The former BJP president has emerged as one of the key strategists in Parliament and outside on the land acquisition Bill. His earlier stint in the rural affairs ministry has come in handy as he has engaged both allies and the opposition on contentious issues of the Bill. Last week, he wrote to Sonia Gandhi, Anna Hazare and others, inviting them to an open debate on the issue, to which the Congress president replied, calling the Bill an ‘unabashed display of half-truths’.
In this session moderated by Maneesh Chhibber of The Indian Express, Union minister for road transport, highways and shipping Nitin Gadkari says the ‘perception’ that industrial corridors are for business houses is ‘wrong’ and insists that no work can get done if the consent clause in the land acquisition Bill stays…
Maneesh Chhibber: Tell us about the three new things recently approved by the Cabinet.
First is the Sagar Maala project. There are 12 major ports in the country and this project involves a modernisation plan to improve their connectivity. We are also exploring whether the 1,289 islands in our country can be used for entertainment, tourism, shooting of films… Also, if the 189 lighthouses in the country can be used for tourism.
Secondly, there are 40 projects of the railways that will cost R2,400 crore. For this, we have set up our own railway corporation. Thirdly, the Cabinet has approved a plan to convert 101 rivers for inland navigation. For this, a Bill has to be passed in Parliament. The World Bank has given us R4,200 crore for this. And let me make it clear we are not constructing barrages. Soon, I will help you all travel from Delhi to Agra by boat. But there is a minuscule minority, the environmentalists, who will stop any development.
Maneesh Chhibber: What is the government planning to do with the land acquisition Bill?
Let me clear some misconceptions about the Bill. Under Section 105 of the earlier Act, 13 exempt laws had to be brought in within the first year. In the ordinance that we promulgated, we strengthened it by including defence and exempted the consent clause and Social Impact Assessment (SIA) for defence and rural infrastructure. In rural areas, 80% of the land acquired is for irrigation. The earlier Act says that suppose we have to build a dam in, say, 3,000 acres and its water will be received by farmers in 3 lakh acres, then we have to get the consent of 80% of the farmers, which is impossible. So irrigation won’t be possible and farmers will commit suicide. We also made exemptions for industrial corridors and affordable housing for the poor. The perception is that industrial corridors are for big business houses. Let me ask you, will development take place only in Delhi or Mumbai? If a corridor is established between Delhi and Mumbai, industry will be set up in those areas too.
Land prices have increased so much that people are willing to give up their land. Those who are giving up their land are happy and the ones acquiring them are also happy; only those who have nothing to do with all this are raking up controversies. There is not a single thing in the new Bill that is against the farmer. If by April 5 we don’t repromulgate the ordinance, it will lapse. So we are holding discussions with opposition parties, telling them that if the things you have asked for have been included, then support us.
Ruhi Tiwari: The land acquisition Bill is facing criticism over two issues. First, the five categories of projects you have introduced are open-ended. They leave a lot of space for interpretation. Second, what was the need to do away with consent and SIA?
If the consent clause remains, no work can happen. For example, your area doesn’t have parking space. As a minister, I decide to widen the road. To widen the road, I need to bring down your building. Will your management give the consent to demolish the building? The consent clause is against farmers’ interest. Don’t you need schools in villages? Don’t you need hospitals, transformers, electricity in villages? You need irrigation, you need canals. If you don’t give land for rural infrastructure, how will villages progress?
Subhomoy Bhattacharjee: Can’t you allow farmers to auction their land? That will also earn them better returns.
There is a difference between letter and spirit, ground realities and perception. The fact is, no industrialist comes to the government for land acquisition. Reliance needed land in Navi Mumbai for an SEZ. They paid 1.5 times the market rate and got it. People used to come to us, requesting us to ask Reliance to buy their land. No industrialist, no private university owner comes to the government for land. They first acquire 300 acres and then come to the government, requesting for land use to be changed.
I am from Vidarbha. If I find someone willing to invest R5,000 crore or even R500 crore, I will fall at his feet in public and request him to invest in my village. If industry comes to my village, youth will get jobs… Farmers are committing suicide, wheat, paddy and sugarcane farming is ruined. Around 10,000 farmers have committed suicide in my region.
We need to change our opinion on industry. Setting up industry is not a crime, it provides employment to a lot of people.
Tekchand Sonawane: If land is acquired and the project doesn’t start on time or is delayed, what are the provisions in your Bill?
The forests and environment ministry has caused a losses of crores to our department… A project doesn’t start even after three-four years. The Delhi-Jaipur Highway is delayed due to issues related to land acquisition. Land has not been acquired at Kotputli village… five years have passed. You are suggesting that we should return the land acquired. What we will do with the half where the project is complete?
The previous government took no decision and projects got delayed. There was no work on projects worth R3,80,000 crore. But we cannot stop these projects, they are in public interest. We have assured that we will look into cases where land was acquired for personal benefits.
Liz Mathew: The land Bill is also being opposed by several BJP MPs and party leaders. Do you think the government or party went wrong in trying to just push the Bill?
There is no problem within the BJP. We made two mistakes. Initially, we talked about the Bill only in English, which was hard for several of our MPs to understand. Several MPs came to me after reports said that the proposed changes were against farmers. The PM asked me to speak to them in Hindi. I did that, I also spoke in Parliament. I challenged them to find one thing in the Bill which was not in farmers’ interest. Those who are still opposed to it are invited to debate the amendments. A TV channel had invited Jairam Ramesh and me for a debate on the Bill. I was ready, but he refused. Why don’t they debate it? They (the Opposition) just want to portray us as communal, casteist and anti-farmer. If they have made up their minds to oppose the Bill, we can’t do much to help.
Abantika Ghosh: Have you reached out to parties outside the NDA?
I have talked to the Shiv Sena, Trinamool Congress, Sharad Pawar, Praful Patel, other leaders close to me. Venkaiah Naidu and Arun Jaitley have talked to other political leaders. We told them we are open-minded, we are ready to accept any good suggestion, but we need to debate the Bill. But, neither have they (the Congress) talked to us, nor debated the Bill.
Arun S: Recently, you said around 40 road projects have been terminated and 26 projects are facing difficulties which can’t be solved. Are these related to land acquisition or are these financial problems? Secondly, why didn’t you have a debate before issuing the land Bill ordinance?
NHAI had 189 projects costing R3,80,000 crore. Of these, roughly 100 projects had land-related problems, which have been solved. There were 40 projects that could not be started and in 99 per cent cases, the reason was the government—Centre and states—land acquisition, environmental clearances etc. In 40 cases, the contractors wanted to pull out… I used to request them to start the work and they said they won’t. So we terminated 40 such contracts. Of these, there are 26 projects where we could not find a solution… so we held a meeting with the finance ministry.
No one was willing to work under the PPP model. So we said the government would give 40%of the project cost, with the remaining to be brought in by private players. We would acquire the land, give forest clearance… all the risk would be with the government. We would get the project completed and give interest cost plus 2% profit with annuity per year.
On why we didn’t hold discussions before issuing the ordinance, several kinds of talks were going on… After issuing the ordinance, we went to Parliament, but they (the Opposition) are not ready for a discussion in the Rajya Sabha.
Amitabh Sinha: The 2013 land Act has been in force for one year. Does the government have any data on how much land has been acquired in that one year, or how it could not be acquired due to the consent clause and SIA?
I was rural development minister for a while, and it is well known that not one acre of land can be acquired with the 2013 Act. Since land acquisition is in the concurrent list, states made their own rules—Jayalalithaa made her own, Prithviraj Chavan his own, Bhupinder Singh Hooda his own. I had suggested that we should say in the Bill that states should implement what they feel like. Then there would not have been such a discussion. States which want development will develop and those that don’t want to won’t. Earlier, the Act said compensation would be up to four times the market value of the land acquired. We have removed this “up to” and said compensation has to be four times the market value.
Sunil Jain: The new cities that you were planning were to come along the industrial corridor. But the amendment in the Act says the industrial corridor will only be 1 km long on either side of the road or railway. So what happens to your vision of creating new cities?
We never declared that cities would be created near the industrial corridor. What we are planning, for instance, is that if there is a road from Delhi to Mumbai, we will look at how villages 1 km on either side of that road can be developed. The 100 smart cities have been identified separately.
Vandita Mishra: You were earlier party president. Do you find a difference in the way you ran the party and the way Amit Shah runs it now? The second question: Julio Ribeiro recently wrote in The Indian Express that as a Christian, he feels insecure in the country. How do you view this?
I respect Mr Ribeiro a lot and I was very upset after reading the article. But our government is not against minorities.
For instance, two Muslim youths were involved in the Bengal nun rape case. So we should not look at this in terms of caste and religion.
I was distressed that Mr Ribeiro felt that way and I told the PM this. We consider Mr Ribeiro a role model.
We should be thinking about this wrong perception that is gaining ground. The aim of parties such as the Congress is to create fear in the minds of minorities. Such incidents against minorities have happened earlier too, even in Congress-ruled states.
We will take action against anyone who attacks minority institutions. We will ensure safety for institutions such as churches. But there is one thing that I would like to appeal to the nation, especially to the minorities. For years now, even during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government, a perception was created due to vote bank politics that minorities are under threat when we are in government. The priest whose release we secured from Afghanistan… we didn’t think of his religion or community. We are against terrorists, yes, but not against any religion. Now if there are some stray elements within the party who speak wrong, we have rectified that. We do not agree with any such remarks.
Now, coming to your question about Amit Shah. Matters concerning the party should be discussed only within the confines of the party, not outside.
Shaji Vikraman: One of the success stories of the last NDA government was the NHAI. The NHAI was restructured in 2009. Why do you want to change it again?
When I became minister, 2 km of roads were being built per day. The current average is 11.89 km per day. NHAI projects worth R3.80 lakh crore were stuck. When I meet you in April, I will most likely be in a position to tell you that there is no delay anywhere.
VANDITA MISHRA: On Ribeiro again, you said you brought it to the notice of the PM. What was his reaction?
The PM has been very concerned and upset for a long time (on the church attacks). He had immediately called up the police commissioner of Delhi after the attacks in Delhi.
Harish Damodaran: How many kilometres of highway do you plan to complete in 2014-15? And, at one time, the NHAI had 50 contractors. How many are there now?
So 30 km per day is my target, that I wish to complete in two years… At this point, the sector is under a lot of stress, banks are in trouble. I have to strengthen our contractors. I tell our officials not to break the law but try to help then. Then the media says, ‘Gadkari wants to help contractors’.
Avishek g dastidar: Your name cropped up in Essar’s emails and it was learnt that you spent holidays on a yatch owned by the company. You were not a minister then but if a politician aligns himself with a corporate house, isn’t there a problem of ethics there?
I went on a holiday with my family to Norway and spent eight days there with my money. While returning, they suggested that there is a place near France where their yacht is anchored and that I should see the place. So I told them that on the way back, I will be returning from Frankfurt. I bought my Frankfurt ticket and booked a hotel. A TV reporter asked me why I had taken a helicopter to go to the yacht. Now you don’t expect me to swim and go, do you? We went to the yacht at 3 pm, prepared our own vegetarian food, khichdi. But yes, I did drink their tea, just like I have yours.
Apurva: Pollution levels are exceedingly high in Delhi. How serious an issue is this for the government?
Pollution is a big problem. Ethics, ecology and economy are three things that are important. I have just launched the first bus that runs on 100% ethanol. We are introducing the new Motor Vehicles Act this session. Our department’s thinking is that we should convert the existing diesel buses into electric ones and bio-diesel should be promoted. That is why we have also given permission to e-rickshaws.
Transcribed by Abhishek Kumar, Sudhakar Jagdish and Debesh Banerjee