The government’s push to pass a land bill that will make it easier for industry to buy farmland has spurred the Opposition parties to oppose the move as they sense an opportunity to consolidate their support base in villages where farmer distress is a potent political issue.
Decimated in the election that brought Narendra Modi to power a year ago, the Congress and other parties, such as the Janata Dal (United) and its ally, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), in Bihar and the Samajwadi Party (SP) in Uttar Pradesh, see the land issue as a springboard to regain ground.
Dissenting voices were heard within the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA), too, as BJP partners Shiv Sena and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) are opposed to the removal of acquisition rules requiring 80% consent from landowners before purchase.
These parties, including the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, have taken a strident stand against the bill at a time tempers are high in the rural areas over crops damaged by bad weather.
“We will not support. We have made our stand clear in Parliament. I sat on a hunger strike for 26 days against forcible land acquisition,” said Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee, who rode to power on the back of land agitations in Nandigram and Singur.
Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) and Lalu Prasad’s RJD — both part of a recently-merged Janata parivar — are eyeing the growing discontent against the BJP to firm up rural support ahead of the assembly elections due in October.
Lalu Prasad has warned Modi of a second Mahabharata, saying the epic war was triggered by a dispute over land. Kumar described the bill as a “black law” against farmers.
In Uttar Pradesh, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) says it would fight bill tooth and nail. “The UPA brought the land acquisition act in 2013 after consultations with chief ministers and farmer organisations. The BJP had also extended support. After grabbing power, BJP leaders are busy highlighting shortcomings in the act and brought a bill without consulting the states and farmers,” party chief Mayawati said.
Mayawati’s principal opponent, Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party which is the key constituent in the merged Janata parivar, is on the same page with her over the land bill.
“The original act says in case acquired land remains unused for five years it will go back to the farmers. But in the current bill, this provision has been diluted. Now it says five years or the period specified. This is anti-farmer,” said Gaurav Bhatia, the party’s legal cell chief.
Modi’s determination to push through the changes has put allies Sena and SAD in a spot because they cannot afford to be seen as anti-farmer. Saamna, the Sena mouthpiece, has declared the party would not be part of the “sin” against farmers.
The consent clause is the contention point for the ruling SAD in Punjab. The Akalis are not dependent on long-time ally BJP to rule Punjab — the nation’s food bowl which contributes almost 50% of India’s total foodgrain requirement. It can ill-afford to support liberal laws to acquire land for industries, especially when every inch is cultivated.
Odisha’s ruling Biju Janata Dal, a former NDA partner, is officially opposed to the bill but there are allegations that the party was merely fencesitting.
In Karnataka, the Janata Dal (Secular) of HD Deve Gowda, who calls himself a farmer, has registered its protest in Parliament but nothing beyond that. The real grassroots effort to generate public opinion has come from Left unions and Dalit and farmers’ groups.
Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party (TDP), a BJP ally, has supported the bill in Andhra Pradesh. His support is vital as the TDP has five members in the Rajya Sabha, where the NDA is in a minority.
The Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), which rules the new state of Telangana, spoke out against dilution of several safeguards from the 2013 law although chief minister K Chandrasekhar Rao has been rolling out the welcome mat to industry.
(With inputs from Chandigarh, Bhubaneswar and Hyderabad)