A farmer’s public suicide at a rally in New Delhi on Wednesday ratcheted up tensions over a proposed amendment to Indian law that would enable the government to force farmers and other landowners to sell their property.
The upper house of the Indian parliament is expected to debate the proposal at its next session, which starts Thursday.
The farmer, Gajendra Singh, hanged himself from a tree in front of media cameras and hundreds of other farmers who were taking part in demonstration against the bill, according to news reports.
Singh was among farmers from Rajasthan state affected by severe rainstorms that had destroyed 30 percent of crops grown there, the Associated Press reported. Police recovered a suicide note from Singh, which said that his father – left destitute by the storms – forced his son to leave the family home.
“I have three children. I don’t have the money to feed my children,” AP quoted Singh’s note as saying.
Responding to news of the farmer’s suicide, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose government is sponsoring the amendment, said he was “deeply shattered and disappointed” over Singh’s death, Agence France-Presse reported.
“At no point must the hardworking farmer think he is alone,” Modi tweeted, according to AFP. “We are all together in creating a better tomorrow for the farmers of India.”
A contentious proposal
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept to power 11 months ago on an electoral platform of improving the economy of the world’s second most populous nation.
But his government is facing strong resistance from farmers in its efforts to amend a land acquisition bill, which the previous, Congress party-led government passed in 2013.
If adopted, the amendment would allow the government to acquire land to make room for factories, new infrastructure and other job-stimulating projects, but without having to obtain the consent of affected landowners – many of them farmers.
“For decades, agriculture has been the main source of our sustenance. Taking away land without permission for setting up industries will push farmers to starvation-like conditions,” Sidhant Manocha, a farmer from Ramprasta village in Uttar Pradesh state, told BenarNews.
The Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian parliament, passed the proposed amendment on March 10.
The Rajya Sabha, the upper house, is to reconvene Thursday, and will likely debate the proposed amendment for adoption during its three-week session.
India’s BJP-lead ruling coalition controls the lower house but not the Rajya Sabha.
“We will strongly oppose the bill in upper house to ensure it does not become a law,” Mani Shankar Aiyar, a senior Congress leader and former minister, told BenarNews.
Debate heats up
On Sunday, his party held a massive rally in Delhi against the proposed amendment.
The rally, at the Ramlila Maidan grounds in the Indian capital, drew tens of thousands of protesting farmers, according to AP.
“The biggest flaw in the bill is it snatches the ownership rights from farmers and allows the government to take away land against a certain price. Every farmer will not be tempted to sell his land against a one-time good price but may earn much more by producing a good yield each year,” said Hanan Mullah, general secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), a farmers’ group.
On Monday, Rahul Gandhi, vice president of the opposition Congress party, accused the government of neglecting India’s farmers by pushing an “anti-farmer” amendment.
“Your government is safeguarding the interests of industrialists and ignoring the poor farmers. Over 60 percent of people are dependent on agriculture, but the government has hurt them by such a move,” Gandhi, who had addressed Sunday’s rally, told the Lok Sabha.
“The land price is sky-rocketing with each passing day and you want to do a favour to your corporate friends who want land for setting up industries. Farmers are more powerful than the corporate bosses, who travel in luxurious cars,” he added.
BJP officials shot back, accusing the scion of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty that has dominated Indian politics for decades of exploiting the issue.
“The government is ready to discuss the bill and may consider a change if it is in the interest of farmers. However, the opposition is enacting a drama over the bill only to get political mileage out of it,” Nilin Kohli, a national spokesman for the BJP, told Benar News.