The lay of the land law


Nitin Sethi
Jairam Ramesh and Muhammad Ali Khan
OUP, 254 pages, Rs 495

What perfect timing to get this book out when the Parliament's Joint Committee is reviewing the National Democratic Alliance's (NDA's) land ordinance, which reverts to the government the power to forcibly acquire land across the country. Anyone who wants to cut through the political rhetoric that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is spinning to valiantly defend its misfired ordinance should read Jairam Ramesh and Muhammad Ali Khan's book.

The book describes and justifies the provisions of the 2013 law that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) had passed. It takes you through each of the salient features of the law. It details the logic, the legal basis and, to a lesser extent, the compromises reached to stitch together a law that would eventually pass the Parliamentary test.

When Mr Ramesh steered the law through the Parliament, bending to build in demands from the left and the right, he drew both flak and compliments from critiques of extremely different hues. But the NDA's attempt to thrust through the ordinance sans the consent clause from sellers and a social impact assessment has considerably changed the benchmark against which UPA's land law will be measured in times to come.

Mr Ramesh and Mr Khan are lucky in one respect. Their book addresses the 2013 law in contrast to what the BJP wishes to have as a replacement. Under the circumstances, one can't grudge the two authors their failure to address other critiques of the UPA law, such as the cumbersome social impact assessment process and the loopholes they left open in defining "public interest".

The book had gone to press when the NDA brought out its first land ordinance. Consequently, the last chapter of the book is a quick take critiquing the provisions of the ordinance. NDA's second ordinance came with a few more amendments but that has not changed the core differences between the BJP's and Congress' approach to land acquisition, so the critique still holds.

The catena of judicial rulings, precedents and practices from within India and other countries referred to while writing the book has the stamp of Mr Ramesh's legal aid and officer on special duty at the ministry of rural development, the young and competent Muhammad Ali Khan. For any researcher working on land acquisition-related issues the book should come handy.

The book has a few threads of conversation about legislating on a subject that partly falls under the State list of the Constitution and partly under the Concurrent list. The conversation is not complete but it leaves enough fodder for thought. As the authors point out, one large part of the land reforms agenda could not be addressed through the central law - cleansing the land records system.

Neither the industry and project developers looking for land nor the landowners are ever going to negotiate a smooth deal till the country's land record system is sorted out. This is where Prime Minister Narendra Modi should have expended his considerable mandate and energy in order to put to put his mantra of "competitive federalism" to real work. Both industry and landowners, would have thanked him. It would not have been the big-bang for which NDA keeps looking in policy pronouncements. No doubt, the exercise would have been difficult. But with so many states under the ruling party's command Mr Modi one couldn't hope for a better opportunity to get the state's land record systems sorted out.

The authors also touch upon, although only in principle, the problem of "land-use change" policies - the point when the state reclassifies agricultural land as commercial land. When this happens, the price of land shoots up overnight. This is the stuff land scams are made out of. This is the point at which political interests, the real estate mafia and a pliant bureaucracy come together to make a killing - and where you may very rarely find a Khemka or two. But neither the law UPA legislated nor the ordinance that BJP promulgated have resolved how best the original land-owner can be assured a good portion of this increased value.

As with Mr Ramesh's previous book, this is not a tell-all book. It doesn't tell you what took place behind the scenes and what political sagacity, lobbying and leg-work it required to get the 2013 law through the Parliament. Those looking for an anecdote-filled masala read that passes personal perceptions and biases as contemporary political history will be disappointed. But for anyone trying to rip through the rhetorical nonsense that currently plagues the land law debate, the book works like a good boning knife. Of course, by the time the debate is done and BJP has its way or not with the ordinance we shall require a meat cleaver.

First Published: Jun 09 2015 | 9:25 PM IST

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