The concept of fair play is clearly a dying idea among India’s elite. Nothing captures this more than the on-going tussle over the Land Acquisition Act and the dismal inability of the UPA-2 government — specifically the Prime Minister and some in his Cabinet — to respond to any policy change from a position of strong and clear ethical principles.

As I write this, 51 villagers in Madhya Pradesh have been standing neck deep in water for 12 days, desperately protesting the rising of the waters in the Omkareshwar dam which will submerge their fields – fields they legitimately own — and leave them destituted. They symbolise millions of other development refugees — Indians summarily kicked off their land in the name of the nation’s progress — who are still waiting for justice. After the high-voltage protests at Singur, Nandigram, Niyamgirhi, Bhatta Parsaul and innumerable other places in the country, one would have supposed at least the base rules of the game would’ve been established by now: if you covet that which others possess, you need to ask nicely and pay fairly. And remember, they always have the right to refuse. This can’t seem rocket science: it should be elementary human logic in a modern democracy.

In drafting the new Land Acquisition Bill, Rural Minister Jairam Ramesh tried to walk some distance down this path. He rechristened it the Right to Fair Compensation, Resettlement, Rehabilitation and Transparency in Land Acquisition Act. Given that none of these provisions were mandatory — or even existed — earlier, merely correcting the language and enshrining the idea of “rights” was itself an important step. He also notched some other key milestones: buyers would have to pay four times the market rate for rural land, twice the rate for urban land; no multi-crop agricultural land could be taken over for industry; a social impact assessment was made mandatory before acquisition; no project could begin till oustees had been compensated and resettled; and the rights of tillers who lose their livelihood were acknowledged for the first time.

Still, civil rights defenders were justly disappointed. The new Bill had failed to stringently define the “public purpose” for which land could be acquired through government intervention, leaving the contentious clause open to wide manipulations; 13 existing Acts related to SEZs, mining, power projects and other big displacers had been kept out of the Bill’s purview; and consent of landowners and the gram sabha had not been made mandatory. This, they argued, was akin to building a pretty-looking house on a plinth of old muck.

But Ramesh stood his ground. He admitted the Bill was a compromise; that it had fallen short of his own better instincts; and that he had been instructed by the PM to make the law “investor friendly”. But politics, he argued, was the art of the possible and he had done his best to balance competing demands. This law, he said, was merely a first step. It should be revised again and made more progressive in 10 years.

Angry as this face-off between Ramesh and the activists may have been, at least its framework was a common one. Both agree what the ideal should be: the argument is how quickly one can reach it.

The Cabinet’s opposition to the Bill last week, on the other hand, is a scandal. It turns the framework completely turtle. An enlightened Land Bill is supposed to be a key political promise by the Congress. Yet minister after minister — each of them Congress heavyweights — resisted even this half-way Bill on grossly untenable grounds. Anand Sharma and Kamal Nath argued the acquirer of the land should be allowed possession regardless of whether resettlement of the dispossessed had taken place; social impact assessments had to be dropped because they were too ‘cumbersome’; and the price of land, they argued, had been set too high. Others wanted manufacturing and industrial projects to be freed of all obligations. The single thought driving these ministerial objections was a fear of “inconveniencing” industry. It’s as if the ideas of fair play and democratic rights do not even exist in their lexicon. It’s as if the hard lessons of the past years have not pierced their soundproof worlds. As if the unravelling debacles of coal and spectrum and crony capitalism have no messages for them. Unfortunately, too many corporate leaders also seem to coast in this surreal world of entitlement.

But the struggle to get a sound Land Acquisition Bill is not a fight between factory and farm. It is a fight between those who can think straight and those who can’t. Yes, industry must be welcomed, but it does not have to be wooed on bended knees like a Salvation Army soup line. Of course everyone would love a high dose of convenience but what this country needs is a high dose of clarity. Unfortunately, that seems to be the rarest resource in the government today.

Laws are meant to be based on principles: pragmatism comes second. If you set the bar high, one is forced to live by it. Back in 1947, we were a poor, feudal, illiterate, fractured society. Undeterred, our founding fathers still strove to write a soaring Constitution. That is the covenant that is still keeping India on track 65 years later. One shudders to imagine the document the current generation of politicians would have written in their place.