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Delhi Faces Push-back on India Land Law Changes

  • Anjana Pasricha

A farmer plucks radishes from a field outside Jammu, a city in India's northern state of Jammu and Kashmir, Jan. 14, 2015. Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to ease restrictions on government acquisition of land.

A farmer plucks radishes from a field outside Jammu, a city in India's northern state of Jammu and Kashmir, Jan. 14, 2015. Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to ease restrictions on government acquisition of land.

The Indian government’s proposal to ease laws for it to acquire land has encountered unexpectedly fierce opposition from the Congress Party and activists, who have slammed the actions as anti-farmer.

Speaking in parliament Monday, Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government of neglecting farmers and instead representing the interests of industry and influential people.

"This is a government of big people, of suited and booted people," opposition leader Gandi said, according to Reuters news service.

Earlier in the day, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party had introduced an amended bill to streamline the sale of farmland for development.

At the heart of the controversial legislation is the government’s proposal to exempt defense, industrial, rural electricity and affordable housing projects from getting the consent of 70 percent of farmers whose land has to be acquired.

The tough consent clause was introduced during an overhaul of land laws in 2013, but Modi’s government said that particular provision stalled scores of projects.

Although an executive order has been issued, the government will need to pass the land bill in parliament. But with opposition parties refusing to come on board, its lack of majority in the upper house remains a stumbling block.

Government promotes industry

Government authorities say that building roads and factories in rural areas will industrialize poorer regions of the country and open up new avenues of employment for impoverished farmers.

"Today no farmer – no farmer – wants his son to be agriculture," said Venkaiah Naidu, parliamentary affairs minister. "The reason is agriculture, for a variety of reasons, is becoming unrenumerative."

Supporters of the bill point out that the government is trying to cut red tape and speed up development. Opponents say it will benefit industry at the expense of poor people in India’s vast rural areas.

Land is a politically charged issue in India because farmland has often been acquired for a pittance by past governments. As a result, farmers remain skeptical of legal provisions to give them up to four times the market value of the land.

‘Political football’

Political analysts say the country’s fractious opposition parties have united to paint Modi’s government as pro-business and anti-farmer.

Independent political analyst Ajoy Bose says that the Congress Party in particular is using the land rights issue to regain momentum after its humiliating loss in national elections last year.

"It has become a political football now," Bose said. "This is kind of providing the opposition a rallying point and a convenient stick to beat the Modi government with. This is a problem for the Modi government and it is occupying all his energies."

Political analyst Neerja Chowdhury pointed out that the controversy has snowballed at a time when Indian farmers are facing distress after unseasonal rains last month damaged their crops.

"It comes in the context of … growing agrarian hardship and a restlessness in the farming community," Chowdhury said. "And every party has farmers as its constituency, being 65 percent of the country. It’s a hot potato."

The difficulties in passing the land law underscore Modi’s challenges in fulfilling his commitment to fast-track business projects and boost the economy.

While investors have become bullish about India since Modi took office last May, they’re still watching carefully to see how his government delivers on its promise to get rid of bottlenecks for businesses.

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