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The enthusiasm with which the BJP government has tried to dump the Congress legislation has the Modi stamp all over it. The battle over the Land Bill has been long and hard, and has been documented extensively by Businessworld. Starting December, last year, the BJP has not been able to pass the amendments because of the sustained opposition of the Congress in the Rajya Sabha where the latter still commands a majority. The government’s earlier strategy was to push the changes through by promulgating the amendments as an Ordinance, not once but three times.
Narendra Modi's First Big Reverse
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It is indeed a climbdown by the BJP-led government on the amendments to the Land Acquisition Bill. By agreeing to green-flag clauses that require consent from families affected, and the precondition of social impact assessment, is a big blow to the reforms programme of the Modi government. What has not sunk in widely is that the capitulation is the first big defeat suffered by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Narendra Modi had made the bringing in of crucial changes in the Land Acquisition Act (the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013) his personal agenda as part of his government’s ease-of-doing-business-in-India programme. The BJP had taken the support of corporate groups and, in the run up to the elections, had pledged that the bottlenecks to acquire land would be removed as part of the quid pro quo if voted to power. At the first hint of opposition, Prime Minister Modi had batted on the front foot against his Congress detractors dedicating one of his weekend ‘Maan Ki Baat’ radio addresses exclusively to why the Congress Land Act needed to be jettisoned. Later, as the Opposition got more strident, Modi took an under-the-radar position.
But this rule by Ordinance could not go on forever. Changes in the Land Acquisition Bill had to be legislated. The BJP then toyed with the idea of a Joint Session of Parliament, where because of the two-thirds majority in the Lok Sabha, it would have won the vote. However, perception gained ground that the NDA government was ‘pro-corporate’ and ‘anti-farmer’. Rahul Gandhi’s taunts of ‘Soot-Boot Ke Sarkar’ seemed to ring a sympathetic bell among the rural masses. The BJP position became worse when allies of the NDA, the Akali Dal, the Shiv Sena, and even some arms of the RSS like the Bhartiya Kisan Sangh and the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, opposed the amendments.
To diffuse the Parliamentary opposition, the Union government agreed to set up in May a 30-member Joint Committee of Parliament headed by BJP’s Lok Sabha MP, S.S.Ahluwalia. The Committee was charged with suggesting changes to the amendments and making it more palatable. It was to give its report on the first day of the Monsoon Session of Parliament. In a parallel move, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley hinted that the government would allow the Land Ordinance to lapse and lob the ball to the states. With land being a state subject, the government considered using BJP-ruled states as the laboratory for bringing in appropriate legislation to make land acquisition easier. This was the first hint that the government had blinked on the Land Bill.
The main bones of contention have been: first, the attempt by the BJP through an amendment to jettison the requirement in the 2013 Act for 70 percent consent of the landholders in public-private projects and 80 percent in the case of private projects; second, the NDA bill exempted the 5 categories of projects – defence, rural infrastructure, affordable housing, industrial corridors and infrastructure projects – from undertaking environment assessment.
The Joint Parliamentary Committee, that has been the platform for this fight for the last two months, extended its life till August 3, and the BJP finally gave in. The new recommendations of the Committee will now suggest that six of the nine contentious amendments to the bill that had been brought in by Ordinance should be allowed to lapse.
The Congress is seriously celebrating. After the mauling at the hustings and the several exposures of coal gate and other scams, it can now turn claim the support of farmers. BJP spokespersons are playing down the Land Bill fiasco, dubbing it as a ‘Peoples victory’. Whichever way one looks at it, land acquisition for development and corporate growth will become more difficult, and Prime Minister Modi will soon be hearing from India Inc about ‘broken promises’.