Reuters | Thu Sep 9, 2010 | 3:17pm IST
Ruling Congress party head Sonia Gandhi, the country’s most powerful politician, has thrown her support behind greater land rights for farmers as the issue becomes a key political battleground for the government. Gandhi’s support comes just weeks after her influential son, Rahul Gandhi, called on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to pass legislation to support farmers, as rows over land acquisition threaten development projects across the country. Rapid urbanisation has led to disputes between authorities and farmers across India, where two-thirds of the 1.2 billion population is dependent on agriculture. The government is mulling a bill to quicken land purchases as well as help farmers.
India needs to spend $1.5 trillion on infrastructure by 2017. But construction targets have been missed as land rows hold up projects such as a new airport in the financial hub of Mumbai, hampering India’s efforts to compete with China. "Farmers must be provided with adequate compensation and alternative occupations," Gandhi said in speech in New Delhi. "Land acquisition must be done in a manner that does not result in the loss of large tracts of fertile and productive land that is so essential to grow food grains for our people." Prime Minister Singh has said a long-awaited reform of land acquisition legislation would be addressed in the next session of parliament. The current legislation dates back to 1894 and allows the government to take over land with little compensation.
A proposed reform, which guarantees market prices for seized land and helps resettlement of displaced residents, is seen as a vote-winning move for the Congress party which counts the rural poor among its key supporters. This year, at least three farmers and one policeman have been killed in clashes over the seizure of land to build a $2-billion highway connecting the Taj Mahal city of Agra with New Delhi. Protests in Orissa led to the government shelving a $9.6-billion mining development by UK-based Vedanta Resources Plc.