THE LAND ACQUISITION ACT OF 2013 was one of the most thoroughly scrutinised and debated pieces of legislation to ever have been passed by the Indian parliament. From 2011, when it was first presented before the legislature, to 2013, when it acquired its final shape, the bill was discussed at length, not just in the legislature but also in the media and among civil society groups. Objections were taken on board from various industry and farm bodies, NGOs, and political parties, and changes were made to accommodate a wide range of views. The final legislation enjoyed bipartisan support in both houses of parliament.
But this hard-won consensus has largely been undone by executive fiat, through an ordinance amending the 2013 law, passed by the Narendra Modi administration at the end of December. The new government’s move is well within the letter of the country’s law, but strays very far from the democratic spirit behind the 2013 act.
Before the 2013 law, land acquisition in India was mostly governed by a colonial law dating back to 1894 that allowed for little legal or financial relief to the people affected. There was no clear right of appeal, the stipulated compensation was meagre, and there were no relief or rehabilitation measures in force. It was only in 2007, under the first United Progressive Alliance, that the government tried to address these flaws—through two new laws presented before parliament, one for land acquisitions and another for the relief and rehabilitation of those dispossessed. These bills lapsed, but, in 2011, with the UPA reelected to power, they were clubbed together on the recommendation of the National Advisory Council and reintroduced in the Lok Sabha. The new bill was referred to a standing committee headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party leader Sumitra Mahajan, who is now the speaker of that house. The committee submitted a report in May 2012, after a wide-ranging consultative process.