Losing the plots

The Indian Express, March 12, 2015

Pratap Bhanu Mehta*

The debate over the land acquisition bill is increasingly marked by political tone deafness and legislative hubris. The government has offered minor amendments. But most of them are designed to display its consistent ability to be too clever by half rather than its ability to address deep issues. The 2013 bill had been framed in the context of several issues. The now much-maligned Land Acquisition Act of 1894 had come under fire because it had been grossly misused ? the concept of public purpose had become implausibly elastic, the compensation levels awarded varied but seldom matched levels of decency, affected parties had very few credible claims and the urgency clause was abused. This consistently created mistrust in the state.

But there was also a larger framing context. Except for a few, no one was against industrialisation or urbanisation. But it was increasingly clear that farmers were given little political or moral standing in negotiating the terms of that transition. Property rights applied to everyone but farmers. Liberalisation was for everyone but farmers. The onus of contributing to efficiency was on farmers.

Big capital could get away with unconscionable waste, choke off all credit in the economy, externalise their costs on to society and flout regulation. The state could fritter away vast land resources without any accountability. And yet the figure of the farmer was constructed as the obstacle to efficiency, as if what held India back was obdurate farmers not parting with their land. The issue was never the desirability of industrialisation. It was the asymmetric standing of different groups in that process.

The 2013 bill had attempted to address three resulting deficits: the consent clause gave farmers some collective standing and a process for the negotiations, the tightening of the provisions on public purpose and the urgency clause addressed the trust deficit. The courts and the state had so failed the citizens that we could no longer rely on the state to interpret these ideas in a reasonable manner. And the social impact assessment was a mechanism to create claims for affected parties. The bill was badly drafted, with quite a few howlers. There were legitimate concerns about the way the bureaucracy would implement it. And there was an interesting question whether a one-size-fits-all approach is desirable for different states as well as urban and rural areas, given the diversity of background conditions. These needed to be addressed. But the basic normative frame had tried to take up serious issues.

The NDA?s bill and the proposed amendments destroy that normative framework entirely. The recent amendments notwithstanding, public purpose seems as elastic in its meaning as secularism. This is something the Rajya Sabha should focus on. The definition really does need to be narrowed to genuinely public projects and core infrastructure. Social impact has been negated almost entirely. The promise of one job to a family member is a right that parties already had. Much of the debate was about compensation levels.

Those can be debated, though as this column argued at the time, much of the scaremongering over the alleged impact on land prices had little empirical basis or connection with the dynamics of markets. Most of the calculations committed the fallacy of projecting outcomes internal to one regulatory system and just extrapolating them to another. And the state is far more responsible for creating artificial scarcity than any farmers? movement.

It is in this context that the consent clause becomes important. It created a standing for farmers in the process. Albeit imperfectly, its real normative import was to recognise farmers as bearers of rights. Whether it should be 70 or 80 per cent can again be debated. It is often said that changing economics is naturally giving farmers more incentive to get off the land. If so, why would a consent clause be a problem? The sense in which the government is being politically and morally tone deaf is this. It has reduced the land debate to mere instrumentality ? as if the debate were about a sop here or a sop there. It is not recognising the degree to which the consent clause is one instrument of giving farmers standing; it gives them strong rights of participation in the acquisition process. This is the kind of standing most other property holders take for granted, de jure or de facto. You almost get the sense that the government does not even begin to understand the moral import of this argument. It has such an instrumental mindset through and through.

It has also made a political mistake in its framing. The first messages are important. By bringing a hurried ordinance, ostensibly to signal reform, it essentially told farmers that only signals to industry matter. With the possibility of agrarian distress looming, the government will be vulnerable to charges of being anti-farmer in ways that might diminish its capacity to do other things.

Second, in India, the real issue is often not legislation. It is how legislation is then put to work by the machinery of government. How much trust does the government inspire? No matter what the legislative outcome, the government?s handling of different bills, the infirmities in drafting, the casual throwing in of amendments that fail to address the core issues do not inspire confidence. In fact, time and again, the government is getting tripped up on procedure and fact (just witness the fracas and the misrepresentations involved in the release of Masarat Alam in Kashmir). As the UPA found out to its peril, the credibility of the administrative support structures you build far outweighs the importance of laws you bring in. Even if the law is passed, will the cynicism about state process decrease? The answer is not clear. The UPA managed to combine weakness and incompetence; this government might replace it with hubris and incompetence.

But the Opposition will also have to be careful. As an astute observer of agrarian affairs pointed out, even though land and consent clauses are emotive issues, getting national political mobilisation on them is difficult. This is because people will actually be affected only in small numbers and in turns. So crafting a political strategy where it can actually use this issue effectively is not going to be easy. That is probably what made the government so complacent in its approach. But complacency is the surest way to lose the plot. The tragedy is that, in this instance, it might make others lose their plots, literally.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ?The Indian Express

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