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Modi Land Bill Delayed Amid Rising Anger in Rural India

  • Reuters

Protesters gather around a farmer who hung himself from a tree during a rally organized by AAP, in New Delhi, India, April 22, 2015. The farmer hanged himself, in what appeared to be a desperate protest against the hardship felt by many people scratching a living in rural India.

Protesters gather around a farmer who hung himself from a tree during a rally organized by AAP, in New Delhi, India, April 22, 2015. The farmer hanged himself, in what appeared to be a desperate protest against the hardship felt by many people scratching a living in rural India.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government has delayed a bill that will make it easier for industry to buy farmland, following anger over rising rural distress and the suicide of a farmer in India's capital.

The death of farmer Gajendra Singh, who hanged himself from a tree during an opposition rally in New Delhi on Wednesday, dominated debate in parliament on Thursday.

Two cabinet ministers, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the land acquisition bill, a revision to a 2013 land law, would not be brought up until the first week of May, reversing a previous line-up of legislative business.

"The land bill is a challenge for us," one of the ministers said late on Wednesday, after several days of protests that culminated in the suicide.

Convinced that the previous land law would delay his industrial development agenda, Modi used executive decrees in December and April to loosen acquisition rules requiring 80 percent consent from landowners, but needs parliament's approval to make the changes permanent.

Modi does not have a majority in the upper house and with tempers running high over crop damage and low prices in the countryside, he risks delaying other legislation if the land bill is taken to debate too quickly and dominates proceedings in parliament.

Sharing the pain

In a rare intervention in parliament, Modi pleaded on Thursday for political parties to end their finger-pointing over the rural crisis and work together to improve the lives of the villagers.

"The issue of farmers' suicides has been a matter of concern for the whole country," he said. "I also share the pain. We should resolve to find a solution to this problem which is old and widespread."

More than a dozen debt-ridden farmers have committed suicide in India in recent weeks with many villagers who say they voted for Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party in elections last year criticizing his government for being slow to respond to the crop damage and falling commodity prices.

Spurred by opposition parties, farmers are also angry about the changes to the land law, which many fear will force them to sell holdings against their will. The law was the main target of Wednesday's rally, where Singh lost his life.

The rural crisis is the first major political challenge for Modi's one-year-old government. Unseasonal rains and hailstorms damaged about 9.4 million hectares of crops such as wheat, or 15.5 percent of the winter crop area, the farm ministry said.

Modi last week announced increased compensation for farmers who have suffered crop damage. The government blames local officials for being slow in releasing such funds.

Adding to concerns in the villages, where some 70 percent of Indians live, government forecasters on Wednesday said the monsoon due to start in June was likely to be deficient.

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