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Legislating for justice

Legislating on land rights is an exercise fraught with challenges. States are reluctant and often opposed to any central legislation on the subject viewing such an exercise as an encroachment into their domain. The Constitution also lists ‘land’ exclusively as a state subject meaning the Centre does not possess the authority to legislate on related issues.

There are multiple problems with land ownership in India. It doesn’t help that ownership of land is no longer protected as a fundamental right. It doesn’t help that an active and creative mafia works overtime to exploit vacant lands and loopholes in the judicial system. It doesn’t help that ownership is only presumptive and not conclusive (as in other developed countries).

Yet solid and informed policy is necessary to address the challenges faced in India. It is essential to give people a sense of security over their land which in a large number of cases is directly tied to their livelihood.

Land acquisition, which falls under an entry in the concurrent list (meaning both the Centre and the States are qualified to make laws), offered us an opportunity to address some of these injustices. A decision was taken to repeal the 1894 law enacted by the British. This in itself was a big step as every single exercise prior to this revolved around amending the 1894 law. A new law was written with the intention of starting from a clean slate, to distance ourselves from the baggage of the 1894 law and build in safeguards that would remedy historical injustices and prevent them from happening again.

The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act 2013 was a small step in that direction. It altered the status quo, abridged the powers of the State to take over land, and empowered the common man with a series of rights and protections.

It is telling of the degree of dependence and reliance on land acquisition, that the Government now wants to revert to a position as it existed prior to the 2013 law (albeit with higher compensation and rehabilitation/resettlement provisions in place).

What is equally telling is how no one, in the year since the law was passed, has bothered to take on an exercise to fix those problems that make acquisition necessary in the first place. States need to improve record keeping, they need to guarantee the titles of those who choose to buy land in their jurisdictions, and above all, they need to prevent frivolous and vexatious litigation designed to tire out bona fide land purchasers.

Whenever the State needed land, it resorted to acquisition. Which is why the need for improving land laws was never felt. In the absence of that crutch, State Governments should begin work on addressing the flaws that make land purchase such an unattractive option. That will be the next stage of land reforms. If the Central Government is successful in amending the 2013 law, by effectively stripping it of the safeguards that set it apart from its predecessor, then we will have taken a step back on that long march to land reforms.

Featured image credit: Woman walking in rural India. CC0 via Pixabay.

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