The Land Acquisition Bill is slated to be taken up for consideration and passing in the Lok Sabha today. The government had circulated an amendment list in the last session of Parliament. In a column in the Financial Express, MR Madhavan discusses the major features of the Land Acquisition Bill and the associated issues that Parliament may need to consider while deliberating on the Bill. Economic growth and job creation require efficient usage of land resources. It is important that a fair and transparent process for purchase and for acquisition of land is followed. For the purchase of land, a key concern is the authenticity of land titles, and the government has drafted a Land Titling Bill for this purpose. In the case of land acquisition, the following questions need to be addressed. What are the end-uses for which public interests will trump private property rights, and justify acquisition of land from a person who is not willing to part with it? What should be the process followed? Since there is no market mechanism of discovery of prices in these cases, how should compensation be computed? Is there a need to address non-land owners who may be displaced by the acquisition process? Does the acquisition process get completed in a reasonable amount of time, and is there finality to the acquisition? In sum, do both sides—the acquirer and the land owner—perceive the process to be fair? The current Bill addresses these questions in the following manner. It defines public purpose to include infrastructure projects (as defined by the finance ministry, with some exclusions); projects related to agriculture, agro-processing and cold storage; industrial corridors, mining activities, national investment and manufacturing zones; government administered or aided educational and research institutions; sports, healthcare, transport and space programmes. It also enables the government to include other infrastructural facilities to this list after tabling a notification in Parliament. The significant difference from the current Land Acquisition Act, 1894, is that land cannot be acquired for use by companies unless they satisfy any of the above end-uses. The Bill includes a requirement for consent of the land owners in some cases. If the land is acquired for use by a private company, 80% of land owners need to give consent. If it is for use by a public private partnership (PPP), 70% of the land owners have to agree to the acquisition. The rationale of having differential consent requirements based on ownership—including the lack of any such requirement if the land is for the use of the government or a public sector undertaking—is not clear. Why should a land owner, who is losing his land care, whether the intended project is to be executed by the government or a private company? The Bill specifies that the compensation will be computed in the following manner. Three factors are taken into account: the circle rate according to the Stamp Act; the average of the top 50% of sale deeds registered in the vicinity in the previous three years; the amount agreed upon, if any, in case of purchase by a private company or PPP. The higher of these three amounts is multiplied by a factor, which varies from 1 in urban areas to a number between 1 and 2 in rural areas, depending upon the distance from the urban centre. To this amount, the value of any fixed assets such as buildings, trees, irrigation channels etc is added. Finally, this figure is doubled (as solatium, i.e. compensation for the fact that the transaction was made with an unwilling seller). The justification given for the multiplier ranging from 1 to 2 is that many transactions are registered at a price significantly lower than the actual value in order to evade taxes—the moot question is whether such under-reporting is uniform across the country? The Bill states that all persons who are affected by the project should be rehabilitated and resettled (R&R). The R&R entitlements for each family includes a house, a one-time allowance, and choice of (a) employment for one person in the project, (b) one-time payment of R5 lakh, or (c) inflation adjusted annuity of R2,000 per month for 20 years. In addition, the resettlement areas should have infrastructure such as a school, post office, roads, drainage, drinking water, etc. The process has several steps. Every acquisition, regardless of size, needs a social impact assessment, which will be reviewed by an expert committee, and evaluated by the state government. Then a preliminary notification will be issued, land records will be updated, objections will be heard, rehabilitation and resettlement survey carried out, and a final declaration of acquisition issued. The owners can then claim compensation, the final award will be announced, and the possession of the land taken. The total time for this process can last up to 50 months. The big question is whether this time frame would hinder economic development and the viability of projects? The Bill provides for an Authority to adjudicate disputes related to measurement of land, compensation payable, R&R etc, with appeals to be heard by the High Court. There are several restrictions on the land acquired. The purpose for which land is acquired cannot be changed. If land is not used for five years, it would be transferred to a land bank or the original owners. Transfer of ownership needs prior permission, and in case of transfer in the first five years, 40% of capital gains have to be shared with the original owners. Recent cases of land acquisition have been followed by public protests, and the stalling of the acquisition. Whereas some of these may be driven by political agendas, the old Act was perceived to be unfair to land owners in several ways. The challenge for Parliament is to examine the new Bill and craft the law in such a way that it is fair (and perceived as such) to land owners, while making acquisition feasible and practical for projects that are required for economic development and other areas of public interest.

The Uttarakhand Assembly concluded a two-day session on November 30, 2022.  The session was scheduled to be held over five days.  In this post we look at the legislative business that was carried out in the Assembly, and the state of state legislatures. 

13 Bills were introduced and passed within two days 

As per the Session Agenda, a total of 19 Bills were listed for introduction in the span of two days.  13 of these were listed to be discussed and passed on the second day.  These included the Uttarakhand Protection of Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022, University of Petroleum and Energy Studies (Amendment), Bill, 2022, and the Uttarakhand Anti-Littering and Anti-Spitting (Amendment) Bill, 2022.

The Assembly had proposed to discuss and pass each Bill (barring two) within five minutes (see Figure 1).  Two Bills were allocated 20 minutes each for discussion and passing - the Haridwar Universities Bill, 2022, and the Public Service (Horizontal Reservation for Women) Bill, 2022.  As per news reports, the Assembly passed all 13 Bills within these two days (this excludes the Appropriation Bills).  This raises the question on the amount of scrutiny that these Bills were subject to, and the quality of such laws when the legislature intends to pass them within mere minutes.

Figure 1: Excerpt of Uttarakhand Assembly's November 2022 Session Agenda


Law making requires deliberation, scrutiny

Our law-making institutions have several tools at their disposal to ensure that before a law is passed, it has been examined thoroughly on various aspects such as constitutionality, clarity, financial and technical capacity of the state to implement provisions, among others.  The Ministry/Department piloting a Bill could share a draft of the Bill for public feedback (pre-legislative scrutiny).  While Bills get introduced, members may raise issues on constitutionality of the proposed law.  Once introduced, Bills could be sent to legislative committees for greater scrutiny.   This allows legislators to deliberate upon individual provisions in depth, understand if there may be constitutional challenges or other issues with any provision.  This also allows experts and affected stakeholders to weigh in on the provisions, highlight issues, and help strengthen the law.  

However, when Bills are introduced and passed within mere minutes, it barely gives legislators the time to go through the provisions and mull over implications, issues, or ways to improve the law for affected parties.  It also raises the question of what the intention of the legislature is when passing laws in a hurry without any discussion.  Often, such poorly thought laws are also challenged in Courts.   

For instance, the Uttarakhand Assembly passed the Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022 in this session (five minutes had been allocated for the discussion and passing of the Bill).  The 2022 Bill amends the 2018 Act which prohibits forceful religious conversions, and provides that conversion through allurement or marriage will be unlawful.  The Bill has provisions such as requiring an additional notice to be sent to the District Magistrate (DM) for a conversion, and that reconversion to one’s immediate previous religion will not be considered a conversion.  Some of these provisions seem similar to other laws that were passed by states and have been struck down by or have been challenged in Courts.  For example, the Madhya Pradesh High Court while examining the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2021 noted that providing a notice to the DM for a conversion of religion violates the right to privacy as the right includes the right to remain silent.  It extends that understanding to the right to decide on one’s faith.  The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2006 exempted people who reconvert to their original religion from giving a public notice of such conversion.  The Himachal Pradesh High Court had struck down this provision as discriminatory and violative of the right to equality.  The Court also noted that the right to change one’s belief cannot be taken away for maintaining public order.  

Uttarakhand MLAs may not have had an opportunity to think about how issues flagged by Courts may be addressed in a law that regulates religious conversions. 

Most other state Assemblies also pass Bills without adequate scrutiny

In 2021 44% states passed Bills on the day it was introduced or on the next day.  Between January 2018 and September 2022, the Gujarat Assembly introduced 92 Bills (excluding Appropriation Bills).  91 of these were passed in the same day as their introduction.  In the 2022 Monsoon Session, the Goa Assembly passed 28 Bills in the span of two days.   This is in addition to discussion and voting on budgetary allocation to various government departments.  

Figure 2: Time taken by state legislatures to pass Bills in 2021

Note: The chart above does not include Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. A Bill is considered passed within a day if it was passed on the day of introduction or on the next day. For states with bicameral legislatures, bills have to be passed in both Houses. This has been taken into account in the above chart for five states having Legislative Councils, except Bihar (information was not available for Council). 
Sources: Assembly websites, E-Gazette of various states and Right to Information requests; PRS.

Occasionally, the time actually spent deliberating upon a Bill is lesser than the allocated time.   This may be due to disruptions in the House.  The Himachal Pradesh Assembly provides data on the time actually spent discussing Bills.   For example, in the August 2022 Session, it spent an average of 12 minutes to discuss and pass 10 Bills.  However, the Uttarakhand Assembly allocated only five minutes to discuss each Bill in its November 2022 Session.  This indicates the lack of intent of certain state legislatures to improve their functioning.

In the case of Parliament, a significant portion of scrutiny is also carried out by the Department Related Standing Committees, even when Parliament is not in session.  In the 14th Lok Sabha (LS), 60% of the Bills introduced were sent to Committees for detailed examination, and in the 15th LS, 71% were sent.  These figures have reduced recently – in the 16th LS 27% of the Bills were sent to Committees, and so far in the 17th LS, 13% have been sent.  However, across states, sending Bills to Committees for detailed examination is often the exception than the norm.  In 2021, less than 10% of the Bills were sent to Committees.  None of the Bills passed by the Uttarakhand Assembly had been examined by a committee.   States that are an exception here include Kerala which has 14 subject Committees, and Bills are regularly sent to these for examination.  However, these Committees are headed by their respective Ministers, which reduces the scope of independent scrutiny that may be undertaken.