Land bill gets LS approval, Cong hails Rahul’s role

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Populism unites parties, helps land bill sail through Lok Sabha

NEW DELHI: Concerns of industry took a backseat as political parties, spurred by the oncoming election season, joined hands in Lok Sabha on Thursday to pass the land acquisition bill that enshrines consent of landowners and steep hikes in compensation.

As when the food security bill was passed earlier this week, competitive populism took centrestage with Congress toasting Rahul Gandhi as the inspiration behind the legislation and BJP seeking tougher conditions for land acquisition.

The key features of the bill like consent of landowners for acquiring land for private and PPP projects and compensation norms set at four and two times the market rate for rural and urban land respectively were hailed by all quarters.

Left and AIADMK walked out, Trinamool Congress and Revolutionary Socialist Party opposed and the bill was passed by 216 votes to 19. Leader of opposition Sushma Swaraj’s amendments on deterring land sharks were incorporated in the bill.

The bill, with 158 amendments of which 28 are substantive, did not face any significant obstacle given the convergence between UPA and principal opposition BJP which set the tone by criticizing the bill for not being sufficiently pro-farmer.

The Lok Sabha nod following a detailed response from rural development minister Jairam Ramesh to criticisms and suggestions makes the law virtually a done deal with its passage assured in the upper House.

The bill, framed in 2007, has had a chequered career, as its introduction in Lok Sabha was withdrawn at the last moment in August 2009, with UPA’s then partner Trinamool Congress demanding a complete ban on “forcible acquisition”.

Thereafter, it has been through a standing committee and more changes and consultations that have placed a social impact assessment at the centre of any land acquisition in a bid to evaluate if a project is worth the environmental and social cost.

The consensus among parties seen on Thursday appears dictated by political correctness, aggravated ahead of elections, while the government’s presentation of the bill as a panacea to coercive acquisition and poor compensation is sure to veto any serious political costs.

In his reply, Ramesh sought to allay some of industry’s concern about time overruns saying timelines have been set for processes. He did not have a particularly tough task convincing a House where leaders were keen to outdo one another in being “pro-farmer”.

Outside the House, leaders across party lines did confide that the bill may render land scarce for industry. Some MPs said their leaders were unambiguous in issuing diktats about toeing the pro-farmer line.

BJP president Rajnath Singh opened the debate and repeatedly accused the government of framing weak provisions.

This had a negligible impact on the ruling camp as Meenakshi Natarajan triumphantly claimed that the stringent law reflected causes espoused by Rahul Gandhi against mining in Niyamgiri hills of Odisha and land acquisition in Bhatta Parsaul in UP.

Rahul had joined the two agitations related to acquisition as part of his pro-farmer stance. If the food security bill is seen as Congress chief Sonia Gandhi’s initiative, today was Rahul’s day for Congress’s legions in Lok Sabha.

The Congress commentary points to how the party plans to milk the bill on the political pitch. Natarajan dubbed the law as another example of UPA’s “rights-based regime” after the food security proposal.

Reeling under the triple whammy of economic crisis, malgovernance and corruption charges, Congress has planned to unveil a slew of ‘aam aadmi’ measures for messaging to its core base of rural poor. There is, of course, a risk as a plummeting economy can sour the public mood and deprive welfare schemes of funding.

An upbeat AICC spokesman Raj Babbar told reporters that while Sonia showed the will to bring the food bill, Rahul had tried to understand the problems of farmers owing to the “rotten” 1894 land law, alluding to the agitations he had embraced.

While Rahul did not speak, he was present for some part of the debate and during the minister’s reply. Sonia too attended the debate. She came to the House in the afternoon, her first appearance after taking ill on Monday, to the thumping of desks by Congress MPs.

There were flashes of temper as well as when CPM leader Basudeb Acharya was severely barracked by Trinamool Congress members.

Cognizant of rival’s strategy, BJP president Rajnath Singh made strong statements to ensure that BJP was not pushed out of the frame in the battle for credits.

Opening the debate, he questioned the exemption given to government projects from seeking consent of landowners for acquisition, in contrast to 80% and 70% consent prescribed for private and PPP projects. “You should give a level playing field to all,” he said.

While seeking to rein in the blanket powers of government to take over land, industry is worried that the clause will complicate the process and may make acquiring land difficult.

Singh even accused the bill of having strayed from its objective of ensuring justice for farmers, under pressure from industry. “I want to know if there will be scope for forcible acquisition,” he asked.

Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav said industries should be set up only on wastelands. Even BSP, which faced all-round opprobrium over land acquisition under Mayawati regime in UP, accused the Centre of giving less compensation. “The bill has resurfaced because of elections but farmers are not so foolish now,” Surender Singh Nagar, BSP MP said.

Trinamool Congress’s Sudip Bandhopadhyay said there should be no forcible acquisition and demanded that there be no acquisition for private players. CPM’s Basudeb Acharya called the bill draconian for leaving out SEZs.

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