Faced with vocal opposition both in the Parliament and on ground, the NDA government has finally allowed the ill-advised Land Acquisition Bill to lapse. Reasons for this capitulation have been widely debated, but it signals a strong victory and relief for millions of project-affected people across the country.
What does this mean:
The special categories of projects identified for exemption under Section 5 of the Bill are now not-so-special- and will have to acquire consent and conduct Social Impact Assessments before land acquisition.
What happens now:
The Land Acquisition Act, 2013 is now back in circulation. In place of the Bill is a new order, aptly or bizarrely named the RTFCLARR Removal of Difficulties Order, 2015. It extends enhanced compensation and rehabilitation benefits to land acquisition under 13 Central laws, but stops at that.
These 13 laws were included in the Fourth Schedule of the Land Acquisition Act, 2013, and were given a year’s exemption from the provisions of the Land Acquisition Act.
What the order accomplishes:
What this new order accomplishes is not beyond the purview of what the Act itself prescribes- and therefore not really ground-breaking. In fact, the order is what the government could have introduced all along, extending these provisions to the 13 exempted Acts as an amendment via notification. But, instead, it was tagged with a wish-list of other amendments that diluted the rights of land losers, pushed through as ordinances and then as a hotly contested bill that lead to a 6-month lockdown in Parliament.
Challenges and implications:
Compensation and rehabilitation aside, the order still doesn’t require these 13 exempted Central laws to acquire the consent of land-losing communities, conduct social impact assessments, or obtain the Free Prior Informed Consent of adivasi communities even in protected Scheduled Areas.
Among these laws is the Coal Bearing Areas Act, which governs land acquisition for public-sector coal mines. Given that the government has said that it wants to double India’s domestic coal production by 2019, and that a majority of India’s coal reserves are in adivasi areas, millions of people from vulnerable communities are still at risk. Exempted laws also include the Railways Act, 1989 and the Land Acquisition (Mines) Act, 1885, among others, which will see large-scale land acquisition. Under Indian and international law, the consent of adivasi communities is a must prior to any decisions taken on their lands and resources.
If the government is truly serious about removing difficulties for citizens faced with land acquisition, then it must also ensure that:
Section 2(1) of the Act should be amended to ensure that social impact assessments and consent are required in all cases of land acquisition, including public sector and other hybrid avtars of development projects.
Section 105 of the Act should be amended to remove the exemptions for land acquisition carried out under 13 other laws from being subject to a social impact assessment or from acquiring the consent of adivasi communities affected by these projects.
Will the government, then, do justice to its obligations towards human rights due diligence or will it look for routes to remove other safeguards or ‘difficulties’ in the path of business?
Only time will tell.