Modi’s tactical political retreat as Land Bill lapses today

S Madhusudhana Rao

Did Prime Minister Narendra Modi make a tactical retreat on Sunday by humbly submitting to people that he was allowing the controversial ordinance on land acquisition to lapse?

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S Madhusudhana Rao

In the 11th edition of radio address to the nation, Mann ki Baat, Modi officially announced that the government would not re-promulgate the land ordinance that will expire today (August 31). At the same time, he assured the public that he was ready to accept suggestions that would benefit farmers.

Modi said: “We are ready to amend the Land Acquisition Act to benefit farmers who were subjected to misinformation leading to a lot of apprehension in their minds on the law. I have decided that the land ordinance be allowed to lapse. But 13 pointers that will benefit the farmers will be issued. Many rumours being spread about the Land Acquisition Bill. Farmers have been scared … we do not want that… amending the Bill had become essential to free it from red tape. Every voice is important but the voice of farmers is extremely significant.”

Modi’s policy announcement on radio might have taken the opposition, particularly Congress, by surprise, not because it is totally unexpected but because of its timing. His broadcast came just two hours before a Swabhiman rally in Patna where Congress president Sonia Gandhi had shared the stage with Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav and SP leader Shivpal Yadav, among others, as a show of force ahead of state polls.

Speculation has been rife ever since the monsoon session of parliament was a washout that the Modi government would not resort to another executive order to prolong the life of the land ordinance and it would be allowed to expire without making any fuss. But Modi going to the public with the announcement is his tacit admission of defeat in the face of stiff opposition from farmers, state governments and political parties. Congress, which has spearheaded the opposition to the proposed new law, has the last laugh. Sonia Gandhi has called Modi’s U-turn as Congress victory.

But Modi the astute politician might have checkmated Congress and other opposition parties that have joined their forces to forestall BJP from winning the forthcoming Bihar Assembly elections by his candid admission. By doing so, Modi has scored a few points. One, he will not go against the wishes of the people in general and farmers in particular; two, his government is not pro-capitalist as portrayed by Congress and leftists; three, he is committed to people-oriented development. In other words, Modi has taken a political advantage of an adverse situation to turn the tables on the Congress leadership.

However, there are inherent risks in such a gambit that can’ be overlooked and they can be easily exploited by Modi’s beta noire Sonia-Rahul Gandhi. They can resort to similar tactics in future to shame the Prime Minister and to prove a point that though the party is numerically weak in the Lok Sabha, it is capable of halting Modi juggernaut in its tracks. Secondly, Modi has suffered a setback, at least temporarily, in fast-tracking poll-promised economic reforms. Now, land acquisition for industries and infra projects will face hurdles as usual and development can be at a snail’s pace.

Nevertheless, a silver lining is the Modi government had issued an executive order on August 28 to ensure continuity of higher compensation and rehabilitation benefits to those whose land would be acquired for projects intended for public purposes such as highways, railways, etc. Land losers will also get rehabilitation packages under which jobs, houses or alternative land allotments have been made mandatory options. This is the model the Andhra Pradesh government is following in acquiring land for the new capital city Amaravati. The centre and state governments are veering around the view that it is better to leave land acquisitions to states. To minimize legal problems, the centre can give states a broad framework under which they can acquire land for development projects.

Land is dear to its holders. From times immemorial, wars have been fought over occupation of land. In rural areas, land is a major issue and in urban centres it is precious. None likes to part with a piece of land for whatever purpose it is. So, when the previous Congress-led government changed an ancient law allowing the government to take over land at nominal prices in 2013, local people were up in arms. In states like Odisha, tribals are still agitating over government attempts to take over forest land for mining of natural resources. To protect the interests of land-holders, the UPA law had made the consent of over 70 percent of land owners for a majority of land acquisitions mandatory. The result was inordinate delays in getting land for both government projects and mega private ventures.

To spur private and foreign investment, the NDA government had exempted investments in defence, rural infrastructure, affordable housing, industrial corridors and public-private joint ventures from the requirement to get consent through an executive order in December last. Also excluded from its purview was the need to conduct a social impact assessment of a proposed project.  The executive order was extended twice, in April and May, as the Modi government’s efforts to push the amendments to the 2013 land bill had failed simply because the new provisions had been described as benefiting capitalists more than the land holders. In this respect, Rahul Gandhi’s campaign in rural areas has paid off. Now, with Modi restoring the status quo, the question is, will he revive the proposed amendments to the 2013 law at a later date or bury it forever.

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