On 31 December 2014, the government issued an ordinance, amending the Right to Fair Compensation & Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation & Resettlement Act, 2013 (LARR). The ordinance brought in several changes, of which the following was the most far-reaching: an amendment to Section 10(A) that exempted land acquisition for sectors such as defence, infrastructure—including public-private partnership projects—industrial corridors, private health and educational institutions and affordable housing, from the requirement of conducting public hearings, assessing social impact, and securing the consent of citizens who lived and worked on the lands. In effect, the ordinance significantly expanded the powers of the state and the project proponent, and erased the participation of citizens in decisions that could profoundly alter their lives and means of livelihood.
This aspect of the ordinance evoked the greatest political and public criticism. There was apprehension over why the ordinance was reviving, in some measure, the ‘eminent domain’ thrust—the right of a government or its agent to expropriate private property citing public good, with compensation—of the 1894 Land Acquisition Act, which had caused the damaging and forced displacement of thousands of rural citizens. The LARR was enacted with unanimous political support in Parliament in 2013, and had not even been operational for a year, so why were major changes sought so soon? Above all, what demonstrated the need to amend this act with such urgency?
This last question is shrouded in mystery, and going by the Lok Sabha debate on 8 March 2015 on the LARR amendment bill, even our honourable Members of Parliament don’t know. For example, the Nationalist Congress Party’s Supriya Sule asked, “What is the need for this ordinance? Who is asking for this change?” The Telangana Rashtra Samithi’s Vinod Kumar Boinapalli echoed Sule’s question: “For what reason is this bill being introduced?” While, the Indian National Congress’ Gaurav Gogoi reiterated, “Had farmers come to the government’s doorstep saying, please remove Social Impact Assessment, please remove consent?” Several members of Parliament said that the government was presenting no specific evidence for its assertion that the LARR Act in its current form was holding up development.
On 17 January 2015, we filed a Right to Information (RTI) request with the Department of Land Resources in the Ministry of Rural Development, the nodal ministry for the LARR act, asking for photocopies of documents, file notings and all correspondence between the MoRD and other government and non-government authorities relating to:
a) any proposed amendments to the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013
b) the ordinance of 31 December 2014, bringing changes to this act.