Ten big states, most of those ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its alliance partners, on Wednesday sought to unshackle themselves from the logjam over amendments to the contentious land acquisition Bill, 2013, by proposing to bring their own laws for boosting infrastructure development.
At a NITI Aayog meeting to discuss the land Bill (the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation, and Resettlement Bill, 2015), which Prime Minister Narendra Modi chaired, several chief ministers stressed that land was needed for development and to create jobs.
The PM told the meeting that politics over the Bill was stalling rural development. He said the government would not compromise the country’s development but will keep farmers’ interest in mind. For this, it would consider all suggestions. Several state governments proposed they could enact their own land laws consistent with the amendments proposed by the Centre in the land acquisition Bill, 2015, rather than waiting indefinitely for a consensus.
“If the Centre fails to approve this (Bill) with consensus, it should be left to states. Those states that want to develop fast… can suggest their own state legislation and the Centre (would) approve that state legislation. An overwhelming section gave such a suggestion,” Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said after the meeting.
He did not identify the specific states but it was evident most of these were those ruled by BJP or its alliance partners. Today’s meeting was attended by 16 chief ministers. The nine Congress CMs boycotted the meeting, while the Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Odisha CMs were absent. Tamil Nadu CM J Jayalalithaa, who was indisposed, sent a written text in which she opposed the changes to the 2013 Act. Bihar’s Nitish Kumar, Tripura’s Manik Sarkar and Delhi’s Arvind Kejriwal also opposed the amendments.
Among the states that are ruled by the National Democratic Alliance partners, Parkash Singh Badal, who leads a BJP-Shiromani Akali Dal government in Punjab, was the sole dissenter on the issue of amending the 2013 Act. Jammu & Kashmir CM Mufti Mohammad Sayeed advised the PM to consult all political parties before amending the existing Act.
Telangana, ruled by the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (not an NDA partner), is understood to have supported the changes, along with Haryana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Goa. Andhra Pradesh CM N Chandrababu Naidu could not attend the meeting but spoke to the PM. He has consistently supported the land Bill.
Chief Ministers of BJP-ruled states argued development had been suffering because of a deadlock over the issue.
Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis said the Centre had retained the right to exempt ‘social-impact assessment’ (SIA) and the consent clause for acquisition under 13 laws, while states had not been given this flexibility. Jaitley said Maharashtra was of the view that states should also have the right to exempt SIA and consent clause for land acquired for public purposes. The finance minister said the Congress chief ministers who boycotted the meeting should introspect whether their decision was in the spirit of cooperative federalism. “We won’t compromise on the country’s development but will not hurt the farmers’ interests, either,” Jaitley said.
On what sort of acquisitions had been done since the 2013 Act came into force, Jaitley said the Maharashtra CM informed at the meeting that some acquisitions had started, while Bihar said it had merely notified the rules; others said they did not have the details ready. He said the amendments to the 2013 Act were brought after a number of CMs requested changes. “Subsequently some of them, representing their political parties, changed their positions… Nobody disputed the proposition that land is required for development, for infrastructure, for industrialisation, for jobs, for housing,” he said. The NITI Aayog will now assimilate the views of states and then present a report to the PM.
Jharkhand CM Raghubar Das termed those opposing the new Bill “obstructionists” to rural development. He said those living in rural areas had the right to uninterrupted power supply, water and hospitals, but he put in the caveat that land should not be acquired without rehabilitating the owners. Chhattisgarh CM Raman Singh blamed the 2013 Act for hampering development. The Bill is currently being studied by a parliamentary joint committee, which is slated to give its report on July 21, the first day of the monsoon session. The committee, however, is set to seek an extension of at least a week to finish its consultation. The assessment of some Opposition members of the committee is that the government is not keen to table the report in the monsoon session because of the impending Assembly election in Bihar. BJP leaders rejected this speculation, saying the government had wanted to enact the Bill in the Budget session itself, and that the land Bill would prove to be a non-issue in Bihar.
The government has promulgated the land ordinance thrice, given the ruling coalition’s lack of majority in the Rajya Sabha. BJP sources rejected conjectures that the ordinance would not be re-promulgated. They said the meeting exposed how the Congress had tried to make political capital out of the issue of development and that it would increasingly find itself isolated, with several non-Congress and non-BJP state governments also likely opting for state-specific land acquisition laws. It is likely that the land ordinance will become the ‘model’ for state-specific land laws. Land is a state subject, which means the state law supersedes any central law on the same subject.
Of those who opposed the amendments in today’s meeting, Punjab CM Badal advised the PM to model the central Bill on the more “humanitarian” Punjab land acquisition policy. He said consent and SIA should be mandatory for all acquisitions. Badal added agriculture was a losing profession, resulting in heavy debt and farm suicides. “In the light of this grim scenario, the land Bill, 2015, has caused a great concern in the minds of farmers and farm labourers.” Badal also said the general perception among farmers was that this Bill was “anti-farmer”. Bihar’s Kumar said his government “opposes any attempt to dilute, nullify or tamper with the letter & spirit of the 2013 Act”. He termed the Centre’s amendments an attempt to compromise the interests of land owners and farmers in the garb of development.
Jayalalithaa opposed the removal of SIA. The Tamil Nadu CM said her government was opposed to the Bill providing states with enabling provisions to delete SIA and that she had earlier taken a ‘similar stand’ by not allowing FDI in retail, though the government of the time (led by the Congress) had made “necessary enabling provisions” for states. Kejriwal also opposed amendments to the 2013 Act.