NEW DELHI (AP) — Tens of thousands of flag-waving farmers rallied in India's capital Sunday to protest a government 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 say the rules should be simplified to entice foreign business and boost manufacturing in 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 legal safeguards on land acquisition, and they vowed to fight any effort to make the changes permanent after the order expired earlier this month.
Rights activists, labor unions and many among India's hundreds of millions of farmers say the changes effectively trample the rights of the poor. They accuse Modi of catering to corporate interests, and worry changing the law will leave them vulnerable to poor compensation packages or forced relocation from ancestral lands.
"With the single-minded agenda of kneeling before the corporates ... 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 — has seized on the issue as it struggles to repair its political image following its stunning election defeat last year to Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. 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, speaking Hindi, told more than 50,000 cheering farmers who came to the rally from all over India.
Many have questioned how the Congress 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 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 spoken in Hindi and 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 the requirement of land owners' approval for acquisitions sought for projects in 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.
"The rights which we had before, this present government has taken them away, which is wrong. Now the farmers have to pay the price," said 47-year-old Babulal, one of a crowd of farmers who came to the rally from the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
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