Farmers’ protest in Delhi underscores India’s land woes


Reuters | Aug 26, 2010 | 3:28pm IST

Thousands of farmers marched to India’s parliament on Thursday to protest against a government takeover of land to build a new highway, underlining a wider problem of land acquisition in India. The protest follows the death of three farmers in northern Uttar Pradesh state this month, when police fired at protesters demanding more compensation for land taken to build a $2 billion highway connecting the Taj Mahal city of Agra with New Delhi. Underlining the political sensitivity of land issues, Rahul Gandhi, son of ruling Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi and a potential prime minister, called on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Wednesday to find a solution to widespread land disputes.

In New Delhi, about 15,000 flag-waving, slogan-shouting farmers squatted at a square near parliament after where police stopped them. Traffic in central Delhi remained gridlocked for hours. “Why is the government putting pressure on us to vacate our land? Land is our mother, We will die but not give our land,” said Vinod, a protesting farmer who gave only one name. These protests are the latest in a string of violence over government efforts to acquire farmland for industry in India, where two-thirds of the 1.2 billion population is dependent on agriculture and where land is a farmer’s only social security.

STALLED MEGA-PROJECTS

Farmers’ protests have put on hold 230 tax-free export zones and multi-billion investments by ArcelorMittal, South Korea’s POSCO and Tata Steel, according to government figures. Protests over mining on tribal land in Orissa led this week to the government scrapping plans of UK-based Vedanta Resources Plc to extract bauxite. But in a sign of how the government could also use land disputes for political gain, Rahul Gandhi held a rally on the tribal land on Thursday to help bolster Congress party support. Land acquisition in India is carried out by government on the basis of a colonial era 1894 law that gives the state the right to take over land for public purposes with little compensation. The government wants to amend that law to guarantee market prices for seized land, a potentially vote-winning move for the Congress party which counts rural poor among its key supporters. It makes provisions for social impact assessment studies prior to large-scale acquisition and costs related to resettlement of displaced residents. Developers would also have to offer shares or debentures in projects as compensation to land owners, among other provisions. The row over land has major political and security implications in India. Maoists’ threat is one of them.

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