The government has rammed through an ordinance on the Land Acquisition Act, and is once again trying to dilute the Forest Rights Act.
What do these planned changes actually say?
- State government officials will decide on projects, with no guidelines and no legal requirements: Much attention has been focused on the exemption from the Social Impact Assessment, but the ordinance doesn’t just do that. It exempts practically all projects from section 8 of the Act.
- Hence there is no requirement to show that the project will actually be beneficial; no requirement to show that only the required land is being acquired; etc. The Collector gets to decide everything – and no one can even challenge that decision, since the law doesn’t provide any ground for doing so. This is exactly what the Environment Ministry is trying to do to the Forest Rights Act.
- All decisions are to be based purely on what the company claims – without any objective information: Forest clearances, environment clearances, and now land acquisition – in everything the government is actively trying to prevent any kind of objective basis for making a decision. In forest clearances, they want to proceed without bothering to find out – from the gram sabhas, the legal authorities – whether people have rights or not. In environment clearances, the TSR Subramaniam committee companies should be treated with “utmost good faith”, and in any case environmental impact assessments are paid for by the company. And now, in the Land Acquisition Act, there’s no need for a social impact assessment. How can anyone rationally decide on a project without knowing who and what it will actually impact? Do reforms consist of enabling irrational decisions?
- No one can be held accountable: Rather than holding the head of the department accountable, the new ordinance reiterates that government officials should not be prosecuted without the sanction of the State government. If a company doesn’t use the land, no problem, the government can just arbitrarily decide how much time it should have. If a company lies about environment impact, says the TSR Subramaniam Committee, just ask it to pay a penalty – and go on with the project. Never punish anyone, except the people who lose their lands, homes and often their lives.
- Those affected will be denied their rights, even if they are protected by law: The one taboo is, of course, to ask those who will lose most. Now consent has been removed from the Land Acquisition Act for most projects. There is an ongoing effort to bypass the requirement for consent prior to takeover of forest land in the Forest Rights Act. In the environment clearance process, more and more projects are being exempted from public hearings.
Who Will This Benefit?
Consider some facts: in both Rajasthan and Orissa, the CAG found that most land acquired was not used, and companies illegally mortgaged land for taking loans while sitting on empty plots. In November, the CAG reported that about half the land acquired for SEZs is vacant and the operational zones had dismally failed to meet any of their targets. A recent NDTV investigation found that most States have acquired far more land than they are using. So who is this law for?
- Not those who receive compensation: The government has made much of the fact that it did what was already required – extended the compensatioon provisions of the Act to the earlier exempt statutes. But this “compensation” is not based on the real value of land – it is based on the recorded rate of land sale. As anyone who has ever bought property in India knows, the recorded rate is far below the real value of land – and merely increasing it by three or four times is unlikely to bring it anywhere near the land’s real value.
- Not legal rights holders and those who use land for their livelihood: The vast majority of people who are affected by a project will effectively get nothing now, since there is no way for the authorities to know who they are without a Social Impact Assessment. The illegal violation of the Forest RIghts Act makes this situation worse.
- Not real infrastructure: By making it easier to bypass the law and railroad projects, this amendment will only mean that genuine projects will be ignored by officials in favour of get rich quick schemes by speculators. After all, without any information, how is even an honest official supposed to decide which project is actually truly beneficial? Besides, people do not take the loss of their lands and rights lying down. At least one quarter of the country’s districts are witnessing protests and conflicts over land takeover.
- Not the banks: The London-based India Study Group has produced a detailed briefing on why encouraging fraudulent and speculative projects is the real reason for India’s bad loans crisis. Protests and litigation also result in banks never getting repaid – while promoters escape scot free. T
- Not the infrastructure sector: RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan has pointed out that encouraging fraudulent promoters and projects has raised interest rates for the entire sector. This amendment will make this situation worse.
For this government, “reforms” means making bureaucrats unaccountable, encouraging fraudulent projects, going soft on bad loans, and handing over land, resources, workers and public money to a few big companies. But, like all autocrats, they fail to realise that the struggle goes on, and they don’t always win.
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