Land Acquisition in India – A Tough Balancing Act
Sovereigns across the globe have relied upon the doctrine of eminent domain to acquire land for public use. Consent of those who own the land takes a backseat when the greater good is at stake. Guided by this utilitarian principle and to usher a sense of equality among the economically weaker citizens of this nation, ‘right to property’ was removed as a fundamental right through the 44th amendment. However, democracy demands people-pleasing and power mongers have to give in once in a while for a euphoric sense of justice to prevail. Consequently, the doctrine of eminent domain was balanced through the introduction of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition Rehabilitation and Resettlements Act, 2013 (RFCTLARR Act). The act empowered central and state governments to acquire lands for the development of public good with ‘consent’.
However, acquisition of land comes under Schedule VII i.e. the concurrent list which means both state and central governments can devise laws under it. This provided scope for abuse by states which enacted similar laws on land acquisition suiting their specific requirements. While doing this, the states remained undeterred by ‘Article 21’ that ensures the right to personal liberty and dignity, thus clearly defying the ‘basic structure’ of the constitution. Further, land acquisition under the said state laws was in blatant violation of the requirement that central laws enacted on subjects under the concurrent list must take precedence over the state laws. Federalism in this regard didn’t favour the distressed population. This misuse of power has caused negative externalities to the marginalized populations and the role of the capitalist class and private players in connection to the political establishment has been visible. This paper seeks to examine the impact of the state legislation which has resulted in exploitative conditions and varying judgments by high courts across the country.
The 2013 Act and 2014 Amendment Ordinance
The reasons for the introduction of the RFCTLARR Act in 2013 included lack of standing for the people displaced, lack of participation in the acquisition decision, inadequate compensation, insufficient coverage of families affected by the acquisition, procedural delays, and inequities as well as non-use of the land acquired. To some extent, the new law acted as a huge relief for marginalized landowners but it did not go down well with the state governments or industry participants who started protesting against the cumbersome process and the acquisition cost that, according to them, would hinder developmental activities.
To plug the vehement protests, an ordinance was promulgated that substantially altered the provisions of the RFCTLARR Act by exempting five categories of projects from the consent and social impact assessment provisions i.e. defense, rural infrastructure, affordable housing, industrial corridors, and infrastructure projects including Public-Private Partnership (PPP).[i] However, the ordinance lapsed after a few re-promulgation and law to replace the ordinance has not and most likely would not see the light of the day due to the sensitive nature of the subject and intense contestations by the stakeholders. A Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) is now shouldering the responsibility of bringing about the amendments.
Dilution of Key Provisions by States
In the meanwhile, several states have already brought about changes through Rules under Section 109 of the Act or have enacted their own state-level land acquisition legislations. At least six state governments have enacted their own land acquisition laws by seeking Presidential consent using Article 254 (2) of the constitution. These new state laws directly adopt the amendments proposed by the 2014 land ordinance and exclude acquisitions for certain purposes from the purview of the central law. State-level rules are diluting the applicability of progressive clauses like prior consent, public hearings, or Social Impact Assessment (SIA).
In Jharkhand, the state rules reduce the quorum of the gram sabha consent to one-third from half as required in the central rule. In Odisha and Jharkhand, unused acquired lands are repatriated into land banks rather than returning it to the original owners as required by the central law. The Tamil Nadu law allows unused land to be taken for any other purpose, provided the District Collector certifies the same. State Rules are reducing the amount of compensation to be paid against acquisitions. In states like Haryana, Chhattisgarh, and Tripura the multiplying factor for rural land is fixed at 1.00 as against 2.00 as specified in the central law.[ii]
While the states have been busy bypassing the law, courts have had to deal with a bombardment of litigation requiring interpretation of key provisions of the RFCTLARR Act as well as determining the constitutional validity of the state enactments. Key pronouncements have been made with regards to Section 24(2) of the RFCTLARR Act which states that after initiating land acquisition for a project under the 1894 law if the physical possession has not been taken by the developer or the compensation not paid to the landowners for more than five years, the acquisition process would lapse. In such cases, the government would have to initiate fresh acquisition under the Act.
A three-judge bench of the apex court had held in Pune Municipal Corporation v Harakchand Misirimal Solanki that mere deposit of compensation in government treasury cannot be regarded as a payment made to the landowner and acquisition proceedings under the 1894 Act will lapse in such cases. The decision was overruled by another three-judge bench in Indore Development Authority vs Shailendra holding that deposit of the award in treasury should be regarded as payment to the landowner who is refusing to accept compensation. Following the contradictory stand, a bench has been constituted by the CJI to end the controversy and all compensation matters in land acquisition cases pending in high courts have stayed till the issue is settled.
In another stark turn of events, the Madras High Court declared as “illegal” the amendment made by the Tamil Nadu government to the Centre’s Land Acquisition Act, exempting three state legislations from its purview. The court said, “In order to revive these acts, the State must re-enact these statutes, in accordance with Article 254(2) of the Constitution of India and obtain the assent of the President. Merely, by inserting Section 105-A and the 5th Schedule, in the new Act, these impugned enactments do not get revived. Since this had admittedly not been done, the Acts remain repugnant, and Article 254(1) renders them inoperative.”
Alternative to Acquisition
As far as the issue of developmental activities being hindered because of difficulty in land acquisition is concerned, the centre should look at encouraging land leasing and land pooling as is already being practiced in Haryana and UP. In such arrangements, the landowner lends the land to the government for a steadily increasing rent, or through an annuity-based system or through land development by a government agency, it said. Under pooling, the group of landowners gives their land to a government agency for developing the land with infrastructure and amenities and later they get a part of it back in return.
Achieving a balance
While RFCTLARR has completed six years, it has brought in radical awareness among the advocates of fair acquisition. This has led to increasing land litigations and a gradual rise in the intervention by courts. The progress of RFCTLARR is instrumental in shaping economic revival considering India’s fluctuating growth rates in recent years. There are more than 13,000 cases of land acquisition pending in courts. This raises concerns about the efficacy of the Act and the recent amendments. A conducive relation between fair compensation and economic development is essential in achieving a balance to boost not only economic growth but to aid the overall development of the nation.
[i] Section 10A of the LARR Ordinance, 2014
Image Credits: Nandhu Kumar on Unsplash
While RFCTLARR has completed six years, it has brought in radical awareness among the advocates of fair acquisition. This has led to increasing land litigations and a gradual rise in the intervention by courts. The progress of RFCTLARR is instrumental in shaping economic revival considering India’s fluctuating growth rates in recent years. There are more than 13,000 cases of land acquisition pending in courts. This raises concerns about the efficacy of the Act and the recent amendments.