In Land Bill, a Tussle Over Farmers Rights But Also RSS Influence

The protest against the proposed land law is significant both as a test of the Modi government’s land utilisation philosophy, and for what it will tell us about the future terms of the RSS-BJP dynamic

File photo of a rice field in Bihar. Credit: Jim (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license)

File photo of a rice field in Bihar. Credit: Jim (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license)

The NDA government’s proposed Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill has been the subject of much confusion within the sangh parivar, thanks largely to the BJP’s adroit spin-doctoring. Many are confused about whether it is pro-corporate and anti-farmer, or the other way around. Or is it, as some experts claim, bad for both? Having finally achieved clarity and consensus, RSS frontal organisations have come out strongly against the proposed legislation in their respresentations to the Joint Parliamentary Committee. What’s more, statements from the National Democratic Alliance leadership leadership indicate a willingness to compromise, after months of mulish obduracy.

The Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) was first off the block in protesting the NDA’s proposed law, even before the Congress woke up to its provisions. But it fell silent in March after the RSS came out publicly in support of the government at its Pratinidhi Sabha in Nagpur. Apparently, the BJP – read party president Amit Shah – convinced them that objections from the BKS had been taken care off by introducing amendments to the proposed Bill. It took several months for the BKS, the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (VKA) and Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) to convince the RSS brass that those amendments did not in any way address their core concerns.

Rage of consent

One of the two most contentious provisions of the proposed law is the consent clause, requiring the approval of 80 per cent of affected families – if the government acquires land for a private entity – or 70 per cent if it does so on behalf of a public-private partnership (PPP) project. The deletion of this clause has been roundly condemned by all, including and especially RSS front organisations, on the grounds that it amounts to “legal plunder”.

After initial attempts to dress up the coercive transfer of land from the poor to the rich as being pro-development and pro-growth, BJP spokespersons gave up the struggle. The NDA leadership, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Shah then weighed in with the extraordinary declaration that “not one inch of acquired land will go to corporates”.

Shah first made this statement at an informal meeting with mediapersons on the eve of the NDA’s one-year anniversary and then repeated it in a series of formal interviews. The PM reiterated this stand in informal interactions with journalists at Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s home.

Strangely, the BJP managed to convince a large swathe of its own people that the new law does not exempt the private sector from the consent clause. In a masterly show of spin doctoring, the impression was conveyed that politicians, the press and public had all misread the intent of the Bill. However, a thorough reading of the original Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act 2013 (LARR for short), along with the proposed amendment Bill, made it clear to the RSS frontal organisations that the primary objective of the Modi government’s changes was indeed easing acquisition for the private sector, and not the other way around.

The confusion within the parivar was exemplified by Union transport minister Nitin Gadkari, who in the same breath said “farmers are willing to give up their land” because land rates have zoomed but “it is impossible to get the consent of 80 per cent of farmers” to land acquisition for the private sector.

Business of public purpose

To clarify, the consent clause does not apply to land acquisition by the government for “its own use, hold and control”. The government may acquire land under Section 2(1) of the LARR Act 2013 for virtually any reason: for public sector undertakings, industrial corridors and for projects related to national security, infrastructure, agriculture, sports, tourism, healthcare, education, housing, etc. Thus, if the government intends to acquire land for a dam, or a power plant, or a school or even a five-star hotel, it need not seek the consent of landowners – provided the said plant, school or hotel are government-owned.

The consent clause comes into play when the government acquires land under Section 2(2)(b) for a “private entity for a public purpose”. Or under Section 2(2)(a) “for PPP project where the ownership of land continues to vest with the government, for public purpose”. The LARR Act 2013 actually says “private company” but the amendment changes that to “private entity” – a much wider definition.

It is necessary to include “public purpose” in the land acquisition law as the government’s right to eminent domain is limited by this concept. But the definition of public purpose has proved absurdly elastic; a 1984 amendment to the land acquisition law legitimised acquisition on behalf of corporates. “Public purpose” came to mean practically anything. Luxury hotels, malls and other playgrounds or cash cows for the rich included, the justification being that they fall within the broad definition of “infrastructure”.

Another point needs to be clarified: what the government wants to enact is not so much an amendment as a whole new law which undoes basic aspects of the existing law.

Exit clause?

The five sectors exempted under the amendment Bill from the consent clause and the proviso demanding a social impact assessment (SIA) prior to acquisition – defence, rural infrastructure, affordable housing, industrial corridors and infrastructure projects including those under PPP – are no different from the sectors listed under Section 2(1) of the LARR Act. In other words, the proposed law allows land acquisition for the private sector in precisely the same manner and for the same sectors that it does for governments. A private entity engaged in, say, defence production (in which 49 % FDI is permitted). Or, an NGO which wishes to set up a food park. Or even an individual who wants to set up a motel.

Going by the Shah’s (formal) stance on the question of land acquisition for the private sector, the government appears willing to restore the consent clause with respect to Section 2(2)(b) of LARR, 2013, i.e. when land is acquired “for private companies for public purpose”. However, it is likely to take a tougher stand vis-a-vis the social impact assessment clause. The proposed amendment exempts the listed five sectors from the necessity of conducting an SIA involving the gram sabha and its representatives and also from the provision of Chapter III, which safeguards food security by placing severe restriction on acquisition of multi-cropped land.

While the Opposition and the RSS frontal organisations are insistent that the participatory governance aspect of the LARR 2013 be respected by retaining the SIA and the food security aspect and by not messing with Chapter III, state governments have said they will have difficulty implementing this clause. This gives the NDA some leverage with respect to the social impact assessment requirement.

The protest against the proposed land law is significant in more ways than one. It is a test of the NDA government’s land utilisation philosophy. But it will also establish the terms of the RSS-BJP dynamic. If the NDA backs down on the consent clause, it becomes clear that the RSS wields some concrete policy heft with the government – not merely in terms of holding yoga day or celebrating Deen Dayal Upadhyay’s centenary.

Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist who writes on politics, agriculture and food policy