POLITICS
27/11/2018 11:23 AM IST | Updated 27/11/2018 11:23 AM IST

MP CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan Lobbied With Modi To Make Land Acquisition Law Difficult For Farmers, Shows RTI Reply

The Madhya Pradesh CM raised the prospect of delays to the controversial Sardar Sarovar dam to urge Prime Minister Modi to make changes in the UPA's land acquisition act.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
(From left) Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, former Tata group chairman Cyrus Mistry and Reliance Group Chairman Mukesh Ambani at the Global Investors Summit, 2014. The letter was written ten days before the summit.

NEW DELHI — Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan lobbied Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a land acquisition ordinance to stop farmers from regaining their lands if an acquiring agency delayed paying them compensation, or did not take possession of the land on time, official correspondence reviewed by HuffPost India shows.

A letter written by Chouhan on 29 September 2014, ten days before the MP government's Global Investors' Summit, shows that the Chief Minister, who often describes himself as "farmer's son", raised the prospect of delays to the controversial Sardar Sarovar dam—a project close to Modi's heart—to "remove" or "appropriately revise" section 24 (2) of the 2013 land acquisition act introduced by the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.

Prime Minister Modi's terse response acknowledged receiving Chouhan's letter detailing concerns about Section 24 (2) of the law.

Three months later, in December 2014, Modi introduced a land acquisition ordinance that included the changes that Chouhan had lobbied for. The ordinance proved so controversial that it was eventually withdrawn—marking Modi's first political defeat after his Bharatiya Janata Party stormed to power in the general elections that summer.

ALSO READ: How Modi and Jaitley Gamed The World Bank's Doing Business Rankings

In public, Chouhan issued carefully worded statements about the need for a "balanced view" on a land acquisition law that ensured that "not a single farmer suffers". In the letter, accessed by this reporter from the Prime Minister's Office under the Right to Information Act, Chouhan privately warned of an "excessively unfavourable impact on investment promotion and infrastructure development" if section 24 (2) of the UPA's land acquisition act was not done away with "as soon as possible".

This public regard for farmer interests and private support for industry, say political opponents, farmer groups and land rights activists, sums up Chouhan's 13-year tenure as Chief Minister. Chouhan, these activists said, had also removed pro-farmer provisions from local land acquisition laws. One such example is the changes made in recent years to the Madhya Pradesh Town and Country Planning Act.

"Rights of farmers to go to court against land acquisition under this act and need for prior planning about the use of the land being acquired has been done away with," said Kedar Sirohi, who led an independent farm union before joining the Kisaan Congress this month. "These changes are anti-farmer."

The 'problem' with Section 24 (2)

The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, was brought into force on 1 January 2014, a few months before the general elections.

Section 24 (2) of the act states that, in a land-purchase transaction, if physical possession of the land has not been taken by the buyers or compensation hasn't been paid to the original landowners more than five years before 1 January 2014, the transaction is "deemed to have lapsed".

This provision, welcomed by land rights groups, was invoked so frequently after its introduction that this year, the Supreme Court set up a five-judge Constitution bench to decide the right interpretation of this section in light of multiple conflicting interpretations in different judgements by the apex court.

The court also stayed all pending cases that rely on this section.

ALSO READ: BJP Minister Narendra Singh Tomar Won't Say How He Spent Rs 11 Cr Of His MPLADS Fund Despite CIC Order

Back in September 2014, when Chouhan wrote his letter, his government seemed spooked when the Supreme Court upheld a successful legal challenge to land acquisition by land owners from Tamil Nadu demanding a return of their lands.

In his letter, Chouhan expressed alarm that the court's 10 September order in the Tamil Nadu case could impact the Omkareshwar and Sardar Sarovar projects, which have also repeatedly faced legal challenges from land owners.

In the case of lands falling under submergence area of the Omkareshwar and Sardar Sarovar dam projects, land acquisition 'award' and compensation payment "had been done prior to the year 2007", Chouhan noted.

But as per the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal's award, Chouhan said, physical possession of land for projects in Narmada valley cannot be taken more than six months before submergence by dam waters.

"Time and again, the Honourable Supreme Court/High Court have also given stay orders in the projects," Chouhan wrote. "As a result, it was not possible to abide by section 24 (2) and now a situation has arisen in which acquisition of lands acquired in the submergence area of the Omkareshwar and Sardar Sarovar projects may possibly be nullified."

If the courts stay work on the Omkareshwar and Sardar Sarovar Dam projects using section 24 (2), the Madhya Pradesh CM wrote, it could have an "excessively unfavourable impact on investment promotion and infrastructure development of the country."

He then sounds another warning bell in the letter: "if the said section 24 (2) is not urgently made ineffective through an appropriate ordinance then filling water to full capacity in already constructed projects and finishing those which are presently under construction in the Narmada valley will become impossible. At any time now, a grave situation may arise if the Honourable Supreme Court/High Court stay the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Project and filling water in the Omkareshwar Project."

This situation, he wrote, could have "excessively unfavourable impact on investment promotion and infrastructure development of the country".

Thus, he implored the Prime Minister that, "as soon as possible, kindly remove or appropriately revise section 24 (2) of the Land Acquisition Act 2013 so that the above described situation does not arise."

ALSO READ: Madhya Pradesh: District Administration Refuses Details Of BJP Minister Narendra Tomar's MPLADS Funds, Citing 'Technical Difficulties'

Modi's support for the Sardar Sarovar Dam, which delivers water to Gujarat—Modi's home state—while submerging the lands of thousands of farmers in MP, is well known. Work on raising the height of the dam —triggering fresh submergence—resumed a couple of months after Modi took charge, following an eight-year-long stay imposed during the previous government's tenure.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
The public regard for farmer interests and private support for industry, say political opponents, farmer groups and land rights activists, sums up Chouhan's 13-year tenure as Chief Minister.

When Modi introduced his ill-fated land ordinance on 31 December 2014, he amended section 24 in much the way the Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister had requested.

The amended section 24 (2) in the ordinance said, "in computing the period referred to in this subsection, 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 or the period specified in the award of a Tribunal for taking possession or such period where possession has been taken but the compensation lying deposited in a court or in any account maintained for this purpose shall be excluded".

The reference to "the award of a Tribunal" meant people living in the submergence areas of the Sardar Sarovar and Omkareshwar projects could not seek to get their lands back using 24 (2)—because the tribunal award bars the state from taking physical possession of people's lands until six months before actual submergence is expected to take place.

Chouhan's letter was severely contested and criticised by Medha Patkar, Chairperson of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, who has been pursuing the legal and other matters pertaining to the issue for over four decades now.

Patkar asserted that Chouhan had "misused" the issue of the tribunal award and court cases in his letter to distract from his administration's poor track record on the rehabilitation of project affected people.

Patkar asserted that Chouhan had "misused" the issue of the tribunal award and court cases in his letter to distract from his administration's poor track record on the rehabilitation of project affected people.

"Point is they did not complete rehabilitation so people stayed put on their lands and they (the government) could not evict them," Patkar told HuffPost India. "They could have taken actual possession of lands after doing rehabilitation. In the absence of that, people had the right to refuse because they were not given alternative land or entitlement, house plot and rehabilitation site."

Chouhan's office said the Chief Minister cannot be reached for a comment since he is busy with the election campaign. HuffPost India has written a set of questions to Chouhan's office and this report will be updated if and when a reply is received.