United we fall
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Parties cooperate only for flawed legislation, and ignore or quarrel over consequential bills.
Food security enacted, the UPA has now moved on to its next big venture. The Land Acquisition, Resettlement and Rehabilitation Bill was taken up in the Lok Sabha on Thursday. Both the food security bill and the land bill have a broad sentimental appeal, and the Congress doubtless sees them as vote-getters, but they promise to saddle the economy with greater problems. The food security bill depends on a famously corrupt and leaky public distribution system, will distort the agriculture market, and worsen food inflation, apart from addressing a narrow need with a vast law. A new land acquisition bill, on the other hand, is desperately needed, given the bitter struggles that accompany land transactions — but it has been conceived in a way that casts industry as a predator that must be moderated, requiring elaborate preliminary social impact assessments, and relief and rehabilitation targets even from private transactions above a certain size. These assessments add another layer of official discretion, and can be challenged in court. Apart from driving up costs, this will delay industrial and urban projects beyond reason. Instead of encouraging the shift from farming to more productive use of the land, and helping farmers gain from this change, it will end up replacing a coercive colonial-era legislation with a prohibitively cumbersome one.
It says something about our parliamentary politics that this destructive aspect of the bill has not been challenged in the House. As with food security, the BJP chooses to go along with the UPA's populist boondoggles, afraid of sounding uncaring to farmers. Instead of projecting itself as a force for reform at a time of economic crisis, the opposition prefers to compete with the Congress on its miserabilist terms — if anything, the BJP's token objections to the food security bill and the land bill have come from somewhere to the left of the Congress. The Congress, low on credibility and aware that the economy has unravelled beyond a critical point, is only too glad to shift attention to these schemes, and signal that its heart beats for the poor alone. And so, burying their differences, political parties have come together to enact muddled laws, while avoiding important, consequential ones.