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BALANCING THE ACT

BALANCING THE ACT

This is surely the first time we've 'carried over' our editorial comment from a previous month. Yet the subject of land acquisition seems to brew and brew like a well-spun yarn of suspense, through twists and turns, sometimes acting on vagaries and sometimes on political reactions to pressures.

Two land acquisition policies were drafted since last month: one from Mayawati's political bouquet and another from the union rural development ministry. Common between them is their desperate attention to farmer needs. The violence and political drama in Bhatta and Parsaul persuaded the Uttar Pradesh to time her decision with great political expediency.

Notwithstanding that piece of convenience, the policy is balanced and fair, as it combines the social with the economic, the developmental with privatisation. Seventy percent of the affected farmers need to be in consensus, and rehabilitation through jobs for a member of the family is assured. Beyond cash compensation, 16 per cent of the developed land and an annuity package for 33 years will be given. Land acquisition for private development should never have been on the government's agenda, and yet the cat dragged in grey areas in the land acquisition legislation (remember the original dates back to 1894). The policy had been pending since 2007. While gearing up to accelerate private participation in its industrialisation, the state is also preparing to outsource the disbursement of its land acquisition compensation (Rs 23,000 per acre per year as annuity, with interest accrued of Rs 800 each year) to insurance companies and banks, in the hope to amortise and optimise its cash flow.

Whether this will please private investors depends on how much muscle a company has. Overall, acquisition will be no joke, and recurring problems in negotiations and conflicts may result in strained relations in the local communities.

On the other hand, Vilasrao Deshmukh-led land acquisition policy that is proposed at the Centre cannot possibly be taken seriously. While the common factor remains the convenient disinvolvement of the government, the policy entails that 60 per cent of the cost will be paid to the farmer as bonus and 80 per cent of the profit earned by the developer, in addition to annuity. Some industry experts believe that this could be an intended lame duck to assuage the current resentment among farmers and not necessarily intended to pass as an Act. One way or the other, an 80 per cent profit share with farmers will be surely rejected at every stage.

Bills and Acts were intended as documents that mean inclusiveness, fairness and balance for all affected parties. In this case, the affected parties are both the land losers as well as the investing industries. The minister has repeatedly gone on record stating that the policy has been framed to benefit farmers, and this, per se, should not be acceptable. If the government is serious about solving the fast and uncomfortably brewing land acquisition issues around the country, it must be serious about balancing the issues first.

And in that respect, the Centre would do well to emulate or take forward the UP government's land acquisition act, and address the pressing need to define 'public use' in a contemporary and relevant way, as well as what will constitute mandatory use. And once defined, the policy cannot decide on who will acquire based on who develops the project, but on what the land will be used for.

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