PM Modi’s farm land plan sows trouble for reforms

New Delhi: A bid by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to make it easier for businesses to buy farm land for infrastructure and industry has sparked a backlash that could stymie his efforts to get reforms through a parliament session that began on Monday.

While the change is aimed at unlocking hundreds of billions of dollars worth of projects, which have been stuck for want of land, opposition parties and rights activists say it discriminates against farmers.

“We will protest and fight the government on this issue inside and outside parliament,” Ghulam Nabi Azad, a senior leader of the opposition Congress party, told the Indian Express.

Modi issued an ordinance in December to exempt projects in defence, rural electrification, rural housing and industrial corridors from provisions of a law enacted by the previous Congress party government that mandated the consent of 80 percent of affected landowners for any deal.

He had also ended the need for companies to conduct a social impact study of such projects, which would involve public hearings and, industry executives fear, drag on for years.

The ordinance is a temporary order and needs the approval of both houses of parliament to come into force. It will lapse if parliament does not ratify it this session.

Although Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) enjoys the biggest majority in 30 years in the lower house, it is dependent on Congress to pass bills in the upper house.

The row could spill over and disrupt other business in parliament this session, in which the government aims to enact reforms on the coal, insurance and mines sectors, as well as pass a budget for 2015/16.

In an address to parliament, President Pranab Mukherjee defended Modi’s changes, saying they would “minimize” difficulties in getting land for critical public projects.

“My government attaches paramount importance to safeguard the interest of farmers and families affected by land acquisition,” Mukherjee said.

Social activists have also launched a campaign against the changes.

Self-styled Gandhian and anti corruption activists Anna Hazare began a two-day sit-in on Monday in New Delhi with his followers.

“Withdraw this ordinance,” he said.