'In the UPA you had one pradhan mantri and many mantris. In the NDA you have one pradhan mantri and many santris!'
'Give time to the 2013 Act to work. I not only think that the 2013 law is workable, I believe that the 2013 law is a compromise, a balanced middle path and protects the interests of land owners and livelihood losers.'
Jairam Ramesh on the rationale for the 2013 land Act that he piloted as rural development minister and what is wrong with the amendments that the Modi government is trying to push.
The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Amendment) Bill, 2015, which has been tabled in Parliament, seeks major amendments in the LARR Act, 2013.
The architect of the 2013 Act was then rural development minister Jairam Ramesh, who headed the United Progressive Alliance government's efforts to put India's land acquisition policy in place. The efforts were historic because the exercise was replaced the Land Acquisition Act of 1894, enacted by the British.
Even though the law was changed after almost 120 years it was found wanting. In just two years' time, many amendments are being sought in it by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government.
The crux of the matter is that India has not been able to fix its land policy in a way which can satisfy most people and be seen as fair and just. To add to the complexities of the serious issue, the Narendra Modi sarkar brought in amendments through the ordinance route.
The main stakeholders -- landowners, farmers and people whose livelihood depends on land -- are aghast. How can the government change the most important land policy without debate and spring a surprise by opting for the ordinance route?
Jairam Ramesh gave Rediff.com the background of how the entire exercise to change the 1894 law was carried out and what kinds of efforts went into it.
Here are his views as told to Sheela Bhatt/Rediff.com:
On the framework of the 2013 land bill
It took us two years to replace the 1894 Act. There were nation-wide consultations. The standing committee chaired by Sumitra Mahajan, who is now the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, spent over a year deliberating on the bill. Views were sought from all sections of society. I too had nation-wide consultations.
The bill was put up in the public domain. Two all-party meetings were held. I met BJP leaders -- Sushma Swaraj, Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley -- individually. I gave written responses to the suggestions they made. Leaders of 14 political parties were taken into confidence.
There was a seven-hour debate in the Lok Sabha and a seven-hour debate in the Rajya Sabha. Almost 65 members of Parliament participated in that debate.
Two amendments were suggested by Sushma Swaraj in the Lok Sabha. They were accepted as official amendments. After the bill was passed by the Lok Sabha it came to the Rajya Sabha. It came to the Rajya Sabha on September 4.
The Madhya Pradesh chief minister had some concerns. (BJP leader and current minister) Ravi Shankar Prasad expressed those concerns. I moved three official amendments in the Rajya Sabha.
Normally, a bill is passed by one House, then it goes to the next House and then it becomes the law. After passing the bill on September 4, I took the bill back to the Lok Sabha on September 5 and it was passed.
Now you know so much of democratic processes were followed, there was pressure on me from certain people who said why not bring an ordinance? I said no, we will follow a democratic route. I was being attacked by activist Medha Patkar saying that the bill is not progressive enough; I was being attacked by the Indian industry associations saying that the bill is restrictive.
I listened to everybody, took everybody's point of view and brought about a consensus bill. Look at the NDA's ordinance! Within no time you come up with an ordinance. The rural development minister is kept in the dark. The President calls three ministers for clarifications, the rural development minister is not one of those. It is the finance minister, surface transport minister and the law minister.
The government held no consultations, no discussion, no attempt to reach out to the Opposition. I am not here even talking of the substance of the ordinance, that is a completely different issue. I am talking the manner in which these changes are forced on us. The process of the ordinance I think has been high-handed.
On the substance of the new amendments to the 2013 law
The substance of the ordinance is what I think is even more dangerous and the more substantive issue as far as we are concerned.
See as far as government projects are concerned, you don't need any consent, even under the UPA's 2013 law. You don't need consent. But you surely need a Social Impact Assessment for certain government projects as well.
The UPA took into account a lot of things while making the law.
What is the reality in our country? You acquire land for one purpose and you give it for some other purpose. We have seen this.
If you need 100 acres of land, you acquire 1,000 acres of land. It happens in our country. People were acquiring multi-crop irrigated land.
So the Social Impact Assessment was to keep a check on the diversion of land, to ensure that excess land is not acquired by anybody, to ensure that multi-crop irrigated land is acquired only as the last resort and also to identify the livelihood losers and not just landowners.
Compensation is also being provided to the livelihood losers. So that is one big issue.
Under the new law moved by the NDA now private hospitals and private education institutions can acquire land for these private guys who run for profit. I see no reason why they should be defined as infrastructure.
We had said five years after the land acquisition, you should return the land if it is not developed. It is a reasonable time frame.
If you want to make something, make it in five years, ten years, we can debate on it. But to make it unlimited, which is what has happened now, I think is completely unfair to the farmers.
There is an urgency clause in the 2013 Act. That urgency clause takes care of national security and defence installations. You can acquire the land without the consent or without doing Social Impact Assessment.
Now to say that this 2013 law is anti-national and that Pakistan would know what we are doing is a completely bogus argument, frankly speaking.
The government is trying to redefine a Supreme Court judgment. The Supreme Court had said that compensation means when compensation has been deposited in the court. Now they have said compensation means whenever it has been paid, however it has been paid. So it has negated a Supreme Court judgement of only a couple of months ago.
So lakhs of farmers, whose lands were acquired under the 1894 Act who had taken the compensation and who were entitled to compensation under the new law under certain conditions, will get disinherited.
The crux of the matter
The fundamental premise of the 2013 Act was there will be no forcible land acquisition. No law is 100 per cent perfect. You always give and take on the basis of operating experience. You can say this is what we found and we need to change.
I had said in Parliament when we were piloting this bill that if there are some operating difficulties, we can always, whichever the government, can examine it.
But our point is without giving a chance to this Act to operate in practice, suddenly the government has come up with amendments. I don't want to ascribe any motive to anybody, but I do feel that this is about land acquisition, not for buying of land.
If a private institution, private hospital or private parties want land, they can go in the open market and buy it! Why use the government to acquire the land for you?
I believe in faster industrialisation, we need deeper industrialisation, urbanisation, all that is fine. I don't think patriotism and commitment of industry is a monopoly of either Modi or Jaitley or Nitin Gadkari, we are all a part of it. However the point is how do you bring about a balance?
Instead of addressing the valid question they have gone for force. The route for forcible land acquisition has been reopened. In our law of 2013 in government projects a Social Impact Assessment is required, but no consent of the landowner is required for government infrastructure projects.
If it is a private project, 80 per cent consent is required. If it is a PPP, 70 per cent consent is required. In our law there are four elements -- consent, Social Impact Assessment, compensation and rehabilitation and resettlement.
In our law, we have clearly said that if you are a government entity, if you are doing a government project, no consent is required.
But Social Impact Assessment is a must. There are clear time guidelines, time schedules in the act for how the Social Impact Assessment will be done, when the Social Impact Assessment should get done and what is the Social Impact Assessment?
The Social Impact Assessment is the way of convincing the local community that land is being acquired for a public purpose, that excess land is not being acquired, it is an exercise of outreach and communication.
We are a democracy, we must learn to take people into confidence!
The government is taking a unilateral approach. I am not blaming anybody, but this is the mindset -- that the government must have the power to acquire any land at any point of time. That mindset must go.
The 13 laws exempted under the 2013 Act
I accepted that criticism. That 13 laws, coal, highway, railways etc were exempted. It didn't require consent of the landowners. But special economic zones were removed from the list. In law SEZs requires both consent and Social Impact Assessment.
We exempted 13 laws from Social Impact Assessment and consent, but did not exempt them from compensation and R&R. So we had to bring in those changes within one year. That was the compromise I made. Any government is a collective entity, so naturally the railway minister and the highway minister were heard too.
Unfortunately, (the NDA's rural development minister) Gopinath Munde passed away. Munde was on record as having said he would not do anything to tamper with this 2013 law because it was the BJP that was its strongest and most enthusiastic supporter in Parliament.
The BJP brought two amendments. One was to allow for leasing of the land which was provided.
The other was dealing with windfall profits. That if there was a windfall profit it would be shared with the original owner. This was Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitely's amendment that we put it in. Under the law you can do acquisition of land, purchase and you can also lease the land.
His objections to the new amendments
I have substantive objections in terms of the provisions and I have objections about the manner of approaching the bill.
Jaitley believes that for government projects you do not require Social Impact Assessment, I believe that you require Social Impact Assessment.
That is the fundamental issue. Look, Jaitley's party has the numbers in the Lok Sabha, but not in the Rajya Sabha. I do not know what is going to happen in the Rajya Sabha.
All I can tell you is that the 2013 law is not my private law. It was done after consultation, the bill was put in public domain, we took it to the standing committee. What did the standing committee recommend?
Sumitra Mahajan said categorically that under no circumstances land should be acquired for private projects. She said under no circumstances land should be acquired for PPP, even. I said, 'Madam what are you doing?' She said, 'No, my experience is different.'
I said okay, I will disagree with you, that is why we put 80 per cent consent for private and 70 per cent for PPP. Jaitley wants to do away with consent and Social Impact Assessment completely in certain categories of land acquisition.
Also, we should know that all governments are sitting on thousands of acres of land. I have seen land acquired 30, 40 years ago and nothing has happened on it. You have gone and acquired 100 acres, 1,000 acres and not even using it.
See, we are a land deficit country. We are a land hungry country. BJP MP Chandan Mitra made a beautiful speech when the bill was being debated. He said how land is social security. He quoted from the movie Do Bigha Zameen, he quoted Rabindranath Tagore.
Now, the same Chandan Mitra's party is taking a different view. The NDA should be bit realistic on this matter.
On allegations that he messed up the bill in 2013
If I messed up the bill, then why did Sushmaji and Rajnathji not raise it in Parliament? Dr Manmohan Singh brought about the consensus. He set up a Group of Ministers under Sharad Pawar's chairmanship. That GoM debated all these issues. Anand Sharma wrote a letter -- his recommendations were incorporated in the bill.
In the UPA you had one pradhan mantri and many mantris (ministers). In the NDA you have one pradhan mantri and many santris (sentries)!
In the UPA you had different points of view. You had no unanimity, but you had consensus. There is difference between unanimous and consensus. The 2013 law was consensus.
If it is a government project, you don't require consent of landowners, but you require an Social Impact Assessment. That is a perceptional problem. By insisting on Social Impact Assessment I am not being anti-national.
Patriotism is not a monopoly of Mr Jaitley, there is a different point of view. Settle the different point of view democratically, have a discussion.
Ultimately the government of the day has its way, but let everybody have their say. Anybody who has an alternative point of view is being termed anti-national.
If the government's ordinance becomes an Act we are on the return road to 1894.
The 2014 Act, if passed, will have all the undue power to acquire land without any consultative process, without any give and take, without Social Impact Assessment.
On the Congress view
This is an issue on which the Congress party has taken a considered political decision. It is a decision which the Janata Dal-United, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India-Marxist, the Biju Janata Dal, the Shiv Sena, the Trinamool Congress and Akali Dal supported. Even elements within the BJP were supporting it.
There will be different points of view and there are ways of handling different points of view. The prime minister has said in Parliament that samvad hona chahiye, to samvad keejiye, na! Samvad ka matlab ye nahi hai ki aap kaan band keejiye aur kaho ki aap bolte jao bolte jao. Aur agar koi aapko pasand nahi hai to aap kahenge ki aap rashtravaadi nahi hain, ye desh ke suraksha ke khilaaf hai. (The prime minister told Parliament that there should be dialogue, then debate, please. It doesn't mean that you shut your ears and ask others to speak. If you don't like someone, you say you are not patriotic, this is against national security.) This is not the right approach.
I had said then that I hope 20 years from now, we don't require any land acquisition law. I had said so that ultimately if someone wants to go and buy land in this country let them buy it from the open market. But today it is not possible.
The state of land markets, state of land titles, land mafias, asymmetry of power between the buyer and seller of land, it is unrealistic to expect that for infrastructure projects people can buy land from the open market.
Give time to the 2013 Act to work. I not only think that the 2013 law is workable, I believe that the 2013 law is a compromise, a balanced middle path and protects the interests of land owners and livelihood losers.
It is not for me or my party to find the compromise; it is for the government to find the compromise. My job is not to come up with solutions. It is the job of the government to come up with solutions.
When we were in power, this is what the BJP used to tell us. There is discontent, there is disquiet and I think the government should move in a careful manner and take various people into consideration, take people on board, not smear people and call their patriotic credentials into question. This is not the way.
Don't listen to the Congress; listen to some of your own voices within the BJP. Listen to Cabinet ministers.
All I am saying is listen to your inner voices. Modi was chief minister for 13 years, prime minister for nine months, he is the jagatguru of political communication, political packaging, political outreach. Arun Jaitley is the jagatguru of political spin.
Now it for the government to decide.
Photographs: Top and bottom: Reuters
As told to Sheela Bhatt/Rediff.com