While refusing to wilt under the combined onslaught of various Opposition parties, the government has done well to take the battle on the land acquisition Act to their camp. While finance minister Arun Jaitley had earlier spoken of how, by removing the exemptions given under 13 Acts, the government had actually increased the compensation available to farmers, transport minister Nitin Gadkari quantified that benefit on Wednesday. As he pointed out, between just the coal and roads ministry, around R2,000 crore extra had been paid to farmers as a result of the government’s ordinance on land acquisition—land acquired for both highways and coal mines were exempted from the UPA’s land acquisition Act. As a result of removing this exemption, however, farmers were now entitled to a compensation that was four times higher than in the past. And, in any case, as Gadkari pointed out, land acquisition under 13 Acts including the national highways and coal ones were exempted from social impact assessments and compulsory consent by the UPA itself. Gadkari also read out from then Congress party’s Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan’s letter to then rural development minister Jairam Ramesh asking for relaxations in the Act. Apart from keeping the compensation at 2.2 times the value of the land, Chavan’s suggestion was to remove the ‘80% consent (clause) when the government acquires land for industrial and urbanisation purposes’.
Proof of the fact that the Congress party was itself divided over the UPA’s land Act was seen last year in June when revenue ministers of various Congress and non-Congress states gave their suggestions on how to improve the Act. ‘Obtaining consent of land owners’, Kerala said, ‘is a herculean task’, while Haryana said the consent should be done away with for PPP projects or, at the maximum, be raised to 50%. Uttar Pradesh wanted the power to include any infrastructure facility under ‘public purpose’ to vest with the state, Karnataka was of the view that social impact studies should be compulsory only for large projects and Maharashtra said such provisions should not be applicable to roads, water, schools, etc. The list is a long one, but the short point, as Gadkari said in his press conference, is that Opposition leaders are indulging in serious doublespeak, saying one thing in Parliament and quite another in different places.
The simple fact the Opposition leaders are ignoring is that, with agriculture stagnant and unable to absorb the growing population, more and more of farmers’ incomes are coming from off-farm activities like industry and services. Farmers who want to leave rural areas need to get a good price for their land while those who remain on the land need more irrigation and industrial projects near where they live to supplement their incomes—none of which is possible under the land Act of the type passed by the UPA. What we’re seeing right now is an Opposition emboldened by the results of the Delhi elections. The government has to get the Act passed in the Lok Sabha, introduce it in the Rajya Sabha where it will be defeated, and then call a joint sitting of both Houses to pass it at the earliest. The government will be judged not just by its Budget, but by its ability to legislate effectively.