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Land Bill: how farmers and the Opposition made Modi govt back down

Aditya Menon | Updated on: 4 August 2015, 20:14 IST

The U-turn

  • Modi government has decided to withdraw most of its amendments to the Land Acquisition Act
  • This virtually means a return to the UPA\'s law
  • This is a victory for farmers and a vindication for the UPA

The battle

  • The Modi government\'s ordinance was supposed to make the law more business-friendly
  • But protests by the Opposition and farmers forced the government to form a Joint Parliamentary Committee
  • The JPC received an overwhelmingly negative response to the government\'s amendments

The Narendra Modi government on 3 August agreed to withdraw most of the changes it had proposed to the UPA's Land Acquisition Act. India's farmers have won. This is also a major victory for the Opposition which has managed to checkmate the government, despite reduced numbers.

The government had argued that the UPA's land acquisition Act hindered growth. But this view found no takers except within the industry circles. Out of the above 70 representations received by the Joint Parliamentary Committee examining the land acquisition Bill, over 90% opposed the government's suggestions. Even the RSS farmers wing and the BJP's ally Shiv Sena disagreed with the government.

The background

The amended Land Acquisition legislation was a key move by the Modi government to usher in a more "industry-friendly" regime in the country. The government explained that the UPA's law - the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 - made it difficult for corporates to acquire land. "Don't make industry and infrastructure bad words," said Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, capturing the sentiment behind the government's amendments.

The most contentious aspect of the amendments was that the consent of the land-holders will not be required if the land is being acquired for purposes such as national security, defence, rural infrastructure and industrial corridors.

Social impact assessment was also to be done away with for the above categories as well. The government was also considering doing away with the retrospective application of relief and resettlement clauses.

Armed with a robust majority in the Lok Sabha, Modi expected that he would be able to push through the legislation. This did not happen. Far from it, the need to block the anti-farmer ordinance compelled the Opposition to close ranks.

This was best exemplified by the united Opposition march to the Rashtrapati Bhawan headed by Sonia Gandhi. Even the BJP oldest ally, Shiv Sena, decided to oppose the ordinance.

With a robust majority in the Lok Sabha, Modi thought he could push the Bill through. This did not happen

But the resistance in Parliament was only part of the problem. Farmers' organisations, the Congress and the Left held protests across the country demanding that the government go back to the 2013 legislation without any changes.

Even the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh affiliate Bharatiya Kisan Sangh opposed the Bill. Activist Anna Hazare also went on a hunger strike against the Bill. The Aam Aadmi Party also held a protest at Jantar Mantar, during which Gajendra Singh, a farmer from Rajasthan committed suicide.

The government didn't withdraw the ordinance even after Singh's tragic death. But four things changed since then.

1. The Joint Parliamentary Committee formed to examine the Bill, was flooded with negative feedback on the government's amendments. Out of 70 odd representations, only those by chambers of commerce supported the amendments. All the others slammed the government.

2. Corruption charges emerged against BJP leaders like Sushma Swaraj, Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Vasundhara Raje, which pushed the government on the backfoot.

3. JD(U)-RJD-Congress alliance is tipped to give the NDA a tough fight in Bihar. The BJP couldn't have gone into the election with the tag of being "anti-farmer".

4. BJP underestimated the persistence as well as the impact of the protests by the Opposition and farmers' organisations. Within a few months, they were successfully able to project the government as anti-farmer.

The Bill is presently with the JPC headed by BJP MP SS Ahluwalia. Apparently, the 11 BJP members in the JPC have agreed to accept all the demands of the Congress, which virtually takes it back to the UPA's legislation.

Where did it go wrong?

The land acquisition ordinance wasn't the only reason farmers were up in arms against Modi government. In the past 14 months, the government ended up hurting farmers both through its policies as well as its posturing.

The hike in minimum support prices under Modi is much less as compared to the UPA tenure. Take paddy for instance, the government went for an increase of Rs 50 per quintal as compared to an average of Rs 76 during the UPA.

Then some of the government's statements about farmers have been insensitive to say the least. Showing the way was Agriculture Minister Radhamohan Singh, who claims to be the son of a farmer. Singh said that farmers don't commit suicide because of debt or crop failure, but due to factors like impotence and marital discord.

Even PM Modi's approach has been callous. While speaking about the ordinance in Parliament in March, Modi claimed that farmers had come to him asking for the Land Acquisition Act to be amended. It is difficult to believe that farmers would voluntarily tell the government that they didn't want to have a say if their land is being taken.

Also, land acquisition delays aren't the only obstacle to industrial growth. According to data released by the Comptroller and Auditor General in November 2014, 14% of land notified for SEZs ended up being diverted for commercial purposes.

Who stands vindicated?

The government may have managed to cut its losses as far as the Bihar elections are concerned. But it's about-turn on the amendments is a big victory for the Congress.

The fact that political entities ranging from the Shiv Sena, the RSS-affiliated BKS, Anna Hazare, the Left and the AAP, all demanded a return to the 2013 law, bears testimony to the pro-farmer nature of the UPA legislation.

The UPA, particularly the then rural development minister Jairam Ramesh who drafted and piloted the Act, stand vindicated. It was the manner in which consensus was evolved not just between political parties but also farmers' organisations and other stakeholders to draft the 2013 law that made it all the more difficult for the Modi government to amend it.

Ironically, two BJP leaders have also been vindicated in the process - Sushma Swaraj and Shivraj Singh Chouhan - who had given significant inputs for the law.. Ramesh duly acknowledged their contribution while presenting the Bill in Parliament.

It is perhaps symbolic that on the same day the BJP withdrew its amendments, P Pandi, a farmer in Kamudhi in Tamil Nadu took on Modi's most favoured industrial group - Adani. Alleging that his land was fraudulently acquired for Adani's solar power project, Pandi marched to the Collector's Office with his wife and a bottle of kerosene and threatened to immolate himself if he was not given justice.

The message is clear: India's farmers will defend their right over their land at every cost.

First published: 4 August 2015, 20:14 IST