The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government's land ordinance, approved by the President on Wednesday, has made several amendments to the original law rather quietly.
Changes in the retrospective clause of the Bill are important but did not attract enough attention when the ordinance was approved by the Cabinet.
In the original 2013 law, if compensation had not been paid for over five years to landowners or the land had not been taken over by the government within five years, the owners had the right to claim the land back. The NDA government has amended this. Now, if the possession of land has been taken by the government agency within five years, this retrospective clause would not apply as long as the government agency acquiring the land had deposited the compensation account in courts or any account maintained for the purpose.
A recent Supreme Court order had clarified that this period of five years for triggering the retrospective clause included any period where the land acquisition got stuck in litigation. But the ordinance has blunted this.
It has now said if the acquisition proceedings were held up because of any stay or injunctions by any courts, then that period of litigation would not count towards calculating the five-year period.
The NDA government has also done away with the strict provisions that required action being taken against government officials for falling foul of the law. The 2013 law provided that where an offence had been committed by any department of the government, the head of the department would be deemed to be guilty. The official can escape if he can prove the offence was committed without his knowledge and he had exercised all due diligence.
But this provision of the law has been replaced. The new one says no court can take cognisance of any crime committed by officials under the land acquisition Act, without the prior approval of the state concerned or the central government. This is the stock provision in most other laws concerning actions of government officials.
The 2013 land Act had tried to hold government officers responsible for their actions, but this has now been done away with. And the government has reverted to providing the typical safety latch maintained under other laws while prosecuting government funcationaries.
The government has also loosened the provision that required unused acquired lands be returned to the original owners.
IN SAFE ZONE
Infrastructure and social infrastructure which would be exempt from the need for consent and social impact assessment, including those done through PPP mode
Source: Ministry of Finance notification dated March 27, 2012.
The 2013 legislation had provided that the land be returned if it remained unused for the original purpose for five years. The ordinance now has amended the original law. If the government has fixed a time period for the setting up of a project and the land remained unused for this entire period, the land need not be returned to the original owner, even if such project periods are longer than five years.
On the day the Cabinet had cleared the amendments, the government had announced other big-ticket changes, including keeping infrastructure and social infrastructure projects out of the ambit of social impact assessment and the need for consent from land owners. These projects included those in the private-public-partnership mode. The list of the category of projects that fall within the government's definition of "infrastructure" and "social infrastructure" are listed in the table with this story. It is an exhaustive list that includes high-end hotels, hospitals, ports, special economic zones, tourism facilities, cold chains, fertiliser factories, ports, roads, airports and urban public transport.