The land acquisition bill violates human rights principles as well as the Constitution
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Land acquisition in India has probably never been as debated, as after the decision of the NDA government to circumvent the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act 2013 (LARR Act) with an ordinance. While the 2013 Act was not ideal from a human rights perspective, it was an improvement over the 1894 Act that it replaced. Massive nation-wide protests against the ordinance, including from NDA allies, forced the government to review it. The amended Bill passed by Lok Sabha, is however, as unsatisfactory as the ordinance since it is essentially the same text. By tweaking some clauses, the government wants to convey that it has protected the rights of farmers and other land-dependent populations. In reality, the Bill fails the test of democracy, welfare, equality, justice – founding principles of the Indian Constitution.

What is wrong with the Land Bill?

  • Misuses the principle of ‘public purpose’

The 2015 Bill, like the LARR Act endorses the notion of ‘eminent domain’ of the state and fails to adopt a human rights definition of ‘public purpose’ or indicators to determine whether a project truly benefits and improves the well-being of all. The Bill provides exemption from Social Impact Assessment, acquisition of irrigated multi-cropped land and consent for five categories of projects: national security and defence; rural infrastructure; affordable housing; industrial corridors; and, infrastructure (including public-private partnership projects on central government-owned land). The obscurity of these categories, without the provision of adequate detail, allows for wide application and misuse of ‘public purpose.’ The Bills states that land for industrial corridors can be acquired up to one kilometre on both sides – a provision that could displace and destroy the livelihoods of thousands of small farmers across India.

  • Violates international human rights law, guidelines and principles

The Bill violates several international human rights laws and principles. First is the recognition of land as a human right since it is integral to the life, sustenance culture, and livelihood of land-dependent populations, including farmers, agricultural workers, pastoralists and forest-dwellers. Second is the principle of ‘prior informed consent.’ The basic tenet of a democracy is that people must have a say in decisions that directly affect their lives and livelihoods. The Bill obliterates the need for consent for the five categories above, thereby sanctioning land grabbing. Third is the need for ‘human rights impact assessments’. The five categories are exempt from Social Impact Assessment to determine the effects of land acquisition on affected families. The UN Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-based Evictions and Displacement, and principles related to large-scale land acquisitions, inter alia, mandate comprehensive impact assessments to be undertaken in advance and stipulate procedures to be followed. Fourth is the need to adhere to human rights standards at every stage, including resettlement. All affected families, irrespective of the land tenure they possess, must receive equal benefits. Fifth is the principle of ‘social function of land’ that calls for equitable use of land. The redistribution of land from the poor to the non-poor, as sanctioned in the Bill, is a reversal of this principle. The Bill also contravenes principles of non-discrimination, gender equality, sustainability, and inter-generational equity.

  • Does not protect food security

The majority of cases of violations of the right to food are related to the expropriation of land, forced evictions, and displacement. The amendment in the Bill to prohibit the acquisition of multi-cropped land is a dangerous step, and would result in dependence on food imports and economic instability.

  • Does not check against misuse

The history of land acquisition in India is replete with evidence of excess land being acquired and diverted. This is apparent in most airport redevelopment projects. The Centre for Science and Environment’s green rating survey 2012 reveals that Indian iron and steel plants have about 1,200 hectares of land per million tonne of installed capacity while a well-designed plant does not need more than 200 hectares. The Bill, however, does not promote minimising land acquisition. While it states that wasteland should be surveyed and recorded, it does not advocate the use of this land or the need to seek alternatives and less land-intensive inputs for industry.

The Bill also dilutes the provision of returning unused land after “a period of five years”, by inserting the words “a period specified for setting up of any project or for five years, whichever is later.” This could promote inequality and declines in productivity.

  • Does not address historic injustice

The greatest paradox of India’s growth paradigm is the phenomenon of the poor subsidising the lifestyles of the rich. At least 70 million people have been displaced for ‘development’ projects in India since independence; the majority without rehabilitation. The beneficiary population of these projects is, however, different from the displaced population. Land is the basis of livelihood for most Indians, especially women. The assumption that monetary compensation for land is sufficient violates the human rights to work and to an adequate standard of living. Furthermore, most of the affected persons are not land-owners but share-croppers, agricultural labourers and forest workers, including dalits and adivasis, who are never compensated. Instead of redressing the historic injustice of forced land acquisition, the 2015 Bill will further increase marginalisation.

  • Will not promote growth in GDP

Several reports highlight that obstacles to India’s economic growth include fiscal indiscipline, tax evasion, food inflation, lack of investment in agrarian reform, and large trade and investment deficits. Land acquisition is not the problem, but is being projected as the panacea.

On the contrary, forced land acquisition contributes to loss of GDP by increasing rural and urban poverty. The economic cost of displacement to the country is significantly higher than the perceived benefits of exclusionary industrial development. The tragedy is that India has never documented its displaced persons or assessed the impact of the collective loss of their livelihoods, land, housing, natural resources, food, health, and education on the nation’s economy.

It is ironic that while advocating ‘Housing for All by 2022’ and increasing budgetary allocations to MNREGA, the government has passed a Bill that will cause more rural unemployment, landlessness, and homelessness. There is an urgent need to question the paradigm of neoliberal growth, and instead promote holistic development through the adoption of a human rights approach. The government should optimise land use, develop sustainable and equitable alternatives, promote non-land intensive industrialisation through improved technology, and implement human rights laws.

National development and economic growth can be realised only when there is a significant improvement in the lives of all Indians.

The Constitution of India declared India to be a sovereign, socialist, secular, and democratic republic. While there was uproar, earlier this year, of a government advertisement that omitted the words ‘secular’ and ‘socialist,’ the Land Bill 2015, in effect, has deleted the word ‘socialist.’

Shivani Chaudhry is Executive Director of the Housing and Land Rights Network, Delhi