India's Modi appeals to farmers on controversial land reforms

NEW DELHI (AFP) - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed to farmers Sunday to support his planned changes to rules on land purchases, amid rising opposition to a key reform of his right-wing government.

Modi, who swept to power in general elections last May, has made changing the rules a major part of his plans to kickstart industrial projects and accelerate growth to create much-needed jobs.

But opposition parties joined forces last week to march on parliament against the proposed legislative changes in a rare show of unity, saying India's millions of poor farmers will be hard hit in favour of big business.

On his monthly radio show on Sunday, Modi urged farmers not to be "misled by the lies and rumours" spread by his political opponents, saying "I will not break your trust".

"Rumours were spreading that Modi is bringing in a law that is unfair to farmers. My farmer brothers and sisters, I cannot even think of committing such a sin," he said.

During the 30-minute address, Modi also said the government's door was open to more changes to the bill, which aims to make it easier for businesses to acquire land for important infrastructure projects.

He repeatedly assured farmers that the law did not favour industries and that acquiring their land would "only be the last resort".

"This (bill) isn't for industries, not for corporates but it is for farmers' rights, for your benefit, your children's benefit and the betterment of your villages." The government issued a temporary order in December making it easier to buy land for projects. But the order lapses in April, and the government has so far failed to get a bill passed in both houses of parliament to make the changes permanent.

The bill would exempt projects related to defence, rural housing and power along with industrial corridors from the current provision - that 80 percent of the affected landowners must agree to a sale.

They will also be exempt from conducting a social impact study on a proposed purchase, which critics say can hold up the land-buying process for years.

The bill overhauls legislation passed by the previous left-leaning Congress government in 2013, which was a key initiative of its decade in power.