The most important thing to note is that the land acquisition bill affects only the purchase of land by the government or done through the government for public-private-participation projects. It does not affect at all private purchase of land under 50 acres urban or 100 acres rural; which is the vast majority of transactions leaving aside mega industrial projects. This threshold can be circumvented by a private company by purchasing multiple parcels of land, each under the prescribed limit, through other entities.
Eminent Domain has had little or no protection in India prior to the Land Acquisition Bill 2013. Eminent Domain is essentially the power of the state to forcibly acquire land for public use/purpose. Three major questions present themselves in any such action, given that it violates the right to property of affected citizens:
1. What constitutes “public purpose” or public benefit”?
The act aims to address this through the requirement of social impact assessment. The purpose of the assessment in the act is to determine both the costs and benefits of the project, and whether they outweigh the loss of livelihood and/or environment to people displaced and affected by the project. Without this, all you have is a government claiming “This project is in the public interest, so I will take your land”. With the SIA there is a protection that if the report cannot show that there is a clear and quantifiable public benefit, the land acquisition cannot take place. In the news reports that are coming out, the government is proposing the dilution of this requirement for smaller projects. This makes it possible to once again arbitrarily acquire land for questionable public benefit.
2. What constitutes consent?
The bill provides also for the case of acquisition of large areas of rural land by a private player. Here again it provides a benchmark of 80% in case of a PPP project for acquisition. The bill proposes to dilute this to 50%. If 20% of the population of an area is completely unconvinced as to the compensation you are offering as well as the proposed benefits of the project, it seems like a reasonable reason to re-look into the acquisition. If that threshold is only 50% its not even a majority of the area you have to convince before you forcibly acquire land. This dilution will again only make it easier for forcible land acquisition for questionable purposes. Again, one must remember, if we are talking about purchase of land for a private sector player, operating for private profit, it even comes into question whether without 100% consent the forcible purchase and eviction of landowners should be allowed!
3. What constitutes fair compensation for forcible eviction?
The bill contains positive provisions here ensuring justice and compensation. No report so far suggests that these clauses should be reviewed.
Issues of Contention:
1. Eminent Domain should not be allowed for private projects to override the 20% who do not consent to acquisition. If the benefits of acquisition accrue only to a private company, then the government has no business using its power of forcible land acquisition to help such a company.
2. There are too many exemptions in the bill, as it does not include land for defense, railways or SEZs. Given how easy it is to claim something as an SEZ in India and governments hyperactivity in setting them up, it is easy to contravene the scope of the act by locating a project in an SEZ.
3. The scope of what constitutes Public Purpose is too broad for my libertarian liking.
4. For urban area compensation, it sticks to market value which is laughably low if taken as the stamp duty value of the land/recorded sale price.
Note: This was a quick informal email written by Bhavya Khanna on land acquisition issues, the bill and prospective amendments proposed to it, in response to an enquiry on the same. The person who deserves brickbats for typos, lack of editing and absence of description or context is the author of this blog, Roshan Shankar 🙂