Race for land hits India's poor farmers

AP News
Posted: Nov 21, 2011 12:00 AM
Race for land hits India's poor farmers

The farmers of Rozajalalpur knew what was coming.

They saw others closer to India's expanding capital city pushed off their land to make way for malls, apartments and offices. They saw billboards rise along nearby potholed roads and tiny sales offices sprout in the grassy medians to hawk homes in Leisure Park, Golf Homes and Dream Valley.

Then, in March, they saw the innocuous-looking announcement in the newspaper. In type so small it was nearly unreadable, the state government declared it was seizing their farms under an 1894 national law enacted by British colonists to acquire land for roads and railways. Their land was being taken for the "public purpose" of "planned development."

India's transformation from a largely agrarian nation into a global economic power hinges on a steady supply of land for new factories, call centers, power plants and homes. As cities like New Delhi spill over their seams with ever more people, the government is increasingly seizing the farms around them for private development.

The farmers east of the capital are fighting back ferociously, taking to the streets and to the courts _ with some success. And the government is scrambling to appease them and prevent them from threatening India's development dreams.

"We cannot live without land," said 23-year-old Vivek Nagar of Rozajalalpur, a ramshackle village of muddy roads and 10,000 people about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Delhi.

The land protests erupted in violence in May, killing four people, including two police officers, in the nearby village of Battha Parsaul. Similar protests have hit at least 17 of India's 28 states over the past three years, according to The Times of India newspaper.

In the spring, protesters fought to stall plans to take their land for a nuclear plant in Jaitapur, in southern India; in August three farmers were killed by police along a highway near Mumbai as they protested a water project they feared would lead to land confiscations.

Though Nagar and his neighbors were offered a small fortune by their standards for their land, it was far below market value. The money couldn't compensate for the loss of the relatively secure, though tiny, source of income and food from their farms.

Many feared they would end up like Subhash Nagar, a 35-year-old one-time farmer who lived off his small plot in a nearby village until the government took it in 2009 for 1.5 million rupees ($30,500) and the promise of a job in the industrial area they said they would build.

He spent the money on his sister's wedding and a new house. But the "industrial area" turned out to be a residential complex, and he was left scrounging to feed his wife and two young children off loans from relatives and the 3,000 rupees ($60) he makes a month at a tea stall, he said.

So thousands of area farmers took to the streets over the summer to fight the seizures that would turn their villages into the new development of Noida Extension. Rahul Gandhi, the all-but-anointed next leader of the ruling Congress Party, rode out on the back of a motorcycle and joined the protest as a way to embarass the opposition-led government in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

The farmers turned to the courts as well, in a case seen as one of the most formidable challenges to the government land acquisition program. They won a partial victory Oct. 21, when the High Court ruled that residents of three villages should get their land back, and those from 61 others, including Rozajalalpur, should get some more compensation. The farmers said the extra money was negligible and plan to appeal to the Supreme Court.

The farmers say the Uttar Pradesh government barred them from selling directly to the builders on the pretense it would spur an uncontrollable building frenzy. Instead, it paid them 850 rupees a square meter ($1.60 a square foot) for their land and then sold it to builders for as much as 15 times more. Officials involved in the deals also pocketed money on the side, the farmers said, charging that the corruption spurs officials to take more and more land.

"Bribery is happening on a large scale," said Rupesh Verma, a lawyer for the farmers whose own farm was officially confiscated in 2007, though his family has refused to leave it. "All the players, the government, the politician, the bureaucrat, the builders are all getting some benefit. Only the farmers have been deprived."

State officials say they are using the profits from the land sale to install roads, sewer and water lines and electricity hookups, justifying the higher price. Five officials from the embattled Greater Noida Industrial Development Authority, which is in charge of the land seizures and development in the area, did not answer or return dozens of phone calls from The Associated Press.

The farmers point to the nearby state of Haryana, where farmers made fortunes selling directly to builders, as proof their land is worth more than they are getting.

Their fight has inspired others. Those who lost their land 35 years ago, when the satellite city of Noida was first developed, are demanding extra compensation. Even those whose land in New Delhi was seized by the British a century ago to build the Parliament, the president's house and the Supreme Court are suing.

Hoping to head off further conflict, the Congress Party rushed a quickly-drawn bill to Parliament to replace the 117-year-old land law with one that would make it far more difficult to seize land. Under the proposal, farmers would be paid four times the market rate for acquired land, and be given an annuity and a portion of the newly developed land.

The bill is an effort to end India's long history of land disputes, which have displaced an estimated 50 to 60 million people since independence in 1947, many for public works such as dams. The seizures _ and the confrontations _ have grown more widespread with the economic liberalization that unleashed private development over the past two decades, said Harsh Mander, a member of the government's National Advisory Council, which has proposed urgent reforms.

"When government starts acquiring land for private companies, using this colonial law, it's something even the British never did. Then people got more and more angry," he said.

Disputes over land seizures forced the relocation of a planned auto factory from West Bengal to the more business-friendly state of Gujarat in 2008. Land protests have also held up South Korean steel giant Posco's plans to build a $12 billion plant in the eastern state of Orissa, as well as Reliance Power's efforts to build a 7,500 megawatt power plant outside Delhi.

Indian industry says the current system has needlessly politicized land acquisitions and increased anger at business.

"As far as possible, the private sector should be allowed to directly purchase the land from the owners," said Chetan Bijesure, an official at the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

The new protests are leaving would-be homeowners like Ravi Garg out in the cold.

The 31-year-old software engineer was lured to the Panscheel Greens 1 residential complex by the promise of a swimming pool, gym and cafe. For 2.4 million rupees ($49,000) he could get a three-bedroom apartment in the Noida Extension development that would cost him 7 million ($142,000) if it were in Noida itself.

He paid a 1 million rupee ($20,000) down payment and then saw his dreams crumble. Construction has stopped.

"Everything was purely approved by all the government agencies," he said. "Suddenly when construction reached the fourth or fifth floor, we were told that the land does not belong to the government. It belongs to the farmers."

He doesn't blame the farmers, and they also sympathize with the homebuyers, whom they see as comrades fighting for a place to call home.

But the farmers bristle at the golf courses and the Formula One racetrack _ which hosted India's first F1 race last month _ as a sign the government is more interested in entertaining the super-rich than helping those on the edge.

"We are a poor country. We need some necessities first. After this, all these things can be done," said Verma, the farmers' lawyer.

The farmers realize their way of life is ending. Dalchand Sharma's ancestor was a wealthy man with 50 acres in Rozajalapur in the 1850s. Over the years, the farm has been divided between so many heirs that the 62-year-old Sharma struggles to survive on just three acres.

His two sons, who would split that small plot, have chosen a different path. One is studying for his MBA and the other to become an engineer.

Sharma wants significantly more compensation so he can buy a cheaper plot of land further from New Delhi, as well as pass some money to the next generation.

"If the land is taken away, and my children get enough money to be comfortable and have houses, than it will be all right," he said. "If not, then I'm happy the way things are."