Farmers don't want the earth - just a fair deal

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 May, 2011, 12:00am


It takes a lot of pent-up anger for malnourished Indian farmers to leave their precious crops to come out in the blazing sun and do battle with the police.

But the farmers who fought pitched battles with police this month in Greater Noida, Uttar Pradesh - the state that adjoins the Indian capital - were burning with a sense of injustice. They said they were paid a paltry sum for their land, acquired by the local government for a new highway being built.

Four people have died, and a dozen others wounded. This is a battle being fought all over the country because the Indian government has no land acquisition policy that both frees up land for industrial and infrastructure projects and gives farmers a fair deal.

India knows it cannot even dream of catching up with China unless it improves its laughable infrastructure. It is trying hard to fix it. But if anything is going to throw a spanner in the works, it will be the 'million mutinies' (to use V. S. Naipaul's phrase) erupting in the countryside as farmers rebel against their land being grabbed by governments for a song.

Land agitations are threatening India's industrialisation. A 2009 report by the Infrastructure Development Finance Company said land acquisition was the 'single largest constraint to India's infrastructure growth'.

It is also a contentious issue in Indian politics. At present, state governments buy land for a low price for a highway, mine, power plant or industrial project.

The uneducated farmer usually has little idea of the market price, nor does he know how to invest wisely the sum he receives to make it last. When it is all gone, he has no other skill to help him earn, and the family sinks into penury.

Policymakers know the solution. The public-private partnership that developed the Cochin Airport in Kerala negotiated - not imposed - a fair price with 900 families, provided a job at the airport for one member of each family and gave out a generous resettlement package.

If Indian politicians are reluctant to follow this example, it is because they are in cahoots with land developers. They supply the land in return for kickbacks.

The ruling Congress Party has drafted a Land Acquisition Bill that tackles most of the problems. For one, it proposes restricting the government's role in land acquisition, leaving it open to market forces. For another, it mandates that private companies should buy at least 70 per cent of the land needed at market prices.

But the bill has been stalled for years because a key Congress Party ally in parliament opposes it. Along with death and taxes, you can be certain that Indian politicians will always act as a force for retrogression.

Amrit Dhillon is a writer based in New Delhi