In­dia’s pow­er­ful farm­ing lobby turns on Prime Min­is­ter Modi

The China Post - - COMMENTARY - BY AB­HAYA SRI­VAS­TAVA

Farmer Tarac­hand Mathur was one of mil­lions of In­di­ans who voted Naren­dra Modi into power last year, but the gov­ern­ment’s push to make it eas­ier for big busi­ness to forcibly ac­quire land means he won’t be back­ing the pre­mier again.

Mathur, 64, be­lieves Modi has turned his back on the plight of farm­ers, many of whom have seen their crops dev­as­tated by un­sea­sonal rains since the start of this year.

“I am on the brink of ruin,” he said, close to tears, as he tended the wheat grow­ing on his small­hold­ing in Kan­jhawala vil­lage around 15 miles (25 kilo­me­ters) north­west of New Delhi.

“The rain gods don’t hear us and Modi has also turned deaf to our cries.”

In­dia’s poor but pow­er­ful farm­ing lobby flocked to Modi’s rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the gen­eral elec­tion last May, when the Hindu na­tion­al­ist pre­mier won the big­gest man­date in 30 years.

But anger in ru­ral ar­eas has been mount­ing over his gov­ern­ment’s bid to over­haul land pur­chas­ing laws, com­pound­ing woes over ex­ten­sive dam­age to win­ter crops due to un­sea­sonal rain across north­ern In­dia.

The gov­ern­ment ar­gues the changes are needed to spur devel­op­ment — from build­ing new cities and fac­to­ries to more roads and industrial cor­ri­dors.

But its at­tempts to push the Land Ac­qui­si­tion Bill through par­lia­ment have been stonewalled by a united op­po­si­tion, which con­trols the up­per house.

While the gov­ern­ment has is­sued a tem­po­rary or­der mak­ing it eas­ier to buy land for projects, the changes need par­lia­men­tary ap­proval be­fore they can be made per­ma­nent.

‘Re­stric­tive Rules’

The left- lean­ing op­po­si­tion Congress party will on Sun­day lead a mass street protest against the leg­is­la­tion in the cap­i­tal be­fore the re­open­ing of par­lia­ment, when the gov­ern­ment is ex­pected to rein­tro­duce its bill.

The new bill over­hauls leg­is­la­tion passed by the pre­vi­ous Con- gress-led gov­ern­ment in 2013, which was a key ini­tia­tive of its decade in power.

It would ex­empt projects re­lated to de­fense, ru­ral hous­ing and power, along with industrial cor­ri­dors, from the re­quire­ment that 80 per­cent of the af­fected landown­ers must agree to a sale.

It also does away with the need for a “so­cial im­pact as­sess­ment” to find out how many peo­ple would be af­fected by the loss of land.

The BJP says th­ese rules are re­stric­tive and de­ter the in­vest­ment needed to fuel In­dia’s growth.

“To be able to push the man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor, you need land,” party spokesman G. V. L. Narasimha Rao told AFP.

“And that land can come only from the ex­ist­ing land avail­able ... In­dus­tries can't come up in (a) vac­uum.”

Crit­ics, how­ever, say In­dia’s devel­op­ment should not come at the cost of its poor­est.

“The gov­ern­ment thinks it owns the re­sources. This is wrong,” said San­jay Parikh, an ex­pert on land and en­vi­ron­men­tal laws.

“Re­sources ul­ti­mately be­long to the peo­ple. The land must re­main with the farm­ers.”

‘Farm­ers are not fools’

Modi re­cently used his monthly ra­dio show to ap­peal to farm­ers not to op­pose the bill, re­peat­edly as­sur­ing them that ac­quir­ing their land would be a “last re­sort.”

But the un­pop­u­lar bill has given a boost to the ail­ing Congress party, whose Vice Pres­i­dent Rahul Gandhi this week re­turned from a sab­bat­i­cal of nearly two months to lead Sun­day’s protest.

Bhu­pen­der Rawat, from the non­profit Na­tional Al­liance for Peo­ple's Move­ments, be­lieves the land bill could in­flict se­ri­ous po­lit­i­cal dam­age on the BJP gov­ern­ment.

“Farm­ers are not fools, they can see what Modi is try­ing to do,” he told AFP.

“Modi has been go­ing abroad and telling in­vestors: ‘ Come to In­dia, we will give you cheap land and la­bor.’ The farm­ers are feel­ing cheated, and rightly so.”

Many have good rea­son to be skep­ti­cal about the gov­ern­ment's as­sur­ances.

Bal­jeet Singh, an­other Kan­jhawla farmer, said the gov­ern­ment forcibly ac­quired the deeds to his land in 2005, but had yet to take pos­ses­sion of it or pro­vide ad­e­quate com­pen­sa­tion.

“We thought Modi’s gov­ern­ment would ad­dress our prob­lems, that is why we voted for him. But look what he is do­ing. We will not back him again,” said the 70- year- old as he smoked a hookah pipe.

AP

An In­dian farmer, left, gives wheat­grains to Congress Party Vice Pres­i­dent Rahul Gandhi dur­ing a meet­ing out­side Gandhi’s res­i­dence in New Delhi on Satur­day, April 18. Rahul Gandhi has re­turned from a two-month break from pol­i­tics af­ter a se­ries of em­bar­rass­ing elec­toral de­feats and is due to ad­dress a gath­er­ing of farm­ers in the In­dian cap­i­tal on Sun­day, April 19.

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