As opposition to the land ordinance mounts within and outside the parliament, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has told his party MPs that there would be no rollback of the proposed amendments. While Modi’s unwavering supporters see this as a sign of a leader committed to reform, the facts suggest that this obduracy has more to do with his failures in Gujarat. The changes that have been made to the original Land Acquisition Act passed in 2014, and which are now being pushed through the ordinance, bear the stamp of Modi’s administrative inability in completing the work on the Narmada canal system in the state. To fully comprehend the gravity of this claim, it is necessary to understand the scope of the Sardar Sarovar Dam project on the Narmada.
The primary aim of this project was irrigation, and the Sardar Sarovar canal system was meant to irrigate 18,45,655 hectares of land in Gujarat by 2010. However, currently the canal system only reaches 3,69,260 lakh hectares. Five years after its supposed date of completion, the project has only realised 20 percent of its planned potential.
Even more damaging is the fact that at the current rate of progress, the project will take at least thirty more years to be completed. By 2012 only 19,885 km of the total of 74,626 km of the canal network had been completed, and, by 2014, the figure had seen a marginal increase of 22,284 km, which works out to an addition of less than 1,500 km of canals a year. Given that approximately 52,343 km of the canal network still remains to be completed, the enormity of the task that remains is glaringly obvious.
As a result of the time that had been spent on its completion, the expenditure on the project was about Rs 45,137.07 crore by 2012, a figure that has already overshot the sanctioned and revised budget of Rs 39,240.45 crore. Even a conservative projection would show that the cost overruns of this project alone will exceed the budget that was sanctioned for it. Undoubtedly, the Sardar Sarovar project is on its way to qualifying as one of the greatest planned disasters of independent India, for which the Narendra Modi-led administration in Gujarat would have to bear direct responsibility given its tardy implementation through the years 2003 to 2014.
The state government had attributed the increasing cost of the project and the delay in its completion to the difficulty of acquiring land from farmers. The extensive canal network could only be constructed by acquiring a large amount of agricultural land. By 2013, 36,000 hectares of land had been acquired. This amounts to an area about twice the size of metropolitan Kolkata. It still comprises only a fraction of the land that was needed to be acquired for the project.
The acquisition in Gujarat was made under the 1894 act. This act provided farmers with protection that was scarce, even when compared to the current ordinance. The first 20,000 hectares of land were acquired before 2009 on the basis of a five-year average of market rates. These market rates were based on registry amounts, which meant that farmers were being paid far less than the actual rate of the land. In 2010, while approving a new rate that was about 30 percent higher, the Gujarat government was forced to admit that “The land valuation system prevailing till now was not acceptable to farmers, as they felt the market rate is much higher. Many farmers went to court against the land acquisition. As of today, 39,000 cases are pending in district courts.” The enhanced rate saw a fall in the number of cases going to court, but as the figures cited above on the canal construction illustrate, it did little to speed up work on the project.
The difficulty of acquisition is thus only one component of the many failures that delayed the execution of this project, regardless of what the Modi government sought to project through its rhetoric. As an aside, this botched up process is also a telling rebuttal to the grandiose plans that Modi seems to have in mind for acquiring land for smart cities.
Faced with the new land acquisition law in 2013, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) was keen to ensure that the already faltering Sardar Sarovar project was not delayed any further. After the Lok Sabha cleared the bill, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) agreed to four more amendments to ensure its passage in the Rajya Sabha. These amendments were settled on after a meeting between Jairam Ramesh, then rural development minister, and Arun Jaitley, then leader of opposition in the Rajya Sabha
Ramesh moved these four amendments, all of which were directly connected with the Saradar Sarovar project. It is ironic that Jaitley is championing the provisions of the ordinance today, despite being the one to have met Ramesh and explicitly backing the 2013 bill on the condition that these four amendments were approved.
The BJP has been attempting to project that their about-turn on the 2013 bill—which the party had once explicitly supported—is out of concern for the fate of all irrigation projects across the country. However, evidence from the deliberations that led up to the current ordinance suggests that the party’s primary concern is the Sardar Sarovar.
This is clear from the manner in which the ordinance dilutes the retrospective clause—which seeks to ensure that the new law will apply to all those cases in which the acquisition happened under the 1894 law, but where the transfer of possession of the land had not been completed or the payment of compensation had not taken place within a period of five years. The ordinance does not consider the period of time for which the issue of compensation or possession may have been under legal dispute.
The ordinance in its original draft states that “in computing the period referred to in this sub section, any period or periods during which the proceedings for acquisition of the land were held up on account of any stay or injunction issued by any court….” But on 30 December 2014, the day on which the ordinance was finalised, the BJP government realised that this would still not encompass the Sardar Sarovar project.
As The Indian Express reported: “while appeals from all land related disputes under the older 1894 Act or the present one lay with the high court, the Sardar Sarovar project was the earliest one where a tribunal was set up to decide on those cases because of the volume of appeals involved.” This forced the government to introduce an additional sub clause which was hastily added, stating that the exception to the retrospective clause would also apply to “the period specified in the award of a tribunal for taking possession.”
This unabashed quashing of the retrospective clause for cases pending in courts or affected by tribunals has now emerged as one of the biggest reasons for conflict, preventing the approval of the ordinance. The example of the Sardar Sarovar project makes it evident that grave injustice has been done to the tens of thousands of farmers who have been contesting the acquisition in court. To deny them enhanced compensation is a travesty of justice and the law.
The real reason these farmers in Gujarat are not being given their due is simple: the enhanced compensation would further increase the financial burden on a project that is already doomed to failure, leading to fresh scrutiny of Modi’s dismal record in executing the largest project that his administration had undertook. Given what we already know of Modi, it is easy to guess what he will do when faced with the choice of yielding to the retrospective clause or risk the coming together of a fragmented opposition. After all, he is not a man who owns up to his failures.
Hartosh Singh Bal is the political editor at The Caravan, and is the author of Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada. He was formerly the political editor at Open magazine.