The legal trajectory of land acquisition in India

Equitable and efficient acquisition of land by the state for economic development projects, including infrastructure and industry, is a huge challenge if it has to be socially inclusive, ecologically sustainable, politically feasible, and in accordance with the rule of law.

The Centre for Policy Research (CPR), a leading public policy think tank in India has recently come up with a report ‘‘Land acquisition in India: A review of Supreme Court cases from 1950-2016’ detailing the Supreme Court cases on land acquisition during the period. There has been considerable contestation over the state’s acquisition of land spanning various dimensions of economic, social, and political life. Land happens to be not only an important economic resource and a source of livelihoods, but is also central to community identity, history and culture. “Historically systematic and geographically representative data on conflicts over land acquisition has been conspicuous by its absence,” the authors of the report say. This report is an attempt to fill this gap.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, President of CPR in the forward to the study notes “most of the debates in this area focus on statutes, doctrines or individual judgments. This study takes a statistical look at what Courts actually do. In doing so it allows us to understand the evolution of law more deeply”.

The report presents analysis of land acquisition disputes along various metrics, such as i) public purpose, ii) procedure for acquisition, iii) compensation, iv) invocation of the urgency clause, v) pendency of claims, and vi)tracks trends with respect to distribution of disputes across geography and time, and central and state laws. The report also analyses litigation under the newly enacted Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 (LARR Act).

Key findings as per the report are –

Reasons for inequity between state and land losers: The Report concludes that the political and social contestation over land acquisition stems from the inherently coercive nature of the land acquisition process, which creates a severe imbalance of power between the state and land losers. While much of this imbalance was created by the text of the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, a considerable part of it could also be attributed to executive non-compliance with the rule of law. The result is a situation of great inequity for the land losers.

Legal reform under the LARR Act should be implemented by government, not subverted to redress these inequities: The Report finds that specific provisions of the LARR Act are steps in the right direction to redress the imbalance of power that was built into the Land Acquisition Act, 1894 in so far as: i) they empower livelihood losers along with title-holders to bring claims for compensation and rehabilitation, ii) bring compensation requirements in accordance with existing reality, and iii) introduce requirements of consent and social impact assessment. The Report shows that litigation helps channelise political contestation of state action into legal as opposed to extra legal disputes. Therefore, by empowering hitherto disempowered land losers to bring claims under the LARR Act, the Act will help preempt extra-legal conflict. Since conflict inevitably stalls or derails legitimate development projects, it is in the interest of the government to comply with, and not subvert the LARR Act.

Legal reforms must be supplemented by administrative and bureaucratic reforms: The Report highlights that legal reform is a necessary but not a sufficient precondition for ensuring greater equity and efficiency within the land acquisition process. In the absence of administrative and bureaucratic reforms, the introduction of the LARR Act will not succeed in eliminating inequities and inefficiencies embedded within the implementation of existing land acquisition procedures. In fact, the increase in procedural requirements under the LARR Act implies an even greater need for securing executive compliance with the rule of law, in order to translate the equities intended by these additional procedures into reality for land losers.

Types of administrative reforms required: Such administrative reforms include building of state capacity to meaningfully comply with the increased procedural requirements stipulated by the LARR Act, and designing institutional structures that incentivise such compliance with the rule of law. This, in turn, requires a serious mind-set shift within the government toward accepting the reform enshrined in the LARR Act, and not subverting it as we have seen in both the LARR Ordinance, and the state amendments to the LARR Act, as also the rules adopted to implement the LARR Act in the states.

The full report can be accessed here.

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