In 2013, India’s Houses of Parliament passed the United Progressive Alliance government’s showpiece legislation, rather grandiosely termed the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill. Two months after coming to power, the National Democratic Alliance government has sent out feelers about diluting it. Consent clauses, which mandated permission from 70% of affected farmers for land acquisition for public-private partnership projects, and 80% for private projects, could be tempered. Social Impact Assessments may also no longer be mandatory for all but the largest initiatives.

Despite the Bharatiya Janata Party’s support of RFCTLARR in Parliament, the government’s moves are hardly surprising. If leadership is a symbolic metric, then one shining signal is the appointment of the industrialist Nitin Gadkari as both Minister for road transport, highways, and shipping and Minister for rural development with responsibility for land acquisition legislation. After all, the National Highways Authority of India has been vocal in its criticism of the new land acquisition law. Though Gadkari has asserted that the interests of farmers will remain paramount in a tweaked acquisition law, such words ring hollow when the legislation has consistently downgraded the interests of farmers.

Diluting a dilution
Even RFCTLARR, passed by the UPA, made some noticeable adjustments. The Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill of 2011 decreed that not more than five per cent of multi-cropped land could be acquired in a district, as a last resort. RFCTLARR gives the government discretion in the amount of multi-cropped land that can be acquired.

Further, LARR made rehabilitation mandatory for all private purchases, if the land procured is over 100 acres in rural areas and 50 acres in urban areas. Yet under RFCTLARR, in private land purchases rehabilitation is left to the discretion of State governments.

The ostensibly pro-poor UPA systematically diluted the law. One can attribute this to the old trope: the restrictions of a coalition. Or one can look to the catch-all nature of the Congress party, where business-friendly reformists vie with those with re-distributive tendencies. Either way, the BJP is set to accelerate the work of its predecessor.

A false dichotomy
In focusing on the interests of farmers, politicians and commentators have set up a false dichotomy around land use in India. On the one hand is agricultural land, tilled by sons (hardly ever daughters) of the soil. On the other hand is the allegedly more productive uses for this land in India’s new economy: special economic zones, multi-lane highways, ports and other infrastructure projects, industrial manufacturing, mining operations, office complexes and such like. As a senior official in Delhi’s Ministry of Commerce told this author: “people [need to enter] the industrial age and [have] 24/7 lifestyles. Do you want them to keep digging holes in the ground?”

A big shift is underway in our land economy, but to believe its main variables are agricultural versus industrial and infrastructural uses misses the woods for the trees. Figures from the Indian Agricultural Statistics Research Institute suggest that agricultural land has declined from 140.29 million hectares to 140.02 million hectares between 1980-‘81 and 2009-‘10. Land put to non-agricultural uses has risen exponentially, from 19.60 million hectares to 26.17 million hectares. Clearly, non-agricultural land is not being carved out of agricultural land alone. Land classified as ‘barren’ and ‘waste’ has declined by 7.06 million hectares between 1980-‘81 and 2009-‘10. Grazing land has declined by 3.11 million hectares between 1970-‘71 and 2009-‘10.

Wasteland and pastures
It’s not like India, a land scarce country, has millions of hectares lying around unused. Wasteland is a colonial construct for area that could not be assessed for revenue collection. That is, this was land of little use to a rent-extractive government. It was, and continues to be, of much use to a population with no permanent productive assets.

The Adani port and special economic zone in Mundra, Kachchh, is built over land classified as agricultural, pasture and waste. The latter category has provided livelihoods to charcoal-makers dependent on the Prosopis juliflora or ganda bawal shrub, and to some 10,000 fish-workers who have contributed as much as Rs 66 crore annually to the local economy. A company does not need the Land Acquisition Act to access wasteland, which is controlled by the government. It just requires a friendly administration.

Similarly, common property grazing land is usually governed by panchayats. Several State governments now allow pastures to be leased to industry. This has created an ever-shrinking landscape for the largest bovine population in the world, numbering over 450 million, and owned overwhelmingly by the landless, and marginal farmers. This government should note that a potentially bigger threat to gau mata comes not from slaughterhouses but from the officially mandated undermining of the cow’s habitat and forms of sustenance.

The detractors
RFCTLARR has many detractors, mostly from the private sector. Among these are interests in real estate, mining, manufacturing and infrastructure development, who cite arcane land laws and a flawed titling system as major obstructions in the land market. Instead of negotiating with scores of landowners to aggregate a viable piece of property in a country with a high human to land ratio, entrepreneurs would much rather have land quickly and painlessly acquired on their behalf by a State government playing the role of mega-broker. In the words of a well known real estate developer interviewed by this author: “[Today] we need another kind of land reform. The government must take land from the poor and give to the rich. Otherwise, growth and development are not possible.

State governments
Land is a State subject in the Indian constitution. Consequently, State governments have not always relied on the national land acquisition law to channel land to corporate and other private interests:

They have accessed land banks in the possession of government departments such as State Industries Development Corporations. They have also accessed unused or inefficiently used land available with indebted private or public sector enterprises.

States have transferred government property, as evidenced in Gujarat’s decision to allow the privatisation of village pastoral land through a Government Resolution introduced in 2005.Many governments have enacted sub-national laws such as The Tamil Nadu Acquisition of Land for Industrial Purposes Act in 1999. The latter is more flexible than the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, in terms of compensation, but is highly restrictive in allowing legal challenges. States have also delimited forest land and wildlife sanctuaries to free up space for industrial development, as is evident in the case of the Narayan Sarovar Wildlife Sanctuary in Kachchh.

Many sub-national mechanisms are unaffected by the national land acquisition law. In any case, the latter has enough flexibility for States to continue on their land liberalisation trajectories. Yet, State governments across the political spectrum have criticised RFCTLARR. The legislation threatens to increase demands for compensation for State-facilitated and private land deals, if not directly, then by example.

Ideas versus practice
The previous government, or at least sections of it, spoke the language of Rights: to employment, education, information, etc. The rejection it has faced from the electorate, as well as an analysis of its policies, exposes a gulf between rights as grand ideas, and the translation of these ideas into just and implementable legislation, with rather flawed practice bringing up the rear. Nevertheless, the will to imagine a politics of entitlement should not be scoffed at, particularly at a time when an entirely different language stares us in the face.

The author is associate professor at the University of Oxford.