It took eight days of walking for 80-year-old Dhanmatya Mumat to reach New Delhi.
Like thousands of other farmers from rural India, Mumat – from the state of Bihar – made the 1,000km-long trip to the Indian capital to protest proposed changes to a little known land law that he said would destroy his life.
“We came with the hope that our land will be saved, if the government takes away our land, we will die of poverty,” Mumat told Al Jazeera.
“I request the politicians of the country to kill me rather than taking away my bread and butter.”
Organisers say some 7,000 people arrived by foot to demonstrate in New Delhi to coincide with a parliamentary session on Wednesday that will decide on proposed changes to the land act – revisions that have raised the ire of many rural Indians.
“At least 7,000 people from 15 states turned up at the protests,” said another farmer Darshan, 45. “It is a warning for the government to think about poor and landless people. If the government does not change its attitude towards the poor, we will flood the streets with 100,000 people.”
Industrial and infrastructural projects such as special economic zones and dams have displaced millions in the past six decades since India received independence from the British in 1947. The majority of those displaced continue to wait for compensation.
The proposed changes to the Land Acquisition Act of 2013 removes a crucial consent clause for land acquisition. This means in the areas of defence, infrastructure, industrial corridors and public-private partnership projects, land may be acquired without the necessary consultation of the local community.
India’s biggest foreign direct investment, worth nearly $12bn, has been stalled for the past nine years because of stiff resistance from local farmers and tribals, who face displacement because of a mega steel project by South Korean company POSCO.
Modi has been pushing to make India a manufacturing hub and improve infrastructure in cities as it works on its promise to create jobs for millions of young people who are desperate for employment and better life.
Since India adopted economic liberalisation in the early 1990s, the mammoth South Asian country has witnessed high growth. The country’s middle class has boomed, but it has also seen rising inequality.
With a burgeoning population, land is a major point of contention in India. The proposed changes are seen as an attempt to facilitate land acquisition for commercial use, and critics are concerned it is short-sighted and in contempt of the rights of rural dwellers.
In a country where more than 65 percent people still live in rural areas, the government is well aware of the political danger of being branded anti-farmer.
Opposition parties have thrown their weight behind the protesters, giving a further headache to the government, which lacks a majority in the upper house of parliament. The ordinance has to be ratified by both the houses of parliament within six weeks of its promulgation.
Speaking in parliament on February 27, the Indian Prime Minister struck a conciliatory tone saying he was ready to tweak the ordinance if it was deemed anti-farmer.
The government amended the land bill to placate the opposition as well as some of its allies. On Tuesday, it passed the lower house of the parliament, where the government has a majority.
Critics have questioned the haste with which the government made the changes to the 2013 land law, which was backed by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) while in opposition.
“The 2013 law was a historic piece of legislation that sought to redress the injustice caused by the enactment and implementation of the [colonial-era] 1894 act,” Namita Wahi from the Centre of Policy Research said.
The heavily negotiated and contested legislation was debated over seven years before being enacted.
BJP spokesman Nalin Kohli told Al Jazeera the 2013 act had many “inadequacies”.
“Many chief ministers [of states], including [the opposition] Congress party, complained against the bill. In the current form, the land acquisition bill is inoperable,” he told Al Jazeera over the phone.
“We are open to suggestions to improve the bill. Protest for the sake of protest is not going to deter this government from carrying out development.”
Industry vs Farmer
While Wahi admitted there were some problems with the current act, she disagreed with the government’s approach to fixing it.
“The problem with the 2013 Land Acquisition Act was that it introduced too many layers of bureaucracy in the procedures. The new government should have sought to fix those procedures instead of doing away with them completely,” Wahi said.
Food policy analyst Devinder Sharma described the government’s claims as “intriguing”.
“How can the 2013 Land Acquisition Act become a roadblock to investments and industrial development when it has not been implemented even once? The fear that the 2013 act will go against industrial development is therefore hypothetical.”
Successive governments in the past have been accused of ignoring the interests of farmers and favouring big businesses – an accusation corroborated by a report by the Comptrole and Auditor-General (CAG) of India that said the government had diverted land to private real estate developers.
When the United Progressive Alliance government led by the Congress party went on a land acquisition drive in 2005 it drew huge protests, many that turned violent.
But the main purpose of the special economic zones – the creation of jobs, encouragement of investment, and boosting global exports – was largely unsuccessful.
According to the CAG report, about 50 percent of the land acquired remains unused, and only 170 out of total of 576 projects approved are operational.
The government is well aware it faces a huge task as the country’s vast mineral resources are locked in states such as Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Jharkhand.
Here impoverished tribal communities have waged armed rebellion at the prospect of displacement.
Conflict over land has shot up by 30 percent in the past two years, according to a survey by a Washington-based think-tank Rights and Resources Initiative and its Indian partner Society for Promotion of Wasteland Development.
More than one-third of India’s 664 districts faced land conflicts between 2013-14, the survey said.
The practice of the state acquiring land for private enterprise is hugely problematic, Wahi said.
“Democracies work on compromise between competing interests, and not on executing the writ of the most powerful interests in society,” said Wahi. “I do believe the current hegemonic model of economic growth that privileges industrial growth over anything else needs to be seriously evaluated and questioned.”
Ultimately, there are fears the current approach to development and industrialisation will come back to haunt.
“India’s growth story hinges on agriculture. If agriculture does well, so will the country’s economy,” Sharma said.
“Agriculture is also the biggest employer. It is economic stupidity to destroy the jobs in agriculture and shift them to the cities to do menial jobs as daily wage workers … An economically viable agriculture is the best safeguard against the growing rural dissent.”
Additional reporting by Showkat Shafi from New Delhi