Legal challenges may be needed to protect India's land law, says former minister

NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Indian states that are watering down provisions of a land acquisition law are hurting farmers and risk facing more conflicts and legal challenges, said a former minister who helped frame the landmark law.

India’s 2013 Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act replaced a colonial-era law with an aim to protect poor farmers. It requires consensus to buy the land, a social impact assessment, rehabilitation for those displaced and compensation of up to four times the market value.

But states say the law slows land acquisitions for key industrial projects needed to spur economic growth.

Since the new government took charge in 2014, four states - including Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Rajasthan - have amended the law to make it easier to acquire land by dropping the requirements for consent and social impact assessment.

At least two more states are also planning similar changes to the law in a bid to sidestep clashes with farmers and indigenous people over land.

Jairam Ramesh, a parliamentarian who was Minister of Rural Development between 2011 and 2014, said the law he helped draft was constantly being diluted.

“Tampering with the need for consent and social impact assessment opens the doors to forcible acquisitions and not compensating livelihood losers. That is in violation of the spirit of the law,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“We are thinking of legal challenges - perhaps public interest litigations and other ways - to counter this.”

Conflicts related to land and resources have stalled hundreds of industrial and development projects in India, affecting millions of people and putting billions of dollars of investment at risk.

Land acquisitions are also being contested in court more, according to a report this week from India’s Center for Policy Research think tank.

Within a year of the 2013 law coming into force, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government attempted to amend the law by exempting categories such as infrastructure and affordable housing from the need for consent and social impact assessment.

But the ordinance failed to pass due to a lack of parliamentary support. Since then, amendments by four states have received approval from the president, with other states considering similar changes.

“I wish there had been greater application by the president - his assent for the amendments is not pro forma, and I wish he had realized the implications,” Ramesh said.