Land law: victim of cynicism and lack of vision

The clumsily designated Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Amendment) Bill has been the victim of clumsiness in forms other than its name.

To start with, these relate to the absence of an uncluttered vision among politicians about the best way to achieve the objective of protecting farmers’ interests while advancing the cause of industrialization.

In a hasty manoeuvre to negate the provisions of the 1894 land acquisition law, the politicians seemingly lost a sense of balance and tilted rather too heavily in favour of the cultivators.

Among those who noted the imbalance was the commerce minister in the Manmohan Singh government, Anand Sharma, who said that “insistence on the consent of 80 percent of affected families will seriously delay land acquisition and in many cases halt essential infrastructure projects”.

As Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has pointed out, this objection echoes the Narendra Modi government’s views. But the Congress has chosen to ignore what Sharma said two years ago because it runs counter to the party’s objective of throwing a spanner in Modi’s “Make in India” industrial endeavours.

The Congress is well aware that if the process of industrialization takes off, then the party can say goodbye to any immediate chance of returning to power. Hence, the aggressiveness with which the party’s vice president, Rahul Gandhi, has been opposing the proposed amendments to dilute the provisions on securing the consent of farmers, and declaring that he will not allow an inch of land to be acquired by the government or the industrialists.

The Congress’ crown prince does not seem to care that stalling industrialization will hurt the country in the long run since it will stop a large number of peasants to move from farms to factories and also be detrimental to overall development by scuppering infrastructural projects.

But it will not do to blame the cynicism of the Congress alone. As Modi once pointed out, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MPs supported the land bill in 2013, they desisted from taking a long-term view of industrial growth presumably because such a stance would have enabled the BJP’s opponents to accuse it of being pro-corporate, as Rahul Gandhi is doing today by alleging that the Modi government is “suit-boot ki sarkar”.

This one-sidedness has long been a feature of Indian politics – and also of the popular culture reflected in fiction and films – which propagates that the rich are evil while the poor are the repositories of all that is good in human beings.

In this respect, B.R. Ambedkar was in a league of his own when he described villages as “a den of ignorance, narrow mindedness and communalism”, echoing Karl Marx’s condemnation of the “idiocy of rural life”.

If the BJP is now taking a stand which is diametrically opposite to what it did in 2013, the reason is that the responsibility of governance has made it realize that employment generation via industrialization and economic reforms is the best way to lift millions out of poverty.

The Manmohan Singh government, too, had pursued this path, thereby leading to poverty reduction between 2005-06 and 2011-12 at the fastest ever rate in the country’s history because of “fast GDP growth”, as Arvind Subramanian, the present government’s chief economic adviser, said.

But any progress on these lines does not suit the opportunism of Rahul Gandhi and the Congress, including Anand Sharma. Hence, their opposition to reducing the percentage of farmers who have to agree to relinquish control over their lands from 80 percent at present.

This outlook is not only a major hindrance to the acquisition of land by the industrialists, but also condemns the cultivators to remain confined to their increasingly unproductive and sub-divided plots as the land is parcelled out among the succeeding generations.

Although the charges about being anti-industry have recently persuaded Rahul Gandhi to say that he is not anti-big business, the no-longer-young heir apparent has never said a word about his economic vision.

On the other hand, the BJP’s attempt to wriggle out of the logjam created by the opponents of the proposed amendments by calling upon the states to frame their own laws offers no solution.

Since land is in the concurrent list of the constitution, the states will be unable to draft a law which goes against the central legislation. For instance, the 80 percent stipulation cannot be tampered with, nor the directive about assessing the social impact of the acquisition.

The BJP’s hope, therefore, that the need to attract investors will persuade the states to prepare industry-friendly laws is unlikely to be fulfilled. Besides, some states like West Bengal will rather shoot themselves in the foot by shunning investment rather than be seen cosying up to the corporate sector.

However, even as parties like the Congress, which is leading the charge against the land law, continue to pose as champions of the underprivileged, they may ponder over why they were defeated in last year’s general election despite enacting supposedly pro-poor laws like the one on land and the other on providing subsidized foodgrain.

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