India's Gandhi leads mass farmer rally against Modi's land law

NEW DELHI - India’s beleaguered opposition leader Rahul Gandhi on Sunday led thousands of angry farmers in a protest in the capital against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s controversial overhaul of laws on land-buying.

Congress leader Gandhi accused Modi of being beholden to big business at the expense of struggling farmers during the protest in New Delhi against the government’s contentious land bill.

“The Modi government wants to weaken farmers to such an extent that they are rendered helpless and forced to sell their land,” Gandhi told the crowd. Dressed in all white and waving Congress party flags, thousands of farmers poured into Delhi for the rally against the bill, which makes it easier for businesses to purchase farmland.

Shortly before the protest was set to start, Modi launched a staunch defence of his government’s initiatives to help India’s tens of millions of poor, including lowering high inflation.

“This is a government for the poor. We are dedicated to the poor,” he told a meeting of lawmakers from his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) without referring to the land bill. “Instead, anything we say is ripped and twisted by the opposition. Can’t we speak? Is this a crime (that) we are doing?”

After sweeping to power at last year’s elections promising to reform the economy, Modi says the bill is needed to improve the efficiency of land purchases for factories, industrial corridors and other development projects.

But anger has been mounting in rural areas over the move, seen as favouring big business and compounding the misery of debt-laden farmers, who flocked to Modi’s BJP at the national election.

Many have already suffered extensive unseasonal rain damage to winter crops. Congress mobilised thousands of supporters for the nationally televised protest, seen as a chance for the 44-year-old Gandhi to relaunch himself as a strong head of the party and eventually replace his mother.

The rally comes on the eve of parliament’s reopening on Monday when the government is expected to push ahead with efforts to pass the bill despite lacking the numbers in the upper house.

The ailing Congress is hoping to harness anger against the bill after a series of electoral defeats that followed its humiliating loss in last year’s national polls. Gandhi’s speech came just days after his return from a two-month sabbatical to “reflect” on his party’s defeats, which had led to ridicule of his leadership skills. Gandhi is often seen as a reluctant and reclusive scion of his famous family, even though his father, grandmother and great-grandfather were all prime ministers.

‘Modi failed farmers’ 

Chanting “Gandhi is our leader", farmers packed into the Ramlila protest ground after catching specially organised buses from a string of northern states. A crowd control officer estimated the number at 100,000.

“The Modi government has failed people like us. How can he take away our land, our main source of income?” Kalu Ram Honjar, a 40-year-old farmer from neighbouring Haryana state, told AFP.

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

It also scraps the need for a “social impact assessment” to find out how many people would be affected by the loss of land. Businesses argue that the current requirements hold up projects for years, and the government has defended the changes to the law as a catalyst for growth.

But its attempts to push the Land Acquisition Bill through parliament have been stonewalled by a united opposition. While the government has issued a temporary order making it easier to buy land for projects, the changes need approval in parliament to be made permanent.