Modi vs the Gandhis on Land Reforms

Published: April 22, 2015 23:17 IST
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Defining, risk-taking moments in a government's life don't usually arrive in the first year itself. When the UPA government had to take a stand on the India-United States nuclear deal, it waited till the summer of 2008, with about 12 months left in its five-year term (2004-09) to break away from the Left. At test was the government's credibility and its ability to withstand dissent and pressure, from the opposition and even supporting parties, for a cause it believed in and which it felt was of long-term benefit.

For the Narendra Modi government, precisely these calculations have come to determine its repeated promulgation of the ordinance amending the Land Acquisition Act of 2013, and its approach to what promises to be a titanic parliamentary and perception battle to get the legislation through. Yet, it has arrived before the first anniversary of the government. Why has Prime Minister Modi taken this unorthodox and unconventional step in a polity marked by safety-first tendencies?

There are two broad reasons: of principles and philosophies, and second, of politics. Modi genuinely believes his economic lessons from Gujarat - urbanisation and the creation of urban-linked jobs and prosperity, infrastructure, and industrialisation - cannot be replicated nationally without a more sensible and workable land acquisition policy. He sees the social impact and concurrence clauses in the UPA's Land Acquisition Act of 2013 as overdone and, in their current form, rendering meaningless any meaningful attempt to build industrial corridors and modern, urban economic agglomerations.

There are those in the BJP who honestly feel Rahul Gandhi simply doesn't understand these details, and his opposition to the amendments that the Modi government has drafted - as well as his near glorification of agriculture - is at odds with Indian reality. For example, Gandhi argues 60 per cent of India's population is employed in agriculture and is against the Modi government's land acquisition amendments. However, half this number owns no land at all.

Various surveys have suggested that farmers and agricultural workers want to get out of farming and move to more remunerative jobs. In 2014, the Delhi-based Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) published a survey-based report called "State of Indian Farmers". It said 76 per cent of those employed in agriculture wanted to do something else; 61 per cent preferred an urban job.

Relatedly, in the same year, a National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) report found 56 per cent of small farmers - those with less than 100 square metres of farmland - earned the majority of their income in the form of wages from an external job. Agricultural income was marginal to their household expenses.

No doubt the issue of converting farmland to urban or industrial land is a sensitive one and liable to emotive political messaging. Modi reckons it is better to go ahead with the amendments now, rather than in say 2018, when re-election worries will be looming. True, there is no guarantee that the passage of a more flexible land acquisition law will by itself revive the manufacturing climate in India. Consumer and business confidence, the investment cycle, interest rates, tax and policy predictability: all of these also matter. Having said that, Modi cannot ignore that the Land Acquisition Act has been an obstacle.

There is also frustration with the serial stonewalling in the Rajya Sabha and therefore a keenness to put the opposition in its place. This was particularly felt after the 2014 winter session of Parliament, which was a washout with the government able to achieve very little. The ordinance amending the Land Acquisition Act was promulgated right after that. In a sense, it was the BJP-led government's first important economic legislation. Many of its other economic bills - Insurance, GST, even Coal - have been legacies from the past, and part of the unfinished business of the UPA years.

If the government can get the Land Ordinance (Amendment) Bill through - probably in a joint session of Parliament later this summer or in the autumn - it will be able to tell the opposition that it (the opposition) can go this far and no further. The Congress and the Gandhi family, which have showcased the Land Acquisition Act of 2013 as a foundational achievement of the UPA period, would then have suffered a setback. The Congress' legislative weakness, and its ability to make an impact in Parliament only when a critical mass of smaller and state parties come together and decide to prop it up would become obvious.

On the other hand, if Modi cannot get the amendments passed it will be a significant blow to his government's credibility. He realises that and is doing what he does best - preparing for a take-no-prisoners outcome.

(Ashok Malik is a columnist and writer living in Delhi.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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