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Progress is what drives a nation, any nation to rethink its economic strategies, to extend a warm hand to the other countries in order to have better ties for the future, to streamline its industry and raise the economic standards of each and every person in the country. I, like any Indian would support any thing that can bring about such progress and such economic growth, so when for example, a hydroelectric project is announced in some remote part of the country, I rejoice, knowing that such a project would not only benefit us in the present, but live on for the generations that would roll over. What concerns me though is something that is much more personal, something that is seemingly on a micro level. Well, what happens when the government announces that it is acquiring land for some xyz project that has public welfare written all over it? The government then goes onto to announce that declaration on the gazette, and invites the owners of the land to sell their land to the government at the market price. This is the basic power that the Land Acquisition Act 1894 gives to the government.
The Land Acquisition Act states that the private property of any individual can be acquired by the government if it deems it necessary, for the usage of said land in some public purpose. I have absolutely no problem whatsoever, with land being acquired for public purpose, what I have a problem is, with the apathy and insensitivity the act shows to the land owners itself. A land is not just some property of the owner; it is a source of income. When a person is stripped of such land, it becomes the responsibility of the government to rehabilitate the person to another land that is of equal worth. Moreover, there are dependants, other than the land owners themselves, the workers, farm tillers, women and children. These are the people who are always ignored. Let us not even get into the debate of whether some of the projects are even worthy of filling the definition of public welfare.
Let us look at an example. Many a times, we come across some news articles talking about new hydroelectric projects being set up. Land acquired and compensated for are just the acres of land over which the dam is being actually built. Have we considered that upon the building of a dam, large areas of land get flooded around the dam as well? Owners of these lands are left to fend for themselves. Moreover the act does not concern itself with the rehabilitation of the land owners. Only recently, because of large protests concerning this, some of the governmental projects have started putting a rehabilitation component, but even this has an escape clause of using the phrase, ‘whenever possible’. So when a person is stripped of his land, he is neither rehabilitated, nor given a suitable job, nor a share. It is simply the snatching of all sources of livelihood from a person and then letting the person fend for himself. Compensation is given in the form of money and only to the ‘lawful owners’ of the land, so the landless labourers, women and other dependants are never compensated, even though they are in as much of a loss as the owner of the land. For example, if a common grazing land is acquired, then no amount of compensation is paid, if the entire village is taken over then the fisher folk whose livelihood depends on the river are not compensated.
This act ignores the interests of the very public it claims to serve. Coming monsoon the act will get some changes underway however; even the proposed changes have much left to be desired. Some very positive changes being proposed is that the provisions of the Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2009 will start applying to the Land Acquisition Act 1894. The proposed changes in the definition of ‘public welfare’ which would state,
“ the provision of land for any other purpose useful to the general public, for which land has been purchased by a person under lawful contract or is having the land to the extent of 70%, but the remaining 30% of the total area of land required for the project is yet to be acquired.”
So, now, the government can openly acquire land for any private company as long as they have bought 70% of the land already. What is needed is not the consent of the land owners of 70% of land, just the land itself. This would make the act even more hegemonic as it was before and moreover, under this definition any entity with 70% of land would be able to acquire rest of the land with the help of the government without actual concern for the true welfare of the people.
The concept of eminent domain suggests that the government has power over all of the land that it governs over, and it is this concept that lends its hand to the makings of the Land Acquisition Act 1894. The justifications given for the eminent domain is that the sovereignty of the state deems it necessary for it to have the freedom to acquire land if it is for any larger public welfare. This justification is very reasonable, however in a democratic country like India, the sovereign is the people, and when the question of land acquisitions comes into the fray, it is also important to consider the interests of the people themselves. The question is not of hampering progress, by stopping infrastructural projects altogether, the question is to be fair to the people from whom land is acquired and their respective dependents in order to ensure a certain kind of stability in their livelihoods.
Post Publishing Edit: There have been a lot of changes in the proposed changes in the Land Acquisition Act that were underwent after this article was published. The changes are as follows, ” it requires in the case of acquisition for private parties the consent of 80 per cent of all affected families, not just 80 per cent of all landowners. The major, unequivocal achievement of this bill is that any land acquisition must compensate not just land owners but all those affected.”
With this change the Land Acquisition Act removes all the problems that afflicts it and all the issues raised in the article get addressed.