Modi’s mann ki baat on land acquisition is the first attempt to explain reform in 25 years

In a column I wrote on February 27, 2015
, I had said that prime minister Narendra Modi should talk to the people of this country directly through his mann ki baat programme on All India Radio. Modi spoke to the people of India directly yesterday on mann ki baat and addressed the contentious issue of land acquisition.
Among other things he criticized the Congress party which has been protesting against The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Amendment) Ordinance, 2014.
Modi said that “those projecting themselves as sympathisers of farmers and undertaking protests,” had been using the Land Acquisition Act 1894, a 120 year-old law for 60-65 years after independence. In the process he exposed the hypocrisy of the Congress party, which has been in power in every decade after independence, and had the opportunity to set things right on the land acquisition front. But it never went around to doing this.
The Land Acquisition Act 1894, had been the law of the land until 2013. This Act gave unparalleled powers to the government to acquire land. A 1985 version of this Act stated: “Whenever it appears to the [appropriate Government] the land in any locality [is needed or] is likely to be needed for any public purpose [or for a company], a notification to that effect shall be published in the Official Gazette [and in two daily newspapers circulating in that locality of which at least one shall be in the regional language], and the Collector shall cause public notice of the substance of such notification to be given at convenient places in the said locality.”
This was not surprising given that the law came into being when the British ruled India. This allowed governments all over India to acquire land from the public. Many governments passed on this land to corporates, and in the process both the government and the corporates made money. The only one who did not make money was the individual whose land was being acquired. Of course, this did not go unnoticed. People saw politicians and corporates making a killing in the process. And the trust that is required for any system to work completely broke down. In 2013, the Congress led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) brought in The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act 2013.
One of the major provisions of the Act was that private companies acquiring land would require the prior consent of at least eighty percent of the affected families. In case of public-private partnerships(PPP) the prior consent was required from at least seventy percent of the affected families.
The ordinance brought in the Modi government is essentially the same as the 2013 Act, except for a few changes. The ordinance does away with the requirement of prior consent for land being acquired for affordable housing, defence, defence production, rural infrastructure including electrification, industrial corridors etc. There is nothing wrong with this change.
Also, the 2013 Act stipulated that the land acquisition carried out under 13 Acts of Parliament which dealt with land acquired for the purpose of atomic energy, highways, national highways, mining, railways, metro etc., were exempted from the Act. The 2014 ordinance did away with this distinction, which meant that land being acquired under these Acts will also be compensated at the same rate as promised in the 2013 Act. Doing away with this distinction is a step in the right direction.
Prime minister Modi in his address pointed out that maximum land is acquired under these 13 acts. “If we hadn’t approved this amendment, then the farmer would have continued losing land to projects with low compensation,” he said. He also put a rhetorical question to the people of this country: “Tell me if what we did was wrong?…Can someone tell me if this improvement goes against farmers?”
As per the 2013 Act, for rural areas the minimum compensation promised is anywhere between two to four times the market value of land along with the value of the assets on that land. For urban areas the minimum compensation promised is two times the market value of land along with the value of the assets on that land. So, land acquired under the 13 Acts of Parliament will also be compensated at the same rate as the land acquired for other projects.
Modi in his address clarified that the “ordinance does not change the compensation legislated in the 2013 Act one bit.” He also addressed the genuine concern of people that more than the land that is required for a project is typically taken on. He assured them that in the days to come there would be a proper assessment of how much land will be required for a project and this will ensure that excess land is not acquired.
Indian corporates over the years have acquired land through the government and become lazy in the process. Also, many of them started to see themselves as landlords and wanted land just for the heck of it. This can be said from the inefficient use of industrial land in India. If Modi follows what he has said that will be another step in the right direction. It will also do a lot to rebuilt the trust required for the process of land acquisition to work efficiently.
Agriculture, forestry and fishing form around 18% of the total economic output of the country. Data from the India Brand Equity Foundation, a trust established by the ministry of commerce and industry, points out that agriculture “employs just a little less than 50 per cent of the country’s workforce”.
If nearly 50% of country’s workforce is engaged in an activity which produces only 18% of its economic output, there is something that is not quite right about the entire scenario. What this clearly tells us is that too many Indians are dependent on agriculture and this number needs to come down. The situation gets even worse once you take into account the fact that most people who work on farms don’t totally depend on income from the farm. Only 17 percent of them survive entirely on money from their farm.
Modi addressed this issue as well by saying: “In every household, the farmer wants only one son to stay in farming. But he wants other children to get out there and work because he knows that in order to run a household in this day and age different endeavours need to be made.” He then went to say that given this scenario what is wrong with the government acquiring land for building an industrial corridor and ensuring that jobs are created in the vicinity of where farmers live. This was another important issue that Modi addressed in the programme.
To conclude, economic reforms in this country have also been carried out through stealth. No government in this country has ever made an effort to explain economic reform to people. This was the first time since the process of economic reform started in 1991, when someone has made an effort to explain it in simple layman terms to the people of this country. In fact, what Modi has started needs to continue. Other leaders of the Bhartiya Janata Party now need to take this forward by talking to the people of this country directly.

The column originally appeared on on Mar 23, 2015

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)