Reform by decree

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The Indian Express, December 31, 2014

The Union cabinet on Monday recommended the promulgation of an ordinance to amend the land acquisition act. The ordinance seeks to expand the list of projects exempted from the requirement of the consent of affected families and a social impact assessment (SIA) to include defence production, affordable housing, industrial corridors and PPP projects in highways, ports, etc. Even though the act had bipartisan support when it was passed in 2013, it is a deeply flawed legislation. Rather than encouraging the shift of land from agriculture to more productive uses, it rests on outdated assumptions about the political economy of land and the disruptive effects of industrialisation, and places onerous obligations on those who start projects. Dialling back such provisions was urgently needed.

The executive?s prerogative to promulgate ordinances, however, is designed as an emergency power, to be used when Parliament is not in session. It follows that ordinances are not to be used by the government as a cover for its political unwillingness or failure to engage and persuade the Opposition in Parliament. Therefore, even as the land acquisition ordinance promises much-needed change to the act, it raises troubling questions about the manner in which the Modi government seems determined to bring in crucial reforms. Further, given its provisional nature and the fact that it requires parliamentary approval to become law, it is not the best way to signal the more stable and predictable policy environment that is necessary to revive growth. In fact, reform-by-ordinance only underlines dispiriting signals about the ability of the Modi government to deliver on its tall promises.

The government must realise that there is no alternative: it must face up to its Rajya Sabha disadvantage, which seems likely to persist in the foreseeable future. It will have to do the hard and patient labour of politics to win over the required support across party lines. The fact also is that, despite the clamour provoked by the activities of Sangh Parivar outfits over conversions, or the government?s Rajya Sabha predicament, the just concluded winter session of Parliament was a relatively productive one ? even the Upper House did far better than in the winter session of 2013 and its overall productivity was 59 per cent, compared to 25 per cent the year before. Given that many of the amendments sought to be brought in even had the support of some Congress-ruled states, the proposed land acquisition ordinance seems not just short-sighted, therefore, but also unnecessary.

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