Can the Land Acquisition Bill pass the Lutyens' Test?

Such an inspection standard would have multi-partisan support, as, after all in India, laws apply equally to all citizens.

 |  4-minute read |   27-05-2015
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Let's face it. Influential people debating and formulating national policies in this country don't really represent the poor. The average assets of the Union council of ministers is worth roughly Rs 14,00,00,000 - 92 per cent of whom are crorepatis - according to the Association of Democratic Reforms. Compare this to the per capita income in India, which is a little over Rs 3,800 per month, according to RBI. Additionally, 82 per cent of all Lok Sabha members of Parliament are crorepatis; and the average assets of Lok Sabha MPs is Rs 15,00,00,000 (which is Rs 15 crore, but the zeros add to the drama).

Further, while there are no statistics available on the wealth of bureaucrats, we can all agree that most senior ones who formulate key policies lead lives cut off from the masses. It is perhaps easier to broker peace between the Houthis and Saudis than it is to meet a bureaucrat at her workplace (I've heard it's easier to meet them at home, especially if they are former chiefs of CBI). And let's not even get started on our elite journalists, what with their tyranny of distance. Legend has it that the OB van needs to be comfortably close to Noida's Film City in order to be operable. It works like bluetooth.

Don't get me wrong: many ministers, parliamentarians, bureaucrats and journalists were born in poverty and have moved their way up by sheer hard work and determination. Most certainly, many of them understand what it is like to be poor, underprivileged and discriminated against. However, over time, with rising wealth, growing networks and interests, their (our) motivations change. Perhaps they (we) don't empathise with the poor the way they (we) would if they (we) were still poor. Perhaps they (we) want to eat salad at Khan Market because their (our) lifestyles don't require any more nourishment than leaves and balsamic vinegar. Anyway, before we move on, let's not leave out the other key stakeholder in policy making in India: Suhel Seth. Fortunately, he is a grounded man with one foot in the poor man's bucket.

Given most influential policymaking stakeholders in India are out of touch with poverty (if not the poor themselves), I propose we apply a "Lutyens' Test" to ascertain how acceptable a policy would be to the poor. Lutyens' Delhi, as it has become popular in the social media lately, is the central district within New Delhi where key politicians, bureaucrats and even businesspeople reside. The lawns are manicured, the roads are well lit and they even have footpaths (source: Ripley's Believe it or Not). First, let's get the definitions out of the way. For the sake of this test, Lutyens' Delhi is defined as pin code 1100xx where xx is an integer in the range 0 < xx < 12. Alternatively, we could consider every neighbourhood in Delhi that does not have a pothole after the monsoon season.

Post this, the application of "The Lutyens' Test" becomes easy. For instance, what should an ideal land acquisition law be? I'm no development economist or legal expert, but the answer could be anything that is acceptable to the citizens of Lutyens' if their land was being acquired to, say, construct a coal fired power plant. You know, the greater good. All our questions regarding agency of the residents, of consent clauses and acceptable compensation would be immediately clear. And of course, we would know if India can really afford yet another generation of their children get into activities such as agriculture rent-seeking which do not really add value to a nation's economy. This test could be applied to several other policy issues. How should the state deal with insurgency or terrorism if it impacted the Lutyens' region? Importantly, how would the state deal with the insurgency if the insurgents were Lutyens' residents themselves. How acceptable would custody deaths be? And of course, the AFSPA?

Such a test would best apply if the policy or law in question is explicitly or implicitly going to being applied on the poor of far off lands like Dantewada or Karol Bagh. Further, it would be appropriate if the poor are expected to give up something, such as land, access to forests gardens, or their dignity. If, for some reason, the answer to a policy question is not explicitly clear through the Lutyens' Test, we could also apply the Malabar Hill test.

Regional versions of the test include the Jubilee Hills or Indiranagar Test. Such an inspection standard would have multi-partisan support, as - after all - in India, laws apply equally to all citizens (except if you choose to drive cars on pavements, in which case the Vienna Conventions apply).

Writer

Siddharth Singh Siddharth Singh @siddharth3

The writer researches on the geopolitics and economics of energy supply at a Delhi-based think tank. He also writes a column called 'Fraction of a Dot'.

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