In India, fresh clashes over rural land as farmers stand up to government

All over India, farmers are coming into conflict with the government as it tries to satisfy the country’s insatiable hunger for land for industry, infrastructure and urban housing.

And the decades-old way of doing business — the government seizing the land under a British colonial law, paying a token compensation to farmers and then bullying people into submission — just isn’t working anymore.

Projects worth tens of billions of dollars have been held up as farmers, backed by local politicians and empowered by India’s vibrant television news channels, have found their voice — and said no.

“A large process of industrialization is underway in India, second only to China in the world,” said historian and political commentator Mahesh Rangarajan. “But here, the people who are having their land taken from them also happen to be voters.’’

Industrialization on this scale, in an intensely competitive democracy and in the information age, is unprecedented globally — a country of 1.1 billion people racing to maintain a rapid rate of economic growth, running at more than 8 percent.

But the mix has been made more explosive by the fact that much of the best land for industry and infrastructure is fertile and densely populated, close to cities, roads and water supplies — just the kind of land farmers do not want to part with.

In eastern India, South Korea’s Posco started buying land this week — after a tense five-year standoff with farmers — for a $12 billion steel plant. Nevertheless, activists have not given up hope of derailing the project, claiming criminal collusion between the company and the government, and excessive use of force by the police.

Political repercussions

Other projects have been even less fortunate. Tata Motors’ plans to build the world’s cheapest car at Singur in West Bengal ran aground in 2008 when farmers complained that they had been bullied and cheated out of their land. Indonesia’s Salim Group had to abandon plans to set up a chemical hub in Nandigram, also in West Bengal, after 14 people were killed in clashes between farmers and police in 2007.

Those two incidents sent shock waves through Indian politics. The Communist Party had ruled West Bengal for 34 years, but the violence that accompanied efforts to seize land in Singur and Nandigram undercut its political support. This month, Mamata Banerjee, who had championed the farmers’ cause, swept the Communists from power to become West Bengal’s first female chief minister.

It was the first time land had been the deciding factor in a major Indian election.

“This is the biggest political signal to come to India in many years,” said Barun Mitra, director of the Liberty Institute and an expert on the land issue, adding that the West Bengal result would be felt throughout the country. “For the first time, people are beginning to look at land as a right.”

The 1894 Land Acquisition Act put the government at the center of the land acquisition process, giving it the right to take land for public or company use. That left it effectively as referee in a contest between industry and agriculture — a referee who often took a slice of the profits when farmland was seized.

But farmers no longer accept the referee’s impartiality and refuse to play the game by those rules. With both sides equally frustrated, most everyone now agrees that the rules have to be changed. The question is how.

On Thursday, Sonia Gandhi, chief of the ruling Congress Party, promised that the government would bring new legislation to parliament soon.

Under one proposal, the government would cede much of its power to acquire land and let industrialists and developers negotiate with farmers directly.

Hunger for land

The problem of finding land is a major factor holding back India’s manufacturing sector, and there is huge potential for growth if the process can be unblocked, said Kaushik Basu, chief economic adviser in the Finance Ministry.

“That would also increase demand for labor and help political stability,” he said. “It is extremely important, one of those pivotal issues.”

Mitra said that the proposals are a step in the right direction but that much more needs to be done to allow market forces to determine the right price for land. For example, land ownership records across India are a mess, with no comprehensive survey since independence in 1947.

That worries industrialists, who say they are in no position to adjudicate between someone who claims ownership of land based on a decades-old piece of paper, or even cloth, and someone who has been occupying and farming the land for almost as long.

“Any attempt on the part of the government to transfer this task squarely onto industry without improving the system will badly affect industrial development and overall economic growth in the country,” Chandrajit Banerjee, director general of the Confederation of Indian Industry, said in a statement Tuesday.

In the villages of Bhatta and Parsaul, just over an hour’s drive southeast of Delhi, farmers were originally told to make way for a new highway and industrial development. But problems arose when they discovered their land had been zoned for residential use instead of industrial use, making its value many times higher than the price they were being offered. The government and builders were colluding to corner all the profits, they feared.

Protests reached a crescendo at a public meeting in a dusty patch of land on the outskirts of Bhatta on May 7. Villagers say police fired on the crowd and killed three people, subsequently going on a rampage through both villages, beating women and torching houses, cattle feed and vehicles. Police say two of their officers also died.

Today, the villages are surrounded by hundreds of armed policemen, with buses and vans parked at every intersection and officers and riot police lounging in every patch of shade. When they appear in the village, residents scatter in an instant into homes and side streets.

In Bhatta, Pawan Kumar, a 32-year-old who with his three brothers scrapes a living farming wheat, pulses, rice and sugar cane, said the government had promised new plots of land and jobs. Neither has materialized, while the proffered cash is not enough to buy land elsewhere, he said.

“The most we can do with the money is build a small house or pay for a wedding for someone in the family,” he said. “Then what do we do?”

Simon Denyer is The Post’s bureau chief in China. He served previously as bureau chief in India and as a Reuters bureau chief in Washington, India and Pakistan.
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