspiration to growth and progress and therefore, the single most important objective of the government is to create an enabling environment where every individual has a fair chance to grow, develop and progress. However, the ground reality might be very different. In particular what should the state do with those individuals who do not aspire to grow or are not willing to sacrifice their property for the larger national interest of growth and progress? It is in this context that one must view the amendments that BJP introduced. In essence the amendments makes it easier for the government to coercively acquire land for larger national interest by removing the consent clause and social impact assessment. The philosophical justification for this is that in case of those individuals, who voluntarily do not sacrifice their right to land and work for the larger national interest of growth and progress, are not fully aware of what it means to be free and therefore the state has the right to coerce such individuals to be free. This is precisely BJP’s defense – ad nauseam they have argued that the amendments are in national interest for growth and progress of poor people who are not fully aware of what it means to be free. BJPs primary argument, therefore, is thatit is all right for some individual freedom to be sacrificed for more freedom in the future because if individuals voluntarily gave up their right to land and work for larger national interest then the issue of coercion and land acquisition would not arise.Therefore, in the context of land acquisition BJP is an adherent of “positive” notion of liberty, hence I refer to the BJP as the “positive” BJP. Broadly speaking BJP has taken a very similar stance of defending national interest by imposing draconian measures on the liberty of individuals or group of individuals, such as, by deplaning a Greenpeace activist, questioning or banning non government organizations (NGOs), or targeting civil right activists.
For adherents of “negative” notion of individual liberty, the “positive” notion of individual liberty merely represents a “specious disguise of brutal tyranny.” It is this clash of ideology between the negative and the positive notion of individual liberty that is at the heart of the political battle between the “negative” Congress and the “positive” BJP.
(The writer teaches Economics at Indian School of Business (ISB), Hyderabad and is Visiting Fellow, IDFC Institute. Email: [email protected])