New Delhi: The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government managed to win Lok Sabha approval on Tuesday for the amended land acquisition bill that makes it easier to acquire land for select projects.
The new land law has emerged as a litmus test of the NDA’s resolve and ability to press ahead with key reform initiatives. A united opposition, especially given its majority in the Rajya Sabha, forced a political deadlock on the proposed legislation, thwarting the government from moving ahead with the amended bill.
Ahead of the vote, the government diluted some of the provisions of the bill by moving nine amendments. This did win over some of its critics like the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), the ruling party in Odisha, where protests over land acquisition stalled a $12 billion steel plant that South Korea’s Posco sought to build under a pact it signed with the state government in 2005.
However, the voting pattern and the amendments moved in the Lok Sabha, despite the rethink by the BJD, suggest that the NDA’s ambitious reform agenda would face a stiff challenge in the Rajya Sabha.
The opposition forced a division on more than a dozen amendments—all of them were defeated as the NDA has a comfortable majority in the Lok Sabha.
Analysts, however, said the government did have some options. It could, if the Rajya Sabha failed to move on the bill, have the option of repromulgating the ordinance and of course, provided some conditions are fulfilled, look at a joint session of Parliament.
The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Amendment) Bill, 2015, introduced in the Lok Sabha on Monday by rural development minister Chaudhary Birender Singh, sought to soften some of the restrictive provisions in the original law shepherded by the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government and passed by Parliament in 2013.
That law was seen by many state governments and industry representatives as impeding business and development projects.
On Tuesday, the Lok Sabha passed the new bill by a voice vote. It does away with a clause mandating the consent of 80% of farmers for private acquisition of land and 70% for public-private partnerships. It also does away with a social impact study involving public hearings examining the total number of people affected by the acquisition of land including farm labour.
But the government was forced to move nine amendments to the bill—first brought in as an ordinance on 29 December—that included an assurance of providing jobs for at least one member of a family of people displaced by land acquisition. Another provides for the government to ensure the land acquired is the bare minimum required for a project while another calls on the government to undertake a survey of wastelands.
In his speech, the rural development minister, who circulated the amendments on Tuesday, assured members of the Lok Sabha that no land acquired by the government would be given away to private companies.
“The government will take care of the interests of the farmers. It is not anti-farmer but the country needs development for progress,” he said. “We are willing to consider any more suggestions that you want to make to improve this bill,” he added.
But the Congress, the main opposition party, stood its ground and demanded the bill be referred to a select committee; a resolution that was rejected.
In a bid to break the deadlock, earlier in the day parliamentary affairs minister M. Venkaiah Naidu, along with finance minister Arun Jaitley and Singh, met NDA allies to build consensus on the official amendments brought by the government in the Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill.
While the Congress sought to paint the NDA as anti-farmer, the government in turn argued that those opposing the bill were not recognizing the aspirations of the farmer to be part of the growth process. The rural sector absorbs about 48% of the workforce, while the size of agriculture in gross domestic product is 16-17%.
That the government would get its way in the Lok Sabha was clear from the start, given that the ruling BJP on its own has at least 280 members in a house of 545 members. But the bill is sure to face hurdles in the 245-member Rajya Sabha, where the BJP and its allies are in a minority.
“If the bill clears the Lok Sabha and is not passed by the Rajya Sabha, the government can repromulgate the ordinance with retrospective effect,” said constitutional expert Subhash Kashyap. “If the bill is not cleared by the Rajya Sabha within a period of six months of its introduction, the government can, in my view, call a joint sitting to get it through,” he said.
Arpita Mukherjee, a professor at New Delhi-based Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, an economic think-tank, was of the view that the passage of the new bill would reduce “the cost of acquisition of land for industry that was as high as 40% of the total cost of the project if we were going by the provisions of the 2013 law”,
“In other countries, it was only 5% of the total cost of the project. And so, acquiring land was unviable under the previous law. This bill certainly helps make the business environment more friendly,” she said.
The Narendra Modi government that came to power in the April-May polls last year has been clear that it intends to improve the climate for doing business in India that includes making it easier to acquire land for development and infrastructure activities as well as setting up new projects to create more jobs.