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As Congress takes on BJP on land acquisition bill, Jairam Ramesh pokes fun at Chidambaram

The former minister puts on record the trouble he faced within the United Progressive Alliance government in getting the land acquisition law passed.

As parliament gets ready to debate the ordinance that introduced changes to the land acquisition law passed by the United Progressive government in 2013, Scroll spoke with Jairam Ramesh, who piloted the law as rural development minister. Ramesh recalls how the Bharatiya Janata Party supported the law, while his own ministerial colleagues opposed it. He takes potshots at his colleague and former Finance Minister P Chidambaram, dwells on the existential crisis in the Indian National Congress, and simultaneously defends and criticises party Vice-President Rahul Gandhi.

You have recently published a book on your stint as the environment minister. But you are also writing a book on land acquisition. What ground would you be covering in that book?
Basically, it's about how the 2013 act was made. For the 2013 act, we had two options: either you amend the 1894 act or you rewrite the entire act. We decided to rewrite the entire act. The book looks at why did we do that, how did we do that, and the justification for the major new innovations that we introduced like consent clause, like social impact assessment, livelihood losers also getting compensation, retrospective clause.

But before the book gets published, the law itself might stand amended, and these clauses might stand removed?
In September 2013, all parties including the BJP supported the new act unanimously, enthusiastically. There were two years of national debate and consultation, 18 hours of debate in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. 65 members of parliament participated in the discussion. The standing committee made 28 recommendations out of which 26 were accepted. The standing committee was chaired by Sumitra Mahajan who is now the speaker [of the Lok Sabha]. Sushma Swaraj made some amendments on the floor of the house which were accepted. Shivraj Singh Chouhan suggested some amendments which were accepted. Two all party meetings were held. It was unprecedented level of consultation. Within eight months, the whole thing had unravelled.

Are your objections more to do with the substance of the amendments or the way they were introduced through an ordinance?
The substance is far more important. Ordinances, you know...Governments come out with ordinances. But it is still amazing that a two-year process got subverted in just two hours. The minister of rural development was not even involved in the process. When the president called for an explanation on why there was an ordinance, three ministers met the president. The finance minister, the surface transport minister and the law minister. The rural development minister, who was piloting the whole thing, was not present.

On what basis do you say the government took just two hours?
The cabinet note was circulated at 3 o'clock, the cabinet meeting was 5 o'clock, and they approved the ordinance. Normally before you do an ordinance you have a discussion, you go though the motions of an inter-ministerial discussion. Forget discussing with opposition parties, you discuss within the government. I found it ironic that the day Mr Munde [Gopinath Munde] took over as rural development minister, I went to call on him, and I said "aap kya karne wale hai? (What are you going to do?) He said, "main kya karonga, humne to aapka samarthan diya tha parliament mein. (What can I do? We had supported you on the land acquisition law in Parliament. When the law has been created with our support, how can we change it?) 

Mr Munde is not around. We cannot check with him.
The day I met him, I told others about what he had said...

How do you explain that the state governments of your party asked for a dilution of the law? Haryana asked for removal of consent clause. Maharashtra did not want social impact assessment for all projects.
This is not a Congress versus BJP thing. The state governments are under pressure to clear projects quickly. It is natural, they want to do things quickly, they want to show results quickly. I'm not entirely surprised that state governments have objections.

Doesn't this weaken the Congress opposition to the amendments, that its own state governments are asking for these changes?
No, I don't think so. From what I can gather, Mr Gadkari [Nitin Gadkari, then the rural development minister] had one meeting without the state governments. When I am going to call a state government and say, tell me how this should be changed, obviously they are going to give you a long, sob story of things that need to be changed. Even at that time [when the UPA passed the law in 2013], to be honest, Congress state government said, look, this would add to the cost of acquisition and time taken, but this was a conscious decision taken by the Congress party. It would certainly add to the costs. But land cost as proportion of total costs is less than 5%. It will add time. Under the most optimistic assumptions, land acquisition will take anywhere between 3-4 years. But in a society where land is the only form of social security, and land once gone will not come back to the guy who is giving up the land, and given the track record of governments on land acquisition, Congress, BJP, Communist, without any exception, one had to bring in these safeguards.

But do you think it makes sense of have an overarching legislation for all the states? Land acquisition in a tribal district of Odisha is radically different from acquisition in Navi Mumbai.
That's why there are special provisions for tribal areas. There's a whole chapter on scheduled areas in the act. 

But the economics are different. The compensation is pegged to the market value of land. We know in some places...
We know many things. We know land markets are imperfect. We know that in most transactions on land, there is a white transaction, and there is a black transaction. All these are realities. Land titles in India are not conclusive, they are presumptive. How do I know the land belongs to you, I'm taking you on your word. We have been talking about this for last 25 years. We got a draft legislation, which we circulated to all the states. Some states have started the process of modernising land records. I have been saying from day one that this law should be on the statute book only for 20 years. In 20 years' time, our land records should be set right. Your land titling should be made conclusive rather than presumptive. Then people who want land, will go and buy the land. We are the only country in the world which has a land acquisition law. Go and buy the land.

But in direct purchase of land in states like Chhattisgarh, there is a power asymmetry between buyers and sellers.
There is a power asymmetry which is why you can't do it [without the land acqusition law].

But direct purchase is happening.
You can't get large tracts of contiguous land, you get land here, then there is a break, then you get land there.

You use all sorts of tactics to acquire land in patches which will eventually force people to sell their land to you.
That's why you need a land acquisition law. In fact, the standing committee had taken a position that no law be acquired for private companies or PPPs. I said I would like that to happen 10 years from now. Let's work towards it.

You are now expressing outrage over the withdrawal of the consent clause. But consent under the law you made was limited only to land acquisition for private projects or PPPs.
I would never have gotten this law through if I said let's make consent mandatory for government. In the first draft of my bill, consent was required for all projects. But the prime minister was against it, the finance minister was against it, the commerce minister was against it. I couldn't navigate it through my own government. 

But the government… the biggest culprit, I agree. Law is situated in a political economy. It is true I would have loved consent for all. But it would have been impossible. I will say this on record: I would have never been able to get it passed in my cabinet. It was easier for me to navigate the law through parliament than among my own ministerial colleagues. 

What were the arguments made by your ministerial colleagues?
The government must have eminent power. NTPC projects would get stalled. Coal India would get stalled. Railway project will get stalled. The same arguments that Mr Jaitley [Finance Minister Arun Jaitley] is giving were given by Mr Chidambaram [then the finance minister].

And you are launching a nationwide stir when there are such contrasting views within your own party.
Mr Chidamabaram is irrelevant now. He is no longer the finance minister.

But he is a member and leader of the party.
Yes, and one who is opposed to the ordinance. It's interesting that Mr Chidambaram wrote a column in the Indian Express against the ordinance calling it "anti-farmer", "anti-people", now that he's no longer the finance minister. (laughs)

For all the talk of nationwide stir against the land acquisition amendments, there appears to be no major mobilisation by the Congress on the ground.
There is large mobilisation on the 25th at Jantar Mantar. In the states, one is taking place in Chhattisgarh. Another Uttar Pradesh has started, Rajasthan has next week. Anna Hazare himself is doing one.

Anna Hazare's agitation is stronger than your party.
Anna is a media figure and when he brings Govindacharya and Medha Patkar on the same platform, that makes for news. 

But you cannot deny that your party is weak on the ground.
I myself attended agitational programmes done in four different states. I think it's been launched in systematic manner, it is only going to pick up.

You have yourself said your party is facing an existential crisis.
So? The party facing an existential crisis is not mutually exclusive with land agitation. The problem of existential crisis is linked to the leadership. It is not that there isn't support for the Congress (at the grassroots). Our electoral debacle has been much deeper than we expected and the demoralisation is increased because of the successive defeats we have had in the state elections. 

So you are attributing the crisis to the leadership vacuum?
People are looking for leaders now. After all, Mr Modi [Narendra Modi] fought a personalised campaign, Mr Kejriwal [Arvind Kejriwal] fought a personalised campaign. Everybody is a Maradona. Everybody takes a second rate team and gets them to win the World Cup. You don't say Argentina has won the World Cup. You say Maradona has won the World Cup. 

What is party doing to address the leadership question?
Are we talking of Congress or land acquisition?

Aren't both linked? If you want to mobilise on the issue, you need leadership.
In the next couple of weeks, some things will emerge. It's been nine months of intensive recovery. At some stage, we will have to come back and become more visible and aggressive on the ground.

You have called this government "Orwellian", but what was the impact of multiple power centres in the UPA?
As far as the party was concerned, the president was the boss. Look at the big issues of the UPA. The Indo-US agreement: the party was uncomfortable but the PM had his way. Multi-brand retail: the party was uncomfortable but PM had his way. Land acquisition: PM was uncomfortable but the party had its way. So it is a trade-off in the democratic process.

But within the party too, weren't there dual power centres with Mr Rahul Gandhi being one of them?
Mr Gandhi did not take hands-on approach on issues of governance except the ordinance issue. He was not part of a group one way or the other.

What do you think of the Aam Aadmi Party? Does it hold any attraction for you?
The Aam Aadmi Party has been brilliant as agitational force. Whether they will be a responsible force, only time will tell. Our entire vote share in Delhi has gone off to AAP. We are a left of centre party. AAP is positioning itself to be one. We are a secular party. AAP is positioning to be one. To that extent, Congress and AAP are in competition with each other. To give credit to Mr Gandhi, he has been talking about the issues of the AAP long before AAP into being. The tragedy for the Congress is the organisation could not take that message (to the people) in the same manner that AAP did.

It did not have the credibility to do so. Your government was tainted with corruption.
Yes, the corruption allegations were an issue, as much as how we handled the Anna movement.
What strikes you as worthy of praise in the Narendra Modi government?

It appears to be a cohesive government because all power and authority is vested in one individual. He runs the government, he runs the ministries. To that extent, a single message is coming out of the government whereas multiple messages were coming out in UPA, which I think was good. Today, the dominant element in government is fear. During the UPA regime I don't think that was the case. We could have done with more coherence, we could have done with the PM speaking out more, Mrs Gandhi [Sonia Gandhi] speaking out more, Mr Gandhi speaking out more. Undoubtedly, public communication is essential for political leaders, but all our three leaders were unfortunately conspicuous by their silence. 

What do you think of Rahul Gandhi taking leave in the middle of the budget session?
No comments.

Do you think the Congress needs to end the ambiguity over leadership? Does the party need a new leader?
Leadership has to be more visible, vocal, proactive  and accessible.

(The interview has been edited for length and clarity. The last two questions were asked over email.)

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