Views of V.K. Sharma: “The way forward lies in adopting efficient solutions to address land acquisition issues”

“The way forward lies in adopting efficient solutions to address land acquisition issues”

Land acquisition has been a perennial issue faced by road projects. It is considered to be the root cause for delays in project implementation. A number of steps have been taken to expedite the acquisition of land and fast-track project execution. V.K. Sharma, Chief General Manager, Land Acquisition, National Highways Authority of India (NHAI), shares his perspective on the experience so far, government initiatives in this area and the unresolved issues. Excerpts…

In a study conducted by NHAI on 106 projects, worth over Rs 1.5 billion, facing implementation delays, issues pertaining to land acquisition were identified as one of the important causes for the delay in almost 50 per cent of the projects. Besides, about 5 per cent of these projects were delayed exclusively because of land acquisition issues.

NHAI is required to complete land acquisition for 80 per cent of the land required for a project (90 per cent in the case of engineering, procurement and construction projects) prior to the appointed date, with the balance land to be made available to the concessionaire within three months of the appointed date. Earlier, under the National Highways Act, 1956, a project was considered fit for award once the 3A and 3D notifications were published by the authority. However, this approach had its own challenges in terms of land acquisition issues faced by the authority during project implementation. As a result, NHAI adopted a shift in its approach about five years ago, following a yardstick where a project is considered fit for award only when compensation has been declared for a substantial portion of the land to be acquired and 3D notification has been published for 100 per cent of the land.

Besides, acquisition of the balance land after project award is also a challenging task as it requires land acquisition to be synchronised with project timelines. Apart from meeting the land acquisition requirements, the authority is required to get the requisite approvals from the railway authorities as well as permits relating to environmental protection and conservation, again a very time-consuming process as acquiring environment clearance alone takes more than a year. Further, delays in award of compensation on the part of the Competent Authority for Land Acquisition (CALA) is another factor hampering timely project implementation. Delays in joint management surveys, slow disbursement of compensation, delays in handing over physical possession of the land, non-updation of revenue records by local revenue authorities, issues regarding shifting of utilities, besides disputes and arbitration are other factors affecting land acquisition.

Apart from delays in land acquisition on account of procedural issues, the high cost of land acquisition also contributes to delays in project implementation. Under the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 (RFCTLARR Act), the circle rate is an important factor that determines the amount of compensation to be paid to the landowners. A number of states follow an irrational approach with respect to the circle rates defined for a specified piece of land. Besides, the RFCTLARR Act defines the multiplication factor of 1 for urban areas, while for rural areas, the multiplication factor would vary from 1 to 2, as per the distance from the municipal limit. Several states have specified a uniform multiplication factor of 2 for rural areas, thus adding to the land acquisition cost. NHAI believes that as per the act, the state governments should undertake a graded formulation of the multiplication factor.

Further, shifts in alignment due to a mismatch in coordinates specified in the detailed project report (DPR) vis-à-vis actual demarcation on the ground and absence of clarity with regard to titles of land further contribute to implementation issues. Besides, ideally, a project should reach the stage of declaration of appointed date within a period of 18 months. However, due to delays in land acquisition, the actual period taken for award of a project is much higher.

Steps taken by NHAI to expedite land acquisition

In 2018-19, NHAI achieved substantial progress in land acquisition, in terms of land notified under 3A and 3D. The authority has been able to gain possession of approximately 13,982 hectares of land during this period, the highest in the past 18-19 years. Besides, expenditure on land acquisition has also seen a significant rise in recent years. NHAI has taken numerous steps towards expediting the land acquisition process, including empowerment of regional officers and directors to hire retired revenue officials at the district and tehsil level, to work in tandem with DPR consultants to facilitate grant of possession of land. The authority has set up special land acquisition units to assist CALA with costs to be borne by NHAI. Besides, seeking to address the delays caused by state public works departments (PWDs) in carrying out valuation of structures, the authority has allowed government-approved valuers to undertake valuation and get it approved by the PWDs. NHAI has also accorded financial autonomy to regional officers in order to avoid to and fro communication with the headquarters. Besides, it has introduced real-time gross settlement and national electronic fund transfer payment systems to fast-track the payment of compensation to the beneficiaries.

In 2016, NHAI introduced a centralised CALA account to facilitate disbursement of compensation to the beneficiaries. As per the plan, when a regional officer approves a compensation award, the amount is transferred to the centralised CALA account (up to 25 per cent of the compensation). Besides, the interest accrued on this account comes back to the authority. In order to minimise delays and avoid parking of public funds with CALA, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways has introduced the Bhoomi Rashi portal to fully digitalise and automate the land acquisition process. Comprehensive details including names of 711 districts and 655,297 villages have been built into the system based on the 2011 population census, duly updated on the basis of revenue records of all the state governments. Further, the system has been made user friendly with an SMS feature for the beneficiaries in order to ensure transparency, enhance timeliness in dissemination of information and achieve the objective of real-time tracking of activities and generation of reports related to land acquisition.

NHAI is also taking steps to fast-track land acquisition of the plots yet to be acquired through private negotiations, thereby avoiding the lengthy procedures involved in land acquisition. Such private negotiations are always carried out with proper checks and balances to ensure that there is no disparity in land rates under private negotiation and those defined by the competent authority.

With respect to delays caused on account of disputes and arbitration, the authority ensures that cases where the award has been challenged by landowners, and where the arbitrator has enhanced compensation and his arbitral award has been upheld by a court are not pursued in a higher court. Besides, full

powers have been delegated to the regional offices (ROs) to approve arbitral awards up to Rs 50 million and challenge arbitral awards. The authority has revised the legal fees to disincentivise prolongation of land acquisition arbitration/district court proceedings by advocates, besides providing incentives for faster disposal of cases. Besides, ROs have been given full powers for approval of demand of compensation. NHAI has also recommended a format for calculation of compensation in accordance with the First Schedule.

The way forward for land acquisition

NHAI is planning to take a number of steps to address the challenges associated with land acquisition. It has recommended that state governments should rationalise circle rates as per the ground realities and sales statistics of adjoining areas. Besides, the state governments have been asked to adopt a graded approach for multiplication factor for determining the compensation amount. The authority has also proposed undertaking capacity building at the project implementation unit as well as RO level.

The way forward lies in adopting efficient solutions to address land acquisition issues. Some of the steps that can be taken in this direction include collection of requisite data in advance, use of hybrid technologies for alignment fixation, ensuring better coordination with CALA, speeding up of publication of notifications through the Bhoomi Rashi portal, expedition of award declaration, along with reduction of litigation to a minimum and speedy resolution of arbitration cases.

In a study conducted by NHAI on 106 projects, issues pertaining to land acquisition were identified as one of the important causes for the delay in almost 50 per cent of the projects.