New Land Bill Puts People First, Govt's Message Is Clear 'India Won't Be China'

Article excerpt

India, Sept. 8 -- Investors say the new land acquisition bill approved by Parliament this week has made things more difficult. Pro-farm civil-society advocates say it hasn't gone far enough to protect farmer interests.

If both sides are unhappy, an inside joke goes, it must be a pretty good legislation that has struck the right balance.

The debate over land acquisition, however, is no laughing matter. In a country where half the people live directly off their land, which is often their only asset, dispossession poses huge political and social risks.

Read:Too late, too little

As numerous recent clashes over land have proved - in Nandigram and Singur in West Bengal, in Niyamgiri in Orissa, and over Posco in Karnataka (see graphic) - India needed a clear policy to define how it would cull rural and farm land for industrial development.

The government had been asleep at the wheel for too long on this, and large-scale displacement of tribal and local populations was contributing to the full-blown armed rebellion by Naxalites and creating civil unrest in less radicalised regions.

Now, the new policy - The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, 2013 - makes its social objective clear.

It is to enable a "humane" process for acquiring land for "industrialisation" and "essential infrastructure", one that causes the "least disturbance" to landowners and those whose livelihoods that land supports.

Read:A lose-lose situation?

The bill replaces an archaic, British-era "eminent domain" law, the Land Acquisition Act of 1894, where consent was not required and, in some cases, neither was payment.

The new bill has three far-reaching features.

First, sufficient compensation, set at between two and four times the market rate.

Second, compulsory rehabilitation benefits.

And third, evaluation of social impact before land acquisition.

Still, the trade-off between agriculture and industry is never easy. India devotes nearly 48% of its land to farming, while China uses only 15%, but grows much more food. This means too many Indians are underemployed in unproductive farming when they could be working at better-paying jobs created by industry.

For this inevitable transition (from a low-productivity farm economy to an industrialised one), land transfer is unavoidable. But this transfer can no longer be effected by force, threat or deceit, as in Nandigram.

On the flip side, acquiring land for industry was never a cakewalk, and it will be more difficult now. …