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Land Bill Boycott: who will blink first, Modi or the opposition?

Panini Anand | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 3:19 IST

The flashpoint

  • Out of 29, only 16 CMs attended the NITI Aayog meeting headed by the PM on 15 July
  • All CMs from Congress-ruled states skipped the meeting
  • West Bengal\'s Mamata Banerjee, Odisha\'s Naveen Patnaik, Tamil Nadu\'s Jayalalithaa and UP\'s Akhilesh Yadav also skipped it
  • Eleven of the 16 CMs were from BJP-ruled or supported governments
  • Tripura\'s Manik Sarkar, Delhi\'s Arvind Kejriwal and Bihar\'s Nitish Kumar attended the meeting

The battle

  • Narendra Modi presented the Land Acquisition Bill, amending the previous law to make it more business friendly
  • The amendments were criticised as being anti-farmer. Congress, Anna Hazare and farmers\' outfits protested. Even RSS farmers\' wing opposed it
  • In the Budget Session, Opposition protests forced the government to send the Bill to a Joint Parliamentary Committee

The committee

  • JPC received 300 memorandums, met 50 organisations. But it only had 10 sittings. It\'s work is far from complete
  • Out of 50 organisations, only 4 supported the government, mainly industry representatives and RSS affiliates
  • Therefore, it is difficult for the government to present the Bill in the upcoming Monsoon Session

Political play

  • If push comes to shove, the government may call for a joint session of Parliament to get the Bill passed
  • Biju Janata Dal has said that it will support the Bill. but BJP\'s own ally Shiv Sena has said it will oppose it
  • Opposition may stall Parliament by raising issues like the Lalit Modi controversy and Vyapam scam

In another setback to the NDA government at the Centre, it has now become clear that not even 50% of states are supporting the controversial Land Bill it has proposed.

At a NITI Aayog meeting in the capital on 15 July, out of 29, only 16 chief ministers were in attendance, including three who are opposed to the Bill.

The meeting was chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and featured the 11 CMs from BJP-led or supported governments. Of the other five, CPI (M)'s Manik Sarkar from Tripura, AAP's Arvind Kejriwal from Delhi and JD (U) leader Nitish Kumar from Bihar are opposing the Bill.

Not a single CM from a Congress-ruled state turned up, and neither did TMC leader Mamata Banerjee (West Bengal), Biju Janata Dal chief Naveen Patnaik (Odisha), AIADMK supremo J Jayalalithaa from Tamil Nadu and Samajwadi Party's Akhilesh Yadav (UP).

After the meeting, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley was combative.

"We cannot pursue a consensus over the Land Bill indefinitely. If the Centre can't manage to get a consensus, then states should be given the flexibility to develop their own laws regarding land acquisitions. Those CMs who chose to boycott the governing council meeting should consider if it is in the spirit of co-operative federalism," he said.

"Most states were not able to implement the Land Acquisition Act passed by the previous government. The decision to amend Land Bill 2013 was taken after consensus from the states. Most states are backing the Land Acquisition Bill. CMs who agreed to Land Bill amendments later opposed it. Many CMs suggested that the Centre work towards evolving a consensus on the Land Acquisition Bill."

Opposing Jaitley's statement, CPI leader Atul Anjan demanded that the chief ministers' stances on the Bill be made public.

"Make the letters written by the CMs public. People should know when and what position they have taken on the Bill. Let the CMs and the parties be exposed. Asking states to develop their own law is completely wrong and unconstitutional. This is against the principles of cooperation and harmony between the Centre and the states. In such a scenario, the states will have their own jurisdiction and the Centre its own," he said.

Personal goal for Modi

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi brought the Land Acquisition Ordinance, he appeared determined to see the legislation through. The united Opposition's march to the Rashtrapati Bhavan and the protests by Anna Hazare, the Congress party and farmers organisations respectively couldn't deter Modi from his decision.

But now the Prime Minister is finding it increasingly difficult to get his way on the Bill.

The Opposition is determined to prevent the Bill, at least in its present form. The BJP's own ally the Shiv Sena is opposed to the Bill, and to make matters worse, the feedback that the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) has received on the Bill has been overwhelmingly negative.

Pushed to a corner, the BJP is struggling to find a way out. The immediate hurdle is the JPC.

What's going on in the JPC?

The JPC was constituted on 13 May this year, mainly as a way out of the logjam in Parliament during the Budget session. The committee's work has been going on at a slow pace and it's still in the middle of consultations.

The JPC issued a circular on 27 May inviting organisations as well as individuals to present their views. The deadline given was 8 June, just 12 days later. It was extended, but only by an additional 6 days. "Many farmer organisations said that the time was woefully inadequate. Surely they can't be expected to consult farmers in such a short period," says a BJP member of the JPC.

The JPC, which has 20 members from the Lok Sabha and 10 from the Rajya Sabha, is headed by BJP MP from Darjeeling, SS Ahluwalia. So far, the committee had only 10 sittings between 29 May and 6 July. Adding all the meetings, the committee has put in just 29 hours and 10 minutes.

"The consultation is only half-done. It's incomplete. How can it be presented?" asks Congress MP PL Punia.

According to a JPC member, over 300 memorandums have been received by the secretariat. Some of them were circulated among the JPC members. More than 50 representatives including Anna Hazare, CPI's Kisan Sabha, RSS's Bharatiya Kisan Sangh were given the opportunity to present their views before the JPC.

Members reveal that out of these 50 organisations, not more than four - including Confederation of Indian Industry, FICCI and RSS affiliated organisations - have supported the government's position. This clearly reveals whom the Bill is tilted towards.

A member of the committee told Catch, "From groups that are extreme left to centre left to extreme right, everyone is opposed to the bill on some fundamental grounds. Only the CII and FICCI - both of which are industrial bodies - are pro the bill."

Most of the presentations broadly raised concerns around the following themes:

1. Land acquisition for industrial corridors:

The bill currently allows developers to build for one kilometre on either side of an industrial corridor, like the proposed Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor.

2. Dilution of the consent clause

3. Dilution of social impact assessment

4. The ambiguity around the definition of a "private entity"

5. Provision for landless people

6. Definition of 'national interest' in acquisition

"Government departments such as revenue, electricity, commerce, industry and railways are yet to present their view on the amendments. Many experts and some representations from agriculture universities are also pending," reveals a JPC member.

"We will then need to finalise the recommendations to be presented in the House. However, we will seek more time," he further adds.

On being asked whether the JPC's recommendations will get delayed, the MP said "JPC is answerable to the Parliament. If we are asked to submit our recommendations in a particular time frame, then we will do it. But I believe we should not go half prepared. We definitely need more time and consultations".

It appears that the JPC is under political pressure to hurry up with its work. But given the negative feedback the committee has been receiving, the JPC's recommendations might not be of much help to the government.

Political chessboard

On the ground, the Opposition is ready to hit the government hard.

To an extent, they have succeeded in presenting the Modi government as anti-farmer, pro-corporate and, as Rahul Gandhi put it, a 'suit-boot ki sarkar'.

BJP and RSS are divided over the Land Bill. Sangh affiliates are having a tough time explaining it on the ground

On Monday, the same day PM Modi returned to Delhi after his 8-day long foreign visit, the Opposition had gathered for Congress president Sonia Gandhi's Iftar party at Hotel Ashoka. This Opposition bonhomie would be a cause of worry for the government. It will try its best to wean away at least a few regional parties on its side.

Interestingly, in the Land Bill is the last on the list of Business Advisory Committee, which indicates that the government isn't too confident of tabling it in Parliament.

"The BJP has a majority in the Lok Sabha. They will win the vote there. In the Upper House, they could possibly win over the AIADMK and BJD. But even then the numbers won't add up and the Bill would fall. The government will then have to call a joint session to get it passed," predicts a Congress leader.

The Opposition is adamant to stall the Bill.

"If the government passes the Bill forcibly, people will not spare a single leader of the BJP. They will face the worst punishment from the people," says CPI leader Atul Anjan.

The Opposition's ammunition has only increased over the past month with the Lalit Modi controversy and the Vyapam scam embarrassing the BJP. It is quite possible that the Opposition might not allow Parliament to function.

The heat is already on the BJP. On Monday, when the Assembly session in Maharashtra began, CM Devendra Fadnavis and minister Pankaja Munde had to face protests from the Opposition. This could be replicated in Parliament as well.

For the Opposition, there are definite benefits in not letting the House function. Firstly, it would prevent a vote and restrict the possibility of a joint session. Secondly, the session will be used to corner the government on recent controversies.

BJP's prime concern is the Bihar Assembly election. The state is going for polls immediately after the Monsoon Session. Any legislation seen as anti-poor can dent the BJP's campaign in a state where it is locked in a tough fight.

The RSS game

The BJP and RSS are divided over the issue. "If the government gives an assurance that it won't acquire land for big corporates, then the controversy would be over," says Mohini Mohan Mishra, national secretary of the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh.

Many in the RSS and the BJP believe that it's not a good idea to risk the party's chances in Bihar for the sake of the legislation. As it is, it will be difficult for the Sangh and its sister organisations to sell this decision on the ground.

On the record, however, the Sangh has a different take. "We want the Bill to be passed in this session. We don't understand why the JPC wants more time," Mishra says.

But many accuse the RSS of playing a double game by speaking in different voices. "This is an old game of the BJP and RSS, taking a dual stand and confusing people. This is clearly reflected in the BKS's opposition and subsequent U-turn," said Atul Anjan.

Parties that could tilt the scales

Trinamool Congress

"TMC's position is clear. We are against this Bill. We are not going to support it in any House of Parliament - Kalyan Banerjee, TMC MP and JPC member.

Biju Janata Dal

"We are not like the Congress and Communist parties, whose only agenda is to dent the government. In Odisha, we have seen how acquisition helps farmers. Our position is ideological. We want the land losers to be the real stakeholders. Farmers should get more compensation. The reason for acquisition should be development. In case of acquisition of farm land, there has to be an absolutely serious reason. Otherwise the government should rather focus on acquiring barren land," - BJD leader Pinaki Misra

Shiromani Akali Dal

"We have seen the positive results in our state. We didn't let acquisition become Jagirdar Raj. Now, people come forward and ask the government to acquire their land. We will vote for the Bill." - SAD MP Sher Singh Ghubaya

Nationalist Congress Party

"Farmers' consent and social impact assessment are very serious issues which the government is not ready to change. We are not going to support the Bill in its present form. We will oppose it." - NCP leader DP Tripathi

Shiv Sena

"We opposed the Bill in the previous session and we will continue to do so. It can't be accepted as there are many problems with it." - Anandrao Adsul, Shiv Sena MP from Amravati.

First published: 14 July 2015, 5:20 IST
Panini Anand @paninianand

Senior Assistant Editor at Catch, Panini is a poet, singer, cook, painter, commentator, traveller and photographer who has worked as reporter, producer and editor for organizations including BBC, Outlook and Rajya Sabha TV. An IIMC-New Delhi alumni who comes from Rae Bareli of UP, Panini is fond of the Ghats of Varanasi, Hindustani classical music, Awadhi biryani, Bob Marley and Pink Floyd, political talks and heritage walks. He has closely observed the mainstream national political parties, the Hindi belt politics along with many mass movements and campaigns in last two decades. He has experimented with many mass mediums: theatre, street plays and slum-based tabloids, wallpapers to online, TV, radio, photography and print.