LANDS OF CONTENTION
The Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh's promise to put in place a more humane policy towards those displaced from lands acquired for new industrial projects is timely. Land acquisition is increasingly becoming controversial with the conflict between the state and those affected by such acquisitions often escalating into a serious law and order problem with human casualties. The fact that such incidents are also fair game for the Opposition to score debating points against the ruling party only makes the problem that much more difficult to resolve.
The time has come to revisit the concept of `public purpose' that governments use to acquire private lands. Such a concept could be readily conceded when the State was picking up land for its own development initiatives or for setting up an industrial undertaking wholly owned by it, but the device comes under some strain when it is used to facilitate private investments. This is not to say that private investments do not add to societal well-being. Indeed, judicial thinking elsewhere in the world is veering towards such a liberal interpretation of the notion of `public purpose' in the context of compulsory acquisition of private lands.
But where benefits to the public are inherently in the nature of secondary or tertiary outcome to primary private benefit, the debate is bound to be fractious. On the other hand, the country does not have the luxury of ducking the question either. Both the Centre and the States operate under such severe budgetary constraints that co-opting private capital for the provision of social and economic infrastructure so essential for economic growth has increasingly become inevitable. Clearly there is a need for evolving a consensus on the definition of `public purpose' that warrants compulsory acquisition of private lands. Perhaps this is a fit case for the National Development Council, where all the States and the Centre are represented, to deliberate upon and arrive at a political consensus.
Finally, land acquisition even for the most laudable `public purpose' or a scheme of rehabilitation that accommodates even the most remotely affected, may not seem humane if the compensation is seen as niggardly. The current market value arrived at by whatsoever means for the property may not seem so fair as notions of fair market value etc. are appropriate only when the buyer and the seller come together of their own free volition and settle at a price that each thinks is appropriate. But compulsory acquisitions belong to a different category altogether.