Skip to main content
xYOU DESERVE INDEPENDENT, CRITICAL MEDIA. We want readers like you. Support independent critical media.

Odisha Dilutes Land Acquisition Rules to ‘Attract Private Investment’

Ayaskant Das |
Mandatory social impact assessment before land takeover has been exempted for many projects.
Odisha Dilutes Land Acquisition Rules to ‘Attract Private Investment’

Representational Image. Image Courtesy: PixaHive

New Delhi: The Naveen Patnaik government has diluted land acquisition rules by passing the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, 2023, which exempts the mandatory social impact assessment (SIA) for several industrial and infrastructure projects.

The Opposition has termed the amendment of the RFCTLAR&R Act, 2013, “grossly anti-people” and aimed at “favouring big businesses”.

As per Chapter II of the Act, public hearings before land acquisition, part of SIA, were mandatory. Now, tracts of land measuring up to 500 acres or involving displacement of around 100 families can be arbitrarily acquired without consultation.

Besides, restrictions on acquiring irrigated multi-cropped land, in Chapter III of the Act, to safeguard food security, have also been relaxed for such projects.

Defence-related projects, affordable housing projects, highways and railway lines have been exempted from SIA. Any form of public-private partnership projects in which land continues to remain vested with the government have been exempted from SIA as well.

SIA ill also not be required in land acquisition for building educational institutes, health infrastructure and government offices. Drinking water, electrification and irrigation projects will need no SIA either. Up to one km land on either side of a state government-owned industrial corridor can be acquired without SIA.

The RFCTLAR&R Act introduced several progressive provisions. It included a mandatory SIA study to be discussed with affected families and a mandatory food security provision to make sure that land acquisition does not adversely affect food security,” former bureaucrat EAS Sarma told this journalist.

According to Sarma, the decision “shows the state government’s insensitivity to human trauma in forcible land acquisition and its adverse impacts on affected communities”.

By adopting such “regressive amendments, the government has apparently demonstrated its colonial mindset and the lack of respect for democratic values”, he added.

Opposition MLAs staged a walkout when the Bill was put up for voting on September 27. But Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal (BJD), which has 112 members in the 147-seat House, passed the Bill without their support.

The exemptions, however, will not be applicable while acquiring land in areas that have a pre-ponderance of Adivasi population and been designated as Schedule V areas as per the Constitution. Among the 30 districts of Odisha, seven (and parts of another six districts) are covered under Schedule V.

These amendments are apparently the outcome of corporate pressure on the political executive to short-circuit democratic processes. The decision to drop the food security provisions shows the state government’s imprudence in according a low priority to agriculture and the farming community, which depends on it. It is unfortunate that Odisha should follow in the footsteps of some other states to exempt land acquisition from both provisions,” Sarma further added.

A statement issued by state revenue minister Sudam Marndi to justify the amendments pointed out that Odisha is the fourth state to amend the Act after Gujarat (2016), Maharashtra (2018) and Karnataka (2019).

However, experts point out that adverse impacts of land takeover without assessing the social impact will be more pronounced in Odisha given the state’s historically high poverty ratio and its substandard developmental indices.

From among the four states, Odisha has the highest proportion of poor people. As per NITI Aayog’s report this year, the proportion of multidimensionally poor people in Odisha is a whopping 15.68% compared to Gujarat (11.66%), Maharashtra (7.81%) and Karnataka (7.58%).

Patnaik’s government seems to have violated its policy of placing a high premium on the farm sector by relaxing provisions dealing with the issue of food security vis-à-vis land acquisition in the Act’s Chapter III.

Development of agriculture and allied sector is critical to enhance farmers’ income, eradicate poverty and boost economic growth through forward and backward linkages and value-added activities,” Odisha’s Economic Survey Report 2022-23 states.

Arbitrary agricultural land acquisition is likely to affect Odisha’s overall economy. Agriculture and related activities are the main source of livelihood for a major portion of Odisha’s population, as per the Economic Survey. The sector accounted for a 22.5% share of the gross state value added (GSVA) of Odisha in 2022-23. Crops had the highest share of GSVA with 14.2%.

Agriculture and related sectors have continued to grow rapidly in Odisha. The sector grew at the rate of 6% in 2022-23 as against 2.4% in the previous fiscal. The farm sector’s growth rate is much higher than the national average of 3.5%.

Legal experts doubt the Bill’s constitutional validity since SIA is a “prior condition” for land acquisition. “The idea of public consultation goes for a toss if SIA is ruled out. Objections might be invited individually from each project-affected family that loses land. But this is not the same as public hearings under SIA,” senior Supreme Court lawyer Sanjay Parikh said.

In fact, SIA sets the stage for land acquisition. Any legislation, even if passed by a majority vote in an Assembly, needs to clear the test of law,” he added.

Questions have been raised if the legislation is just, fair and reasonable. Experts say that it needs to be examined if the legislation violates the fundamental rights of life and liberty, as enshrined in the Constitution.

The Constitution limits the state’s power from arbitrarily taking away natural resources, which would violate the right to adequate means of livelihood. Further, by making arbitrary amendments to the Act, the government cannot violate the principle of equitable distribution of resources among all citizens, guaranteed in the Constitution.

The Bill is unclear on how the Odisha government intends to prepare, wherever necessary, environment impact assessment (EIA) reports or develop resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) packages in cases where it foregoes SIA.

The Act makes it mandatory for the government to furnish a copy of SIA report for doing environmental assessment wheresoever necessary.

Wherever Environment Impact Assessment is carried out, a copy of the Social Impact Assessment report shall be made available to the Impact Assessment Agency authorised by the Central Government to carry out environmental impact assessment,” states the Act (Section 6 (2)).

The process of resettlement and rehabilitation is holistic, in which the government resettles entire communities displaced by projects. Resettlement does not mean moving individual households and families from one place to another. That is the reason the process is termed as a package. Developing a package for resettling entire communities is not possible if you do not carry out social assessment,” added Parikh.

The state government has justified the amendments on the grounds of rapid industrial development in which Odisha has lagged other states.

As per the Reserve Bank of India’s latest handbook of statistics on states, there are only 3,079 factories in Odisha. Gujarat (28,479 factories), Maharashtra (25,610) and Karnataka (14,169) are industrially much more developed. The report further states that in ease of doing business, Odisha had slipped from 15th in 2015 to the 29th rank in 2019.

As per Marndi’s statement, the reason for amending the Act is to “attract private investment in mega projects” and to “fast-track the process of development of the state”. It further states that “providing hassle-free land to the project proponent is one of the basic requirements for industrial and infrastructure development”.

The amendments have been justified on the grounds that “acquisition of private land” has always been a “major challenge for the state government”.

The Act was enacted by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government because harsh provisions of the colonial Land Acquisition Act, 1894, often pitted landowners against the government.

The preamble to the Act says that acquisition should take place in “consultation with institutions of local self-government and Gram Sabhas established under the Constitution”.

The Act aims to put in place a “humane, participative, informed and transparent process for land acquisition”. It envisages improvement in the “social and economic status” of affected people by building partnerships in the development process.

The amendments have been drafted in a clever manner to acquire large tracts of land on a piecemeal basis of 500 acres each without consulting landowners. The move is clearly to benefit big businesses without safeguarding the interests of the poor and marginalised population of Odisha, dependent on agriculture and natural resources,” Odisha Congress chief Sarat Pattanayak said.

The legislation is not only anti-people but it smacks of the crony capitalism that the Naveen Patnaik’s government enjoys with big corporates,” he alleged.

Odisha has a history of social and political unrest resulting from the government’s ham-handed approach in land takeover, particularly for projects belonging to corporates. The Odisha government had to beat a hasty retreat after forest-dwelling Adivasi communities launched a protracted legal struggle and voted against Vedanta Group’s Niyamgiri bauxite mining project during Gram Sabha consultation held on the basis of a historic April 2013 Supreme Court judgement.

The issue had garnered a lot of international attention. In another instance, at least, 12 Adivasis were gunned down by the police in January 2006, attracting severe criticism for the Patnaik government, when they obstructed construction of boundary wall of a steel plant of Tata Steel in Kalinga Nagar, Jajpur district.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Get the latest reports & analysis with people's perspective on Protests, movements & deep analytical videos, discussions of the current affairs in your Telegram app. Subscribe to NewsClick's Telegram channel & get Real-Time updates on stories, as they get published on our website.

Subscribe Newsclick On Telegram