The Legal Gymnastics of Acquiring Land for the Bullet Train Project in a Democracy

The Maharashtra government has recently begun the process of obtaining land for the bullet train project via 'direct negotiation' and not 'acquisition'. Here's why it's a complete sham.

The citizens of our country are supposed to uphold the law. It is also assumed that the State upholds the law. But it is common experience that laws are implemented as per the convenience of the law-implementing authorities. The Maharashtra government has now gone one step further. In its effort to acquire land for the bullet train and other dream infrastructure projects of the Prime Minister, it has created a new legal framework.

The new dictum is – if the law is convenient for the State, implement it. If the law is inconvenient for the State, change it. If that is not possible, then do some legal gymnastics to circumvent it.

The Land Acquisition Rehabilitation and Resettlement (LARR) Act was passed after extensive discussion and debate in 2013 to make land acquisition a “humane, participative, informed and transparent process” and to make “affected persons partners in development”.

But the government found many of the provisions of this Act very inconvenient. How can it subject itself to follow such legal niceties like obtaining the consent of 70% of the affected landowners? How can it subject itself to undertake social impact assessment studies? How can it follow the legal provision that “as far as possible, no land acquisition of land shall be made in the Scheduled Areas”?

Thus, one of the first tasks undertaken by the Central government in 2014 was to try and change LARR 2013. When it failed to do so due to mounting public pressure, the Maharashtra government then began to roll out its gymnastics tricks. 

On May 12, 2015, it hit upon a novel idea. True to the ideals of a democratic nation, it decided that it would not forcibly acquire land for projects. Instead, it would purchase the land from the land owners through direct negotiation. On the face of it, this appeared to be a perfect deal for the landowners. Those who wanted to sell their land could do so – they could negotiate a price that they found reasonable. And those who preferred not to sell their lands could opt out of the process. In fact, it couldn’t be better for the land owners. 

But by terming the process ‘direct negotiation’, all provisions of law that are mandatory in a land acquisition process were conveniently left out. No land acquisition means no LARR 2013 and all its complicated procedures of establishing public purpose, undertaking social impact assessment, obtaining gram sabha consent, and following special provisions for Scheduled Areas.

Thus, the logic of direct negotiation is not to ensure that the landowners get a better deal. Instead it is only a ploy to circumvent the provisions of the LARR 2013, especially those provisions which provide security to the affected persons. 

The state government has prepared guidelines for direct negotiation. But a reading of the fine print in these guidelines reveals that there is no negotiation at all. The state unilaterally decides and uses its machinery to directly and indirectly cajole landowners into submission. 

The first step in any negotiation requires the consent of both parties to the negotiation. However, the word “consent” is conspicuous by its absence in the government resolution dated May 12, 2015. While another government resolution dated January 25, 2017, does mention that a consent letter from the land owner is to be obtained, it is silent on what is to be done if the land owner does not give his consent. 

Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe look at a model of the bullet train. Credit: Twitter/@RailMinIndia

Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe look at a model of the bullet train. Credit: Twitter/@RailMinIndia

Will the land still accrue to the government? Or will the right of the landowner to refrain from negotiation be respected? The resolution only states that the consent letter must contain two points – the willingness of the landowner to directly sell his land and his acceptance of the rate of compensation fixed by the district committee. But how can the rate of compensation in any negotiation be fixed by a government-appointed committee consisting of only government officials, without even consulting the concerned landowner? The resolution also states that once the consent letter is obtained, then the demarcation of the land and the joint measurement of the land is to take place. 

Negotiation, by definition, has to be voluntary. But what is happening in the direct negotiation process for obtaining land for the bullet train project in Palghar and Thane districts is not voluntary. Surveyors are trespassing on to the land of farmers. No notices are being served. In any case, one does not serve notices in a negotiation process; one makes requests. If the request is turned down, one has to respect the sentiment of the other person. One cannot just barge in and trespass.

However, demarcation and measurement of land is taking place without first obtaining the mandatory consent letters. To paper over these illegalities the survey teams are being accompanied by large posses of policemen. Some of them are from the riot control squad. 

The chief minister and the district collector have repeatedly stated that no land will be acquired forcibly. Then why is the police being brought in? You don’t need policemen to negotiate, do you?  It is highly likely that given the atmosphere of fear and terror,  the state machinery will now get thumb impressions of illiterate tribals, and then claim that  “consent letters” have been obtained. 

The direct negotiation process is a sham. The government resolutions issued in this regard are without any legal basis. Under what provision of law have the government resolutions been issued in the first place?

It’s time the government stopped trying to circumvent the law. It’s time it stopped its arm-twisting tactics. Nobody wants a Tuticorin in Maharashtra. Surely, the Japanese funders of the bullet train wouldn’t approve of it. It’s time the government got down to following the law. 

Brian Lobo is an activist of the Kashatakari Sanghatana.  He is also an Expert Member of the Rest of Maharashtra Development Board.