New Delhi police clash with Congress-led protesters against Modi's land reform

NEW DELHI (AFP) - Police on Monday baton-charged and fired water cannon at demonstrators rallying in the Indian capital against Prime Minister Narendra Modi's land reforms, which they say will harm the country's millions of farmers.

Hundreds of protesters, led by the opposition Congress party, attempted to break through barricades erected to stop them marching on the national Parliament over the controversial land bill, one of Mr Modi's key economic reforms.

"It (the Bill) is anti-farmer and it also endangers the food security of the country," senior Congress party spokesman Anand Sharma told TV channels as supporters waved party flags behind him. "This government has opened the door to acquire farmers' land, multi-crop land for the private sector, which is unacceptable."

A police officer on the spot said no injuries had been reported during the operation to thwart around 500 protesters around the barricades. Several thousand opposition activists had descended earlier on a landmark protest site in Delhi, carrying party flags and wearing T-shirts bearing slogans against the proposed law.Several senior Congress party leaders addressed the crowd, mostly drawn from the neighbouring states of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana.Mr Amanatullah Khan, a Congress leader from Uttar Pradesh, said the party would not back down until the amendment was dropped.“We are demanding the UPA land law should not be amended as it looked after the interests of farmers,” said Mr Khan, referring to the last Congress-led government.He said police used indiscriminate force to stop their parliament march but vowed to continue with protests, as scores of activists voluntarily turned up at the police station for arrest.

Armed with large wooden sticks, the police beat back the protesters and sprayed water at small groups together on the road after they jumped over the barricades.

The draft law would make it easier to acquire land for critical infrastructure projects as part of right-wing Mr Modi's pledges to reform and revive India's economy after storming to power at elections last May.

The Bill overhauls legislation passed by the previous left-leaning government, which Mr Modi supporters say has held up billions of dollars worth of infrastructure projects.

It last week passed Parliament's Lower House, where Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies hold a majority, after Congress and other opposition lawmakers stormed out of the chamber in protest during voting.

The new Bill exempts businesses buying land for defence, housing and power projects from needing 80 per cent of affected landholders to agree to a deal and to compensate tenant farmers at up to four times the market price.

Opponents say the law favours businesses too heavily at the expense of farmers, millions of whom are mired in poverty.

The Bill, which must still pass through the Upper House, where the BJP lacks a majority, was a key initiative of the Congress party's decade in power.