The parliamentary standing committee on rural development has scrutinised the Centre’s Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, 2011 (the LARR Bill), and suggested several major changes. In particular, the committee thinks it desirable that the government be strictly limited in its acquisition of land — to projects with a clear infrastructural or social purpose. Further, its definition of such purposes specifically excludes any projects in which private, profit-driven players participate. The minister responsible for the LARR Bill’s passage, Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh, has rightly rejected these parts of the committee’s recommendations, pointing out that “industrialisation and urbanisation have become inevitable and desirable”. He received support from Commerce Minister Anand Sharma, who said, in reference to the committee report, that “you cannot take a view that is regressive and prevents the growth of manufacturing”.
The committee’s intention to limit government involvement in the process of land acquisition for industry is an understandable consequence of the fraught politics around the question over the past three or four years. This is a politics of irresponsibility, in which claims that no land will be acquired are frequently thrown around — and in which the ruling Congress is as implicated as any other party. However, such politicking should ideally stop at the time when concrete policies are being analysed. It is indeed regressive to assume that all for-profit industrialisation is evil, and that the government cannot step in to enable the process of capacity-building, which is so important for employment generation. After all, even when it comes to creating basic infrastructure, India’s government lacks sufficient resources. That is why, according to most estimates, the 12th Five-Year Plan expects more than half the resources for infrastructure creation to come from the private sector. In denying that this serves a public purpose, the committee is unquestionably behind the times. There are other problematic assertions that have been made — for example, the claim that India is the only country where the government intervenes in this manner. That is not true. Even the United States, so strong on property rights, has a well-developed doctrine of “eminent domain” supporting state actions in land acquisition for public purpose — regardless of whether the public purpose in question also benefits private interests.
Mr Ramesh and Mr Sharma are to be commended for standing firmly against this attempt to dilute the basic purpose of the land acquisition Bill — to ensure that there are just, efficient, and accountable methods to transform the use of land from agriculture to infrastructure and industry. True, the government’s draft is far from perfect and there are other problems with the draft Bill, which should be debated. The restriction on the sale of multi-cropped land, for example, must go; it unfairly penalises the owners of the most productive farmland and will disproportionately affect fertile but under-industrialised areas. It is also important that the draft should not step on any state government’s toes, given the Centre’s mis-steps on federalism of late. But that senior members of the United Progressive Alliance are for once standing firm and speaking out for reformist principles should be lauded.