New Delhi: The government signaled its resolve to get the 2015 land acquisition bill passed in Parliament to speed up economic growth, with finance minister Arun Jaitley saying on Wednesday that the centre will not compromise on development but will keep farmers’ interests in mind.
As a fallback, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government will look into a demand by some state governments to be given the flexibility to frame their own land acquisition laws that could later be approved by the central government.
The government’s views, coming ahead of the monsoon session of Parliament, were presented by Jaitley at a press conference in New Delhi after a NITI Aayog meeting attended by the chief ministers of 16 states on Wednesday. The meeting was chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
At the meeting, the chief ministers of BJP-ruled states led the charge in demanding changes to a 2013 central law that makes it compulsory for people acquiring farmland for non-farm purposes to secure the consent of 70% of affected landowners for public-private partnership projects and 80% of landowners for private projects.
It also makes a social impact assessment mandatory.
Businesses and industries complain the two provisions have made land acquisition difficult. A 2015 amendment bill removing the two provisions has been passed by the Lok Sabha where the BJP and its allies are in a majority.
However, it is stuck in the Rajya Sabha where opposition parties outnumber the ruling party and its allies. The 2015 bill removes the social impact assessment and consent clauses from land acquired for defence, rural infrastructure, electrification, affordable housing, industrial corridors and social infrastructure.
Besides the chief ministers of BJP-ruled states, Wednesday’s meeting was attended by chief ministers Nitish Kumar of Bihar, Arvind Kejriwal of Delhi, Manik Sarkar of Tripura and Mufti Mohammad Sayeed of Jammu and Kashmir.
However, there were 13 notable absentees—the chief ministers of the nine states that are ruled by the main opposition Congress party as well as those of West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Odisha, all ruled by parties that are not part of the ruling National Democratic Alliance.
“There were no two views that for development, we need land. Nobody disputed the proposition that land is required for development, for infrastructure, for industrialisation, for jobs, for housing,” Jaitley said on the views put forth by the chief ministers. But given the anti-land bill protests, some chief ministers said that this was not the “appropriate time” to make amendments to the 2013 law, the finance minister said. Some others were of the view that the 2013 land law should be given a chance, he said.
The states were also of the view that the central government should try to forge a consensus on the amendments but if this were not possible, state governments could not wait indefinitely, Jaitley said.
“There was a suggestion from the states that those who wanted development (should) be allowed to frame their own laws that the central government could approve. This was a suggestion from an overwhelming section of the chief ministers,” Jaitley said. He did not name these states or give a break-up of BJP and non-BJP ruled-states making this demand.
Experts said states will have to be mindful of the provisions of the central law while introducing their own legislation.
“If states attempt to enact watered down versions of the law then they will fall afoul of the 2013 Act which specifically prohibits such attempts,” said Mohammed Khan, a former government official who served in the office of ex-rural development minister Jairam Ramesh. Khan was involved in crafting the 2013 law.
“Since land is a concurrent subject, the state governments could frame their own land acquisition laws,” said former rural development secretary N.C. Saxena. “But these would have to be approved by the central government. But if the state laws are very different from the (2013) central law, they can be challenged in a court of law.”
The 2013 law states that “nothing in this Act shall prevent any state from enacting any law to enhance or add to the entitlements enumerated under this Act which confers higher compensation than payable under this Act or make provisions for rehabilitation and resettlement which is more beneficial than provided under this Act”.
Meanwhile, a PTI report quoted West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee as saying that her government has already framed “alternative land policy where direct purchase can be done through negotiations without any forcible acquisition”.
“We cannot wait indefinitely for the centre to come up with its land acquisition policy, so we have started following this model. We have taken the people into confidence while acquiring land,” the chief minister said.
Another PTI report from Patna quoted Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar as voicing strong objections to “any attempt to dilute, nullify or tamper with the letter and spirit of the 2013 Act in its original form”. Kumar said the removal of the consent clause, exemption from social impact assessment and special provisions for safeguarding food security in the process of land acquisition and relaxation in the time-limit for return of unused acquired land were not in the public interest.
In a press statement, Delhi chief minister Kejriwal said the “2013 Act was not even given a chance to be implemented in the true sense; many states were yet to notify the rules and regulations in regard to the 2013 legislation”. However, Chhattisgarh’s chief minister Raman Singh, from the BJP, said the 2013 law was hampering development. “The proposed amendment will be in larger public interest as these projects will contribute in generating employment opportunities, strengthening financial development and creating welfare schemes,” Singh said in a state government press release.
In his closing remarks, Prime Minister Modi told the meeting that the views of the states will be taken into account and that the government’s priority will be to ensure there is no impediment to development, Jaitely said.
Asked why the central government had convened a NITI Aayog meeting on the land bill when a committee comprising members of several parties in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha had been constituted by Parliament to specifically seek a consensus on the 2015 bill, Jaitley said the NITI Aayog was a platform to discuss “sensitive” issues with state governments.
The monsoon session of Parliament is due to begin on 21 July.