Two consecutive drought years have already made farmers’ lives miserable in Rajasthan, and they believe, a third is on the way. However, the state’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government has passed two new land reform Bills that will impact farmers. This legislation is almost identical to the Centre’s Land Acquisition (amendment) Bill 2015, which was rejected by the farmers of the country.
On April 6, the last day of its Budget Session, the Vasundhara Raje-led state government passed the Special Investment Region Bill and the Land Pooling Scheme. This came barely a week after neighbouring state Gujarat had passed its own Land Acquisition Bill. Gujarat passed “Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Gujarat Amendment) 2016” on March 31, the last day of its Budget Session.
A year ago, the BJP government at the Centre had introduced “The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Amendment) Bill, 2015 (LARR)” in the Lok Sabha on February 24, 2015. The Bill contained amendments to provisions of the 2013 LARR Act. In this new avatar, LARR had done away with the consent provisions and social impact assessment (SIA), which were part of the LARR Act passed by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in 2013. The older version of the LARR required the consent of 80% landowners for an acquisition to take place and the SIA brought relief for landless farmers.
The amendments inspired a wave of protests across the country, from farmers, other political parties and even the BJP’s own allies. Faced with mounting pressure, the Narendra Modi-led government dropped the idea of re-promulgating the LARR 2015 for the fourth time.
However, even before the final call to backtrack the Bill was taken, the Modi Government had said that if the Centre fails, the states which are pro-investment should pass the LARR amendments. Indeed, taking their cue from the Prime Minister’s words, Gujarat and Rajasthan — both of which have BJP-led state governments — introduced and passed the Bill in their respective budget sessions.
Gujarat’s Land Bill has done away with consent clause and SIA. The Gujarat- government introducing the Bill said, “Gujarat is an industrially progressive State and more and more investment is coming to the State.” It further added that due to UPA’s Land Act 2013, acquisition of land has become a very lengthy and difficult proposition. Hence “through this Bill, we are doing away with Social Impact Assessment clause, as it consumes lot of time,” said the Gujarat-government in the Assembly. Also, they are free to acquire 1 Kilometre land on both sides of railway projects, highways or road corridors.
The BJP led Rajasthan-government had passed the Special Investment Regions (SIR) Bill which powers “designated authorities” to enter any land or building once the state government has declared “any area of land to be a Special Investment Region” . Through the Land Pooling Scheme it can to consolidate small land holdings lands complementing the land requirements of the SIR.
Despite a brute majority in both the state Assemblies, the BJP preferred to pass the Bill silently. In Gujarat, a Bill titled “Right to fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Gujarat Amendment) 2016” was passed on the last day of the State Assembly’s Budget Session. The Congress Party alleges that they were in the dark about it. “On the day when the Bill was passed the Speaker had suspended all the Congress legislators from the house,” said Shankersinh Vaghela, a Congress MLA and the leader of opposition of the Gujarat Assembly. “We burnt the copies of the Bill and next day met the Governor [OP Kohli] requesting him to not sign the Bill”. He added that this is an “anti-farmer Bill and probably the last nail in the BJP’s coffin.” Governor Kohli is yet to forward the amendment Bill to President Pranab Mukherjee.
Only a few farmers know that the Bill was passed by their state governments. Shripal Dhewa, farmer from Jhunjhunu district of Rajasthan told Newslaundry, “Instead of preparing a policy to tackle the drought like situation in the state, Rajasthan Government has passed land acquisition Bill through three land Bills.” Dhewa, who owns 20 bigahs (approximately nine acres) of land in drought-hit eastern Rajasthan, is associated with former AAP ideologue Yogendra Yadav’s Swaraj Abhiyaan. “Farmers are feeling cheated! We gave a mandate to PM Modi thinking he will work for us, but…”. The opposition and organisations like Khedu Samaj, a farmers’ association, and the Jameen Adhikar Andolan-Gujarat (JAAG) say that the passed Bills are a “backdoor” entry for the rejected LARR 2015.
“Majority of farmers are unaware of these developments,” says Sagar Rabari, general secretary of Khedu Samaj. “We have started distributing pamphlets and spreading word against about this Bill in 248 talukas (sub division of districts) of Gujarat.” According to Rabari, it might take a month’s time to mobilise and organise farmers under one banner. On April 26, JAAG and Khedu Samaj will submit a letter from taluka level to District Collectors, addressing the Governor, demanding withdrawal of the Bill.
“We have sought appointment from the Governor, but have not received any answer from him,” said Persis Ginwalla of JAAG. “The farmers will definitely protest. The Government should be prepared to face the farmers’ ire on all these fronts.”
Meanwhile, in Rajasthan, the Congress, which forms the Opposition in the Assembly, claims the plan was simple: introduce the Land Bill on the last day and avoid any strong protest against it. “We were not aware of this Bill till it was listed on business list [of the House],” said leader of Opposition, Rameshwar Lal Dudi. “This is more dangerous than Modi’s Bill. The government can acquire land of farmers, and they cannot even go to the court.” Dudi, a Congress legislator from Nokha constituency, added, “even the compensation rates are not clear. This Bill provides for decision to be taken as per DLC (District Level Committee) rates and a mutually-agreed amount at (District) Collector level.” He said that since the BJP is in brute majority, despite the Congress MLAs’ strong opposition, these Bills were easily passed. While the Congress is still pondering over the possibilities of protest, the Left parties have already taken to the streets to express their disapproval. On this issue, the Congress said they are ready to stand united with the Left and other farmer organisations.
Amraram, leader of the CPM’s All India Kishan Sabha, too echoed similar sentiments, “The protests will swell as the harvesting season gets over.” They are planning a protest in the month of May. “Already productivity is reducing, farming has become economically unviable, in such conditions if someone is forcing them to give their land, it is not going to happen,” said CPI-ML (Communist Party of India- Marxist Leninist) state secretary Mahendra Choudhary. “In May, we will organise a large meeting in Jaipur, and will not budge until the government agrees to our demands. We have already warned the Chief Minister.”
While the political parties are still preparing to mobilise and create a momentum for protests, we tried to look into possibilities of legal redressal for the farmers of these states. Unfortunately, even the pressure groups like the JAAG are apprehensive of knocking on the court’s door on the issue. Ginwalla, discussing possibilities of filing a Public Interest Litigation (PIL), said, “My feeling is that going to the Court every now and then is not right. What if the court says this [Bill] is valid?”
As the land falls under concurrent list both Centre and State, both can make laws and policies related to it. “I have consulted lawyers and they say the state is well within its capacity to pass such legislations,” said Ginwalla. “It will become final stamp of approval on it,” he said, responding to the possibility of the appeal being knocked down in court. “Unless we take it to the people and they voice their protest against the Bill, going to the court is impossible.”
According to senior advocate and activist Girish Patel, constitutionally, such a Bill where the provisions are inconsistent with Central law has to be sent to the President of India. “He will send it to the Council of Ministers,” said Patel. “Where they will immediately give consent to the Bill, as the government of India anyhow wants the easy acquisition of land,” he told Newslaundry. According to him, at best the President can return it once or twice but on the third occasion, he will have to give his assent. “He could also hold it for a bit more time for consideration,” said Patel. Theoretically, the Bill can be challenged in the court, but there are bleak chances.
Supreme Court lawyer Rebecca John described the idea of farmers challenging the acquisition process in a court of law as “outrageous”. “Because in the first place, we are talking about farmers with no resources to sustain them and to take care of their family, who are struggling from failure of crops and drought conditions,” she said. “The acquisition is one further death knell as far as farmers are concerned. Really, there is nothing for them to look forward to.”
Legal experts also believe that such a complicated litigation takes a lot of time and it is not inexpensive. Responding to possibilities of filing a PIL, John said, “Those options are hypothetically possible.”
However, possibilities of the High Court or the Supreme Court overruling the legislation, remains a big question. “It is not the job of a court to ensure that social justice and ideas of welfare state are incorporated by the Government,” said John. “It can only see whether a law is [constitutionally] valid.”
She concluded on the note that the prospects of farmers don’t look very bright, “This is a matter between farmers and their representatives…and this government is working at a breakneck speed to ensure the implementation of acquisition.”
The author can be contacted on Twitter @amit_bhardwaz