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BW Businessworld

Ordinance Raj 3.0

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The Narendra Modi government is sinking deeper into the land acquisition quagmire. On 31 May, the land ordinance was re-promulgated for the third time, after the Congress-dominated Rajya Sabha refused to put its stamp on the Bill. The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Amendment) Ordinance had been promulgated first in December 2014 and again on 3 April this year. The Bill has been passed by the Lok Sabha, but persistent opposition and street protests have forced the government to refer it to the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC).

The government’s stance defies logic. From the point of view of parliamentary strategy, the heavens would not have fallen if the Prime Minister had allowed the previous Land Bill to lapse in May. Once the JPC completes its work, the BJP-led government has the numbers to pass the Bill even if it has to convene a joint session of the two houses of Parliament.

So what does the government hope to achieve by keeping alive a controversial policy measure through an ordinance? Will any acquisition of land by corporate groups be initiated under the newly-promulgated ordinance? With shrill protests over the land Bill, it is unlikely that any business entity will risk acquiring land under the terms of the current ordinance.

An RTI filed by civil activist Venkatesh Nayak nails the lie that land acquisition is the main hurdle to completion of projects. The government record shows that as of February this year, only 8.2 per cent or 66 of the total 804 projects have been halted due to problems in acquiring land. The bulk of the projects have been on hold for various reasons such as lack of clearances (non-environmental), unfavourable market conditions, lack of funds and lack of promoter interest.

In an earlier case of D.C. Wadhwa versus state of Bihar, in 1987, the Supreme Court had found that between 1967 and 1981, the Bihar government had promulgated 256 ordinances that “were kept alive for periods ranging between one and 14 years by re-promulgation from time to time”. Coming down heavily on this practice of governance through ordinance, the court held the practice of repeatedly re-promulgating ordinances as unconstitutional.

However, in respect of the powers of the President to promulgate ordinances defined by Article 123 of the Constitution, there is silence on the issue of re-promulgation. Legally it is an open issue, but ethically, the discordant notes are becoming stronger. The previous re-promulgated ordinance in April was challenged by the Delhi Grameen Sabha in the Supreme Court, which gave notice to the government and other parties. With the April ordinance having been replaced, the petition will become redundant, but it is only a matter of time before a fresh legal challenge is mounted.

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 29-06-2015)

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