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India's PM Modi: A Victim of Political Catchphrase Now, on Land Bill

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Political catchphrases were effectively used during India's 2014 general election by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by its star campaigner Mr. Narendra Modi, now Prime Minister of India. Now Mr. Modi faces unpopular catchphrase against him, with 'Anti-farmer' ('Kissan Virodhi, Narendra Modi') tag given to him, considered Messiah Modi till the election. 'Kissan Virodhi' (Anti-Farmer) is something that no Indian politician can afford to be, in reality or even in perceptions, due to the overwhelmingly high farming community India has, most of whom are marginal farmers. Average size of farmland ownership, for India's more than 50% population relying on agriculture for a living, is less than 2% than the average farmland ownership that farmers in developed world, like the US, has.

All of it is due to India's controversial, contentious and sensitive land bill. India's lawmakers have come full circle with it again. The forward transition had taken sixty-six years, since India's independence, while the process of undoing it did not even take a single calendar year.

India's ruling party moves to roll back protections for farmers facing land expropriation
India's ruling party moves to roll back protections for farmers facing land expropriation
(Image by (Photo Credit: Bismillah Geelani))
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The country is back to where it was on this extremely sensitive issue years ago. The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (RFCTLARR) Act, 2013 replaced the 120-year old British colonial Land Acquisition Act of 1894, in the near-end of the last government, duly supported by the BJP then. Indiscriminate use of the colonial act resulted in many blatant land grabs, and protests.

In last December, immediately after the chaotic winter session of the Parliament, an ordinance was issued by the newly-elected government in changing the 2013 Act. Industry bodies in India, unanimously, were not happy with it; and the 2014 general election campaign witnessed the money-power of the industry lobby shifting to the BJP.

India's diverse interests in land acquisition rise from the aspirations of different key segments of its populace. The fear of survival, as faced by the marginal farmer - the owner of the land, to the aspirations of creating a million jobs a month for the youth, to the generation of wealth and foster economic growth through easy multiplier-effect that land in India offers - all these aspirations divide India's 1.25 billion population on what an appropriate land acquisition policy in the 21st century should be.

To make this complex background worse, the ruling BJP-led NDA government lacks majority in the Upper House of the bicameral Indian Parliament, although it has comfortable majority in the Lower House. Lok Sabha passed the proposed amendments on 10th March. The amended bill now faces an uncertain future in the Rajya Sabha. The budget session of the Parliament has already gone in to a recess, till 19th April. Ground sentiments on the land bill, in spite of Modi's poorly-timed radio programme 'Mann Ki Baat' (from the heart) on 22nd March, seems largely negative. With the ordinance expiring now on 5th April, there is likely to be a policy logjam, too early on this critical issue in the tenure of the new government - all of which was avoidable.

The government and various industry federations claim that the changes made, in the proposed one now from that of the 2013 Act, are minor in nature; however, interpretations vary. A critical change has been made by adding five categories of exceptions for land acquisitions, where 2013 Act will not be applicable. These exceptions essentially offer a carte blanche acquisition against erstwhile safeguards. It also does away with the consent clause from the land owners, bringing it down to zero, where earlier provision was 70% and 80%, depending on the nature of public-private partnership projects and fully private projects, respectively.

Change has been made with the right to justice clause too, as judiciary intervention appealed by affected parties become more difficult. The ordinance also does away with the socio-impact study of the end-purpose project.

Forceful land acquisitions in India have resulted in innumerable protests during the last decade, many violent ones, from Nandigram to Singur to decade-long delay in POSCO project (biggest FDI in India so far), covering almost all major states of India, causing many unfortunate deaths too. It also delayed the process of land acquisition for genuine investors, which India badly needs. State's compensation mechanism, based on the colonial act, was often found to be unattractive and inefficient.

India is a nation with 2.2% of the world's land and 17.3% of the world's population. Around 60% of this land is arable, out of which 35% is covered under irrigation, qualifying to be multi-crop land. Proposed changes make acquisition of multi-crop land easier, removing existing safeguards. Another 23% of the total land comes under forest coverage, lower than the global average (26%). The ruling government has already made its intentions of diluting standards of environmental protection, and favoring mining or industrial projects in forest land, in spite of pollution levels in major Indian cities already being higher than that of China.

On top of low per capita availability of land, the dependence of the populace on land has equally been high. More than 50% of India's population has their livelihoods linked with land. Contribution of agriculture in the overall economy has reduced from more than 40% during 1970s to less than 15% now, but reduction on dependence on agriculture for livelihood has been much less drastic. It also portrays a failure so far, in creation of new jobs, away from agriculture. Persistently high food inflation indicates negligence of the overall farming sector, by successive governments.

Past promises made, on job creations to infrastructure creation to exports, during land acquisitions for Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in the last decade remain largely unfulfilled. Controller and Auditor General (CAG), India's statutory auditor, revealed SEZs fell short of job creation projections ranging from 66% to 97%, whereas export shortfalls ranged from 47% to 94%. Large tracks of land acquired in past for industrialization or infrastructure remain underutilized years later, both with private industries or with state industrial corporations, the later being more than 45% of in five major industrialized states of India. Globally, India's Ultra High Net Worth Individuals (UHNWI) rank highest in percentile investments of their net worth in land-related properties.

The ongoing attempt to dilute the safeguards to marginal farmers that the 2013 act provided, in less than a year since its implementation, raises obvious questions. Past acquisitions have often fallen short on promises, be it in proportionate industrialization or infrastructure development or employment generation. Modi's government should have given the 2013 land act a chance before jumping in to making critical changes in it, more so when all the proposed changes indicate marginal farmers' interests being compromised. The government may find it a costly mistake going forward, irrespective of the final outcome the new proposed land ordinance face in Parliament.

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Professor Institute of Management Technology (IMT) Nagpur, India

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