Now that the Land Acquisition Bill is a done deal, it is worth doing a post-mortem on it.
That the Bill may do more harm than good in the short-run is apparent, since it arbitrarily seeks to price land at twice the market rate in urban areas and four times in rural areas. It also makes land acquisition difficult and time-consuming, since 70-80 percent consent of land owners will now be required, and there are elaborate provisions for rehabilitating and resettling the people affected by land sales.
However, even assuming industry is willing to fork out the money and wait three or four years to acquire land for infrastructure and other public purpose projects, the problem is that the Bill does not address the fundamental issue: the original sin relates to the Indian state’s decision to delete the Right to Property from the list of fundamental rights every citizen is entitled to.
Without iron-clad property rights, the state can simply dispossess you and effectively deny you your other fundamental rights. The Right to Property is the foundation on which all other rights are built. Without wealth, property, income and the means to livelihood (which is the broader definition of the word property), the other freedoms (equality, free speech, and religion) mean little.
The Land Acquisition Bill tries to make up for decades of land-grab from farmers and the poor by the state and its capitalist cronies but does not address the reason why this kind of arbitrary dispossession became the norm for decades: the abolition of the Right to Property as a Fundamental Right through the 44th Constitution Amendment Bill in 1978.
The 44th amendment deleted Article 19(f)(1) in Part III of the constitution which listed every citizen’s fundamental rights, and also Article 31, which stipulated the conditions under which the state could coercively acquire property from private owners. Article 19(f)(1) gave citizens the fundamental right to “acquire, hold and dispose of property,” while Article 31 specified that citizens had the “right not to be deprived of property save by authority of law” and also the “right to assert that property can be acquired or requisitioned by the state only for a public purpose” (Articles 31(1) and (2)).
The 44th amendment did not eliminate property rights altogether, but it reduced property to only a legal right. It was no longer fundamental. Property rights were pushed from the powerful protection available under Article 19 to Article 300A, and the limitations specified under article 31 were whittled down. Article 300A reduced the legal remedies available to citizens in case their properties were to be taken over. They could now approach only the high court under Article 226, and not the Supreme Court under Article 32 – which was faster and more effective, being a remedy for transgression of a “fundamental right.”
In BR Ambedkar’s original constitution, the Right to Property was right up there along with freedom of speech, right to equality, freedom of religion, minority rights, and the right to constitutional remedies if any right was infringed upon.