PM Modi should tell Mamata, feel free to take Bengal back to Stone Age

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New Delhi: Since Narendra Modi is daring the opposition by enacting laws through ordinance, especially the contentious Land Acquisition Act, here is the challenge he should really provoke the states to accept if they dare: try and over-ride the central law with state-specific legislation.

In fact, if he wants to leave a lasting legacy of federalism, he should offer to enact a constitutional amendment that reverses the current provision where laws in the concurrent list cannot be over-ridden by states unless the centre agrees.

Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee appears to have embraced a death-wish for business in West Bengal by saying she will allow the Land Acquisition ordinance to prevail over “my dead body”. She should be allowed to do so. Jairam Ramesh of the Congress has also promised to oppose the ordinance when it comes to parliament.

Modi should tell him that Congress states should feel free to re-legislate the old version of UPA’s Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Resettlement and Rehabilitation Act, 2013, if they want to.

The route to do this is article 254(2) of the constitution, which allows states to legislate in areas of the concurrent list as long as they receive presidential assent. This means if the centre says yes, the state law will prevail in that particular state.

Article 254(2) as it now stands says: “Where a law made by the legislature of a state with respect to one of the matters enumerated in the concurrent list contains any provision repugnant to the provisions of an earlier law made by Parliament or an existing law with respect to that matter, then, the law so made by the legislature of such state shall, if it has been reserved for the consideration of the President and has received his assent, prevail in that state: Provided that nothing in this clause shall prevent Parliament from enacting at any time any law with respect to the same matter including a law adding to, amending, varying or repealing the law so made by the legislature of the state.”

The intent of this article is clear: states can legislate and go against the centre’s law only if they have the centre’s nod. This article should be amended to mean that if any state wants to amend any law in the concurrent list, not only should central assent not be withheld, but the state law should be allowed to over-ride it. This change can be made first with respect to the Land Acquisition ordinance in order to the call the states’ collective bluff.

The truth is all the talk of the ordinance being anti-farmer is just empty political rhetoric. It is the politics of obstructionism. Most states do want changes in UPA’s Land Acquisition Act, and this includes Mamata Banerjee’s West Bengal.

The real problem is that large segments of the farming community need to move out of unremunerative agriculture by monetising their main asset – the land they own – and would be happy to do so if offered a fair and just price, credible rehabilitation packages, and a stake in the future value of the land sold. This is being mostly offered even by the Modi government’s ordinance, which makes no changes in the compensation to be offered – four times market price for rural land and two times for urban land. The ordinance can be further tweaked during discussions in parliament – if they are allowed to happen.

But if states are not happy even with this, they can impose higher compensation levels, since no land can be sold without their concurrence. They can also impose conditions like Social Impact Assessment, or 80 percent consent for any land acquisition in their areas.

The challenge Modi should throw at states is simple: make the law tighter in your state, if you want to.

One can bet that this is a challenge most states will shrink from, for if any state makes it tougher to acquire land, industry will not set up shop there. Competition for business will make states wary.

Modi should call Mamata’s bluff by telling her: “You are free to make your own land acquisition law. Feel free to take West Bengal back to the Stone Age.”

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