Big farmers’ protest underscores India’s land woes

NEW DELHI Aug 26 (Reuters) – 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 the rapidly-growing Asian giant.

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 being stopped by police in riot gear. They were addressed by some opposition leaders. 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.

The series of clashes mirror problems in rival China, where rapid urbanisation has often pitted local government against villagers who demand more control of their land.

STALLED MEGA-PROJECTS

Such protests have stalled plans for power utilities, mines, roads and steel mills in Asia’s third-largest economy where poor infrastructure is a long-standing obstacle to growth and have delayed crucial foreign investment in these sectors.

Farmers’ protests have put on hold 230 tax-free export zones and multi-billion investments by top steelmakers such as ArcelorMittal, South Korea’s POSCO and Tata Steel, according to government figures.

Protests over mining on tribal land in the eastern state of 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.

But the new draft law, framed in 2007, has remained on hold because of opposition from some government allies who object to certain provisions in the bill such as blocking land and compensation related litigation from going to civil courts.

The row over land has major political and security implications in India.

The left-of-centre Congress hopes to keep a lid on farmer resentment by minimising the impact of land acquisition. It also wants to undermine the appeal of a growing Maoist insurgency that feeds partly off a wider resentment against industry at the cost of farming and the poor.

“The prime minister has assured us that the land bill will come in the next session of parliament,” Digvijay Singh, a Congress leader who accompanied Gandhi said. (Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Alex Richardson)

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