Anandram Rathore’s attempt to self-immolate would have become just a footnote in a country where suicides by farmers is common but for the circumstances surrounding the desperate act. The 45-year-old farmer from a nondescript Madhya Pradesh village had acted in protest against acquisition of his land for a private power plant.
Around the same time a week ago, tribal farmers of 20 villages in Chhattisgarh adopted a resolution, protesting fresh allocation of coal blocks in forest land.
In Rajasthan, too, farmers announced plans to hold a massive protest demonstration in Delhi against the Centre for “trampling” on their rights.
Though they appear to be random incidents, the protests have a common thread running through them – the dissenting voices started emerging after the Narendra Modi government hastily passed an ordinance to ease land-acquisition rules to kick-start stalled projects.
There are also murmurs that the government may even dilute provisions of a key legislation which gives tribals a hold over forest land.
Land acquisition for projects is a contentious issue in the country and in 2008, Singur in West Bengal witnessed largescale violence after the then Left Front government acquired over 700 acres of farmland for the Tatas’ ambitious Nano project. In 2013, tribal village councils had voted against allowing bauxite mining by Vedanta in Odisha’s Niyamgiri hills.
Activists and farmers fear that the Modi government is only opening up the floodgates to big industrial houses for gobbling up their land (see chart).
“The ordinance is clearly to appease corporate forces at the cost of lives and livelihood of lakhs of farmers,” said Prasant Paikray of the Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti, spearheading a movement against a proposed Rs 52,000-crore plant by the Korean steel major in Odisha’s Jagatsinghpur district.
Much to the discomfiture of the government, protests have also been reported from BJP-ruled states and by associations owing allegiance to the Sangh Parivar, to which the ruling party belongs.
In BJP-ruled Rajasthan, the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh – affiliated to the RSS --- has raised its voice against the “anti-farmer” ordinance.
In mineral-rich Jharkhand, another BJP-ruled state, there are fears that the ordinance will make redundant the customary tribal laws which govern ownership of land and natural resources.
“This (ordinance) is nothing but a conspiracy to snatch land ownership from tribal families across the nation...We are determined to prevent it,” said Selestin Kujur, an activist based in Palamu.
Activists estimate that around 25 lakh tribal people have been displaced from their homes since 1947 due to mining activities and deforestation.
Security experts felt that in Maoist-affected states like Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, the government move will give a fillip to left-wing extremists who draw support from “exploited and poor people”.
The tribal fear was succinctly addressed by Rajasthan BJP MLA Ramlal Rautel, himself a tribal.
“My father and brothers are farmers. They cannot think of sustaining their life without land. Hence, the tribal land should not be acquired in the first place and even if it is acquired tribals should be given land elsewhere. If land is not possible then they should be made skilled through proper training and given jobs,” said Rautel.
The voices of opposition in non-BJP ruled states too are shrill.
Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi has announced that the state would have its own law for land acquisition as the ordinance is “anti-farmer”.
Gogoi’s counterpart in Uttar Pradesh, ruled by the Samajwadi Party, Akhilesh Yadav has also declared his opposition to the amendment.
The Congress, which had brought in the legislation struck down by the Modi regime, has also reacted with indignation.
But the BJP government points to the alleged policy paralysis during the previous Congress-led government which had led to stagnation in industrialisation which, in turn, stood in the way of job creation.
“It’s wrong to say that the ordinance is pro-industrialist. It is pro-growth. Farmers would get compensation and their children would get jobs,” said RG Dwivedi, the regional director of PHD Chambers of Commerce in Bhopal.
(With inputs from correspondents in Bhopal, Raipur, Ranchi, Jaipur, Dehradun, Bhubaneswar and Lucknow)