Facing opposition from allies and amid fears of being branded as anti-farmer, the BJP-led NDA government on Wednesday softened its stand on the Land Acquisition Act, saying it is “open to accepting good suggestions.”
“We are open to accepting good suggestions offered by other parties. If people have some opinion on social impact assessment or consent clauses, we are willing to hear them,” Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari told reporters in Parliament House.
Gadkari’s statement came amidst rumours that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had asked his party MPs to counter the “false propaganda” spread by the Opposition, has ruled out any changes to the Act.
In the Lok Sabha, Parliamentary Affairs Minister M Venkaiah Naidu said: “If there are shortcomings (in the ordinance), then highlight them. We are willing to talk to parties, to people. We are willing to accept good suggestions. Ours is the last party to do injustice to farmers. We are ready to go the extra mile to strengthen the hands of farmers.”
Also on Wednesday, another BJP ally, the LJP, joined the Shiv Sena and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) in opposing certain provisions of the Act. LJP MP Chirag Paswan, son of Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan, said his party objected to some clauses in the Act. “We have objections over some measures. There are questions about the need of doing away with farmers’ consent. They also will have no right to move court,” he said.
According to LJP leaders, the BJP’s partner in Bihar is concerned about the bill being viewed as anti-farmer, which could have adversely affect its prospects in the state elections scheduled later this year.
The Act, brought as an ordinance on December 31, amends the existing law passed by the UPA government in 2013. In the new version, the government has removed the need for obtaining the consent of land-owners and carrying out social economic assessment (SIA) for acquiring land under certain categories.
The move has been vehemently opposed by the Opposition as well as some rights groups, including those affiliated to the RSS.
However, a section in the BJP feels that without those clauses, the acquisition of land will continue to be tough and discourage industrialists.
Paswan, meanwhile, said his party wanted the government to reconsider the controversial provisions. While the encouragement of industry was NDA’s key poll plank, the government also needs to stand by its other main plank, which is ‘sabka sath, sabka vikas (development for all)’, he said, stressing on the need to convince farmers on the new law.
The LJP MP added that the government should allay any “confusion” over the clause providing farmers compensation at four times the market rate of land. “There is a disparity in the government rate and actual rate and no one is sure whether compensation would be fixed according to the former or the latter,” he said.
In the Lok Sabha, JD(S) leader and former Prime Minister Deve Gowda said the government should “convince” his party and only then would his party “apply their mind if it will cooperate or not”.
The BJP, however, sought to hit back at all the criticism by pointing fingers at the Congress’s “double stand” on the issue. Gadkari quoted from a letter sent by former Maharashtra CM Prithviraj Chavan to the then UPA government, raising concerns about certain provisions of the law in its earlier version. In the letter, Gadkari said, Chavan had argued that it would “adversely” affect public works and make them “unviable”.
“Who wrote this? It was a Congress Chief Minister. This party’s CM in Haryana also offered compensation which was only twice the rate, not four times as envisaged by the law. And this party is shouting in Parliament. They put on many masks to suit their interests,” he said, adding that some parties seemed keen on defaming Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government.
Gadkari admitted that it was a battle between reality and perception, adding that a perception against the government has been created even though facts supported it.
He argued that the new law is pro-farmer and pro-poor. However, he also said that infrastructure projects cannot be hostage to the consent of land owners. “Irrigation projects are behind 80 percent of the land acquisition. Should such developmental works be held hostage to the consent of 70 percent land owners?” he asked.
He added that farmers were under distress due to low productivity and new irrigation projects cannot be launched without acquiring land. To drive home his point, the Minister said that projects worth Rs. 3.80 lakh crore cleared by his ministry have been awaiting clearances.
“We want to build 2 crore houses as part of our exercise to give homes to all. Will they be built in the air? We need land for that,” he said.
Naidu echoed the same line. He said that while his party supported the Bill in Parliament in 2013, the demands from states and “practical difficulties” that came to the government’s attention led to the changes. “Without business and industry, how can the country prosper? Without wealth creation, how can we distribute wealth?” Naidu asked, adding that the acquisition of land was for a public purpose and not any private ventures.