The Congress has been vociferously opposing the land acquisition amendment bill for a year, but documents accessed under the Right to Information Act reveal that the states ruled by the party supported the BJP-led government’s amendments on consent clause, scrapping of social impact assessment study and return of unutilised land. This bears out what Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been saying all along.
The documents reveal that at a meeting called by the rural development ministry on June 26, 2014 for gauging the states’ response on the amendments, Congress-ruled states including Kerala, Karnataka, Manipur and Maharashtra supported the watering down of consent clause and requirement of social impact assessment.
The exception from taking consent of 80% of affected families for public-private partnership (PPP) projects proposed by the BJP government was also supported by the governments of Chhattisgarh, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Haryana (which had a Congress regime at the time of the meeting). The documents, accessed byRTI activist Venkatesh Nayak from the ministry, also reveal that in the June 2014 meeting, Kerala, Maharashtra and Haryana also supported the BJP government’s move on return of unutilised land.
Congress spokesman Randeep Surjewala completely denied that the Congress-ruled states had taken a contradictory view. “This document is an observation, an understanding of Nitin Gadkari (former rural development minister who initiated the amendment process in 2014) which is a self-serving understanding. They are twisting and trivialising things,” Surjewala said.
The Land Acquisition Act of 2013 passed under the previous Congress-led UPA government says the acquired land which remains unutilised for five years needs to be returned to the original owners. However, the Modi government’s amendment bill changed this to state that the period after which unutilised land will need to be returned in five years or any period specified at the time of setting up of the project or later of the two. The UPA’s bill of 2013 had kept a provision for punishment in case of offence by a government officer. The BJP’s amendment bill has done away with this, something that the Congress-led government in Kerala supported.
The revelation comes in the backdrop of a resolution passed by chief ministers of nine Congress-ruled states on Tuesday rejecting the amendments to the Land Acquisition Act at a conclave presided by party president Sonia Gandhi and vice-president Rahul Gandhi.
The Congress did not make much of the contradiction, though. Senior party leader and former rural development minister Jairam Rameshquoted the economist John Maynard Keynes and said, “When facts change, I change my mind.”
He , however, confirmed that when UPA government started the consultative process on the land bill, many Congress-ruled states such as Kerala, Haryana and Maharashtra had reservations about the consent clause. “When we spoke to the states, yes, Prithviraj (Maharashtra CM Prithviraj Chavan), Mr Hooda (Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Hooda) and Kerala chief minister had reservations. They were uncomfortable with the consent clause. But it wasn’t an administrative decision. It was a political decision we took,” he said.
While acknowledging the difference of opinion between the central Congress and the states, Ramesh said, “Mr Modi seems to feel, in fact it is his stated position, that the states are the only stakeholders in this issue. They are not. There are multiple stakeholders – there are states, landowners and other agencies.”