Indian farmers protest gov't plans to ease land acquisition

NEW DELHI, April 19 (AP) — Tens of thousands of flag-waving farmers rallied in India's capital on Sunday to protest the government's plan to ease rules for obtaining land for industry and development projects.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said existing rules, established in 2013 to protect land owners from land grabbing and forced relocation, were creating obstacles that were spooking investors. He and industrial leaders argue the rules should be simplified in order to boost manufacturing and entice foreign businesses to India.

Modi passed an executive order in December doing away with some of the rules. The unilateral move upset opposition parties and rights groups that had long fought for safeguards, and they vowed to fight any effort to make the changes permanent after the order expired earlier this month.

Farmers, labor unions and rights activists say the changes effectively trample the rights of the poor. They accuse Modi of catering to corporate interests, and worry that eliminating hard-won safeguards for land owners will expose them to abuse by governments or private companies that offer poor compensation packages or force them to relocate from ancestral lands.

"With the single-minded agenda of kneeling before the corporates while crores (hundreds of millions) of our citizens are exploited, displaced, disposed and deprived, this government has shown that it simply does not care for the poor and toiling people, for our land, agriculture and nature," the National Alliance of People's Movements said in a statement.

The opposition Congress party — in power when the 2013 law was passed after more than three years of debate — has seized on the issue as it struggles to repair its political image following a stunning defeat to Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party last year. Both Gandhi family scion Rahul and his mother, party leader Sonia, addressed the rallying farmers at a protest park in central New Delhi on Sunday.

Rahul accused Modi of winning the election with funding from industrialists he now needs to pay back.

"How will he pay back the loan now? He will do it by giving your lands to those top industrialists. He wants to weaken the farmers, then snatch their land and give it to his industrialist friends," Rahul Gandhi told more than 50,000 cheering farmers who came to the capital for the rally from all over India.

Many questioned how he and the party planned to counter Modi's election-winning promise of rapid economic growth.

Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said Modi's order was intended to hurt farmers' interests, and Sonia Gandhi accused the government of being against the farmers, the helpless and the poor.

Just an hour earlier, however, Modi pre-empted the rally by telling lawmakers from his party, "Lies are being spread on the land bill by perverted minds. Some people have decided not to speak, see or hear anything good about our government."

In comments broadcast widely on Indian TV, he said, "All decisions I am taking are for the welfare of the poor." Meanwhile, in Germany days after Modi visited the country, Indian corporate leaders reportedly urged their foreign counterparts to be patient.

"The government has undertaken a number of policy initiatives in the last few months," Tata Group Chairman Cyrus Mistry said at the Hannover Fair, according to Press Trust of India. "We are very positive about the future, but it will take time."

Critics are most upset about proposed changes eliminating residents' approval for land acquisitions sought for defense, infrastructure, affordable housing or industrial corridors. The changes would also remove the need for assessing the social impact of such projects.

Restrictions on buying fertile agricultural land would be removed. Abuses by government employees, now answerable by law, would be exempt from prosecution unless ordered by the government.

Those rules were set down in a 2013 law that replaced an 1894 British colonial-era law allowing the government to appropriate land for "public purpose" if compensation is paid. After India's independence in 1947, criticism of the 1894 law grew over allegations that it was being used for land grabbing, private enrichment or industrial projects with no public purposes. Critics also complained that compensation payments rarely matched market value, and sometimes were never even paid.

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