DHENGA, India — Day after day, dozens of farmers in this eastern Indian village squat under a tent, wave flags and shout “This land is ours” and “Go back” as ripe golden wheat rustles in the background.
They are protesting the government’s plan to acquire their farmland to mine coal to supply to the power plants nearby. Last month, 13 of them were arrested and sent to jail for obstructing government work.
For more than a decade, the government-owned National Thermal Power Corporation has struggled to buy land from the farmers in what is called the “rice bowl” of the Jharkhand state. But so far, it has not managed to acquire half of the 2,800 acres it needs, because the locals won’t sell.
“The government says it needs our land for the nation to progress,” said Dhaneshwar Prasad, a 37-year-old farmer. But without the land, he said,the farmers would have nothing. “Why doesn’t it just give us poison instead?” he said.
“This land is so fertile, I grow wheat, rice, vegetables, cane and corn. Why would I sell this land to the government? This land gives me a life of dignity,” said Prasad.
Protests like these pose a formidable challenge for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s plans to boost Asia’s third largest economy, break business bottlenecks and launch stalled projects worth more than $300 billion. Modi has failed to convince parliament to pass new proposals that would make it easier for the government and businesses to buy farmland. As a stop-gap measure, he issued an executive order in December putting the new proposals in place; that is likely to be extended for a few more months. But ultimately he will still need the bill to pass.
Critics say this may tarnish his image in a country where land is a politically charged issue — especially because past governments have indiscriminately used a British colonial law to forcibly seize land from farmers and underpay them. The Congress Party-led coalition government that preceded Modi passed a law in 2013 that required the consent of 70 percent of the people affected by a project and much higher compensation to displaced farmers.
But some say it went too far.
“In trying to atone for the sins of the past, the previous government swung to the other extreme and made it impossible to do business,” said Gurcharan Das, a business historian and author. “It would have taken an average of 50 months to acquire one acre of land. Modi is trying to reduce the red tape. But the opposition is painting it as a battle between the good farmer and the big bad industry.”
Modi’s proposals eliminate the consent requirement if the land is being acquired for projects that boost national security, rural electricity, industrial corridors or affordable housing. He also expanded the category of projects that are eligible for higher compensation.
But in recent weeks, farmers’ unions have held sit-ins, opposition lawmakers have stalled the amendments and Modi has been called “anti-farmer” — a label that can spell political disaster in a country where approximately 70 percent of the population lives in rural areas.
As opposition mounted, Modi addressed the nation’s farmers in his Sunday radio address last month with a passionate plea for building industrial infrastructure that will create jobs.
About half of India’s workforce is engaged in agriculture, which contributes only 18 percent of the nation’s economic output. Modi wants to increase the country’s manufacturing base from just 16 percent of GDP to 25 percent.
In his radio address, Modi warned the farmers against “politically motivated propaganda.”
“Do we want the children of our villages to suffocate in the slums of Delhi and Mumbai? Should they not get an employment opportunity closer to their home if a small industry comes up 12-15 miles away from their village?” Modi asked.
In Dhenga, villagers get just four hours of electricity every day. They say they want more power but do not want to sell their fertile land for coal. Harvesting one acre of rice here brings more than $4,200, they say.
Being compensated four times the market price of the land, as the law now provides, still does not sway them.
“We are not poor people, we are proud owners of land,” Savita Devi, a farmer, said indignantly. “We will become poor the day our land is taken away and we are forced to become factory laborers.”
Acquiring land is especially difficult in a country with only one-third of the land mass of the United States, but more than four times the population. China, with a similar population to India’s, has three times the land area. Many of the government’s planned industrial projects are in densely populated regions with rich soil and plenty of water.
“The fears of the farmers are not imaginary,” said Jairam Ramesh , a senior Congress party leader. “Land is the only form of social security for more than 150 million farming families, and horrible injustices have been perpetrated on them in the past in the name of development.”
The changes that Modi has proposed threaten the safeguard created by the 2013 law that gave the farmers the right to veto big government projects on their land, he added. The earlier law also assured farmers that fertile, multi-crop, irrigated land would be acquired only as a “last resort.” Modi has removed that.
Power plants, railroads, highways and coal-mining projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars have been stalled over land issues around Dhenga since 2004, much to the chagrin of the local authorities.
“People are emotionally attached to their land, but that mindset must change,” said Mukesh Kumar, deputy commissioner of the district. “If we want more electricity, televisions, cars, highways then someone somewhere has to sell their land. They can’t keep saying no. All these projects will bring benefits for future generations.”
Under pressure, some farmers did sell, but now complain they have lost their livelihood.
“I built a house, spent on a family wedding and bought a motorcycle. There is hardly any money left now,” said Ganesh Mahato, 70, who now grazes cows. “My son who has a college degree has not found a job yet. My other son is a construction laborer. And the bright future of jobs that was promised has still not come.”
The protesting farmers say Modi’s new proposals may embolden local authorities to swoop in and seize their land once and for all.
“Money is like water — it quickly slips through your fingers. But land stays with us forever,” Prasad said.