Land baby steps with elbow room
Calcutta, April 2: The Mamata Banerjee government today took "baby steps" in easing its seemingly inflexible stand on land.
It has allowed more industries to hold land in excess of the ceiling with prior approval. Also, in the clause that allows government-owned companies to lease out land for townships, prior approval is not mentioned.
The amendments to the land and land reforms act do not hold any big surprises but by passing them today, the Mamata government has managed to do what her predecessor Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee could not.
Besides, the new government's stated position on land has been so rigid that any shift, howsoever subtle it may be, is viewed as a lifeline by industry.
The Telegraph had reported on the plans for the two key components (the expansion of the list of industries and the township amendment) on November 16 last year and on March 30 this year. Several industrialists had then said the prior-permission clause for all sectors barring townships was a spoiler since speculators would jack up land prices as officials would take time to grant clearances.
That clause has been retained in the passed bill. However, as the bill broadens the list of sectors beyond the original three categories of mill, factory and tea garden, the amendments approved today are being viewed as a step forward.
"Although we have been hoping that the government would do away with the prior permission criteria to hold ceiling excess land and would give post-facto clearance, we welcome the amendments," said an industrialist.
Under the land ceiling rules in Bengal, one can hold a maximum of 24.20 acres (non-irrigated) and 17.3 acres (irrigated).
Intentional or not, the bill is silent on whether fertile land can be used for industries as it does not mention the character of the plots a government company can hold and lease to private players, with or without approval. Since most of the land in Bengal is fertile, the omission does offer government companies some room for manoeuvre.
In response to the Opposition's questions, industries minister Partha Chatterjee, who had moved the bill, said: "I can assure that we won't go for forceful acquisition of land. We won't change the character of farmland, too."
However, Abdur Rezzak Mollah, CPM MLA and former land and land reforms minister, said later: "The minister can promise but the bill has not mentioned the character of the land which will be held surplus to the ceiling by government companies and leased out to promoters."
Minister Chatterjee said the Left Front had proposed to allow the raiyats (owners) to transfer the surplus land. "But we have allowed them to lease out the land. This will allow the state government to have more control," he said.
The erstwhile Bhattacharjee government had tried to bring in amendments to the 1955 Land Reforms Act in 2006 to encourage private investment.
But the then Left Front government had failed to take it forward following stiff resistance from junior partners — the RSP and the Forward Bloc. As an Opposition party, Trinamul had also opposed the bill, which prompted the then government to refer it to a House committee. In 2009, the bill was withdrawn as the Left Front failed to reach a consensus.
With a big majority in the Assembly and no coalition pangs, the new government passed the bill — the West Bengal Land Reforms (Amendment) Bill, 2012 — with ease on the last day of the budget session.
Although the bill doesn't assuage the concerns of industry over the government's hands-off land policy, some people said it could be termed "a baby step".
As various state departments take months to give permission, industrialists will still have to depend on ministers and bureaucrats to clear projects. "With the bill silent on how long the state could take to clear a particular proposal, we will have to be at the mercy of officials and ministers," an industrialist pointed out.
Real estate players were not too happy either as the opportunity for large-scale township development in the state, which was previously allowed under the West Bengal Town and Country (Planning & Development) Act, 1979, will not be possible by all private players any more.
"Only companies that have joint ventures with the state government will be able to hold ceiling excess land. It is not a level-playing field as the benefits will flow to only a few companies," said Harsh Patodia of Credai, the forum of real estate developers.
The Opposition demanded that the bill be sent to the select committee. The Opposition's objections were more in line with Mamata's maa-mati-manush chant as she has vowed to protect farmland from industry.
"Why is the bill not specifying what would be the character of the land that could be handed over?" said RSP's Subhas Naskar.
Udayan Guha of the Forward Bloc also criticised the bill, saying it lacked clarity. "It is not clear what kind of land a government company can hold in excess. As it can lease out the land to industrialists or promoters, we apprehend agricultural plots would be grabbed and their character changed rapidly without the knowledge of the government," said Guha.
Leader of the Opposition Surjya Kanta Mishra said the bill did not specify whether the government companies would go in for acquisition or purchase to hold ceiling excess land.
The amendments have a provision under which it would be difficult for owners of closed or sick units to sell ceiling excess land for real estate development. The sale will be allowed only for industrial purpose.