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Consent balm but heat on halfway projects

New Delhi, Dec. 13: A revised land acquisition bill approved by the Union cabinet today has taken some and given some to most stakeholders, including industry.

One feature that should lessen industry’s concern is the consent provision that has been diluted somewhat.

Land-dependants without ownership rights have been kept out of the consent process. This is being seen as a big relief for industry as securing the consent of land-dependants would have proved far more difficult than that of owners. In Singur, the opposition from bargadars (sharecroppers) was an issue.

But those holding government-assigned land, usually weaker sections, have been included in the consent provision. The government assigns land to the dispossessed under various laws like the Forest Rights Act. Occupants get legal rights over such land but they are not allowed to execute a sale, which is different from acquisition.

A dual system of consent — 80 per cent for industry and 70 per cent for PPP (public-private partnership) — has been introduced in the bill that is likely to be reintroduced next week. (See chart)

The consent provision has been revised several times in recent months. An earlier version of the bill had pegged the consent requirement at 66 per cent. But UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi suggested it should be 80 per cent for acquisition for industry. The 80 per cent threshold has been met but land-dependants have been excluded from the consent footprint, though they will be eligible for rehabilitation.

The draft cleared by the cabinet has a provision that will affect ongoing projects. The bill has a retrospective feature, which means any project that has not completed the compensation and rehabilitation process when the law comes into effect will be covered by the new provisions.

Acquisition will be treated as incomplete in cases where compensation payments have been announced but possession has not yet been taken and payment has not been made. This will have implications for projects like that of Posco in Odisha where the process is not complete.

The draft bill says projects where landowners have either not accepted the compensation or have been compelled to accept the package will be treated as “incomplete”. Compensation, if paid, will be “deemed as unpaid” and the process would start afresh.

Another provision incorporated by the cabinet is the deadline of one year to complete the acquisition, which means the time available has been halved from the original draft.

Under the central draft, plots cannot be returned to the original landowner — for which Mamata Banerjee has made a law for Singur — but to a state land bank if unused for five years. But the Union cabinet has introduced a provision that makes the former owners eligible for 20 per cent of the resale price if the unused land is given to another user.

The methodology for obtaining consent whether by affidavit or on a piece of paper -- has not been spelt out in the bill. It will be clear in the rules.