Thursday, January 24, 2008

Land Acquisition, a sure way to life long litigation

The deletion of property as a fundamental right by the 44th amendment was made in the context of agrarian reform and prevention of economic concentration of wealth. No one thought at that time that liberalization policies would woo the rich to such an extent that there would soon be reversal of trend when lands would go to the hands of the industrialists on specious grounds of rewarding them as promoters of progress and prosperity. SEZs and infrastructural developmental needs are seen as the new mantra to supplant farmers’ needs to hold their lands. Probably, we have come a way far ahead to resist change. Could there at least be attempts to ensure some statutory changes to placate the righteous indignation against the systematic deprivation of property from farmers for establishing industries and for laying roads? The establishment of SEZ at Ghaziabad by acquisition of fertile agricultural lands has fanned the controversy centre-stage to transport it as public interest litigation before a three member bench of the Supreme Court.
Land Acquisitions have always been source of heart aches. From Chiranjitlal Choudhry to Kesavanda Bharati to Narmada Bachao Andolan, the recurrent theme has been the unwillingness of the owner/ possessor of land to part with property. Again, from individual remonstration to collective ire, the problem of acquisition has snowballed to gigantic proportions. The 17th century empiricist philosopher, John Locke’s idea of personal property and the justification to hold it was based on the predilection of property owner, who added value to what was available in nature and retained it for his livelihood and for sharing with his family. Marx and Engels saw as human perversion the idea of creation of capital through property holdings to subjugate labor. Now Budhadeb, the communist party chief minister confesses that capital is inevitable. Whatever be the philosophical underpinnings for the driving force for holding property, the requirement of ‘public purpose’ has been the touchstone for its acquisition in all land acquisition laws.
The century old Land Acquisition Act has undergone several important amendments. The 1962 amendment required the acquisition of land for a company to be used directly for public purpose. The 1984 amendments were the most significant, when it redefined ‘public purpose’ more expansively, made provision for speeding up the process of acquisition by limiting the period of acquisition from the date of declaration under section 6 to the date of passing award, increased solatium from 15% to 30% , as also the rate of interest for the compensation itself and enabled persons who did not secure enhanced compensation at the first instance to take advantage of the compensation determined in the same award by other owners. The Tamil Nadu amendment Act of 1996 made possible the reversion of ownership to the landowner, if the property was not put to use. It further made null and void sales of property by companies for whose benefit the property was originally acquired.
The problems still linger. Mere enactment of laws for acquisition of property and providing compensation do not guarantee that the process could be peaceful. Sirgur and Nandigram, Meenjur and Meenambakkam have been recent stories of massive public protests. Land acquisitions are mired in the hotbed of politics. Politicians work full time to keep the controversies alive by inciting one group against another. The right of re-purchase has no meaning in the absence of definite time limit within which the property shall be put to use by the requisitioning authority. Otherwise, as the Supreme Court has in a recent judgment held there is no inherent right for a citizen to demand a resale when the government, in its power of eminent domain has not chosen to forsake its claim over the property, after its initial acquisition. There is no statutory basis for rehabilitation and employment for a person whose land is acquired. Alternative sites are more in the nature of executive promises that are susceptible to bureaucratic delays and nepotism than concomitant legislative obligations that are enforceable. Provision for employment by the industry is presently in the nature of charity and not guaranteed. If it is provided, it is for the existing generation of owner who has lost the land and only to one member and not to the whole family which has lost the property. The government orders and circulars against acquisition of fertile lands and acquisition of places of worship have no statutory force and consequently, the government itself often breaches with impunity the restriction against acquisition of valuable lands and exposes the danger of a owner losing the property for less important uses. There is ever an unwillingness on the part of the government to pay adequate compensation and engages the parties in long drawn litigation against the awards.
The moral of the story is, you need not own real property. But surely cultivate a constant relationship with the person that holds property. He will lose it one day and his vicissitudes will keep the lawyer busy for the rest of his life.

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