Land protests bring Delhi to standstill

Farmers angry over forced land acquisitions for a new road between Agra, home to the Taj Mahal, and New Delhi.

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NEW DELHI // Thousands of farmers protested in New Delhi today over forced land acquisitions for a new road in a demonstration that highlights the difficulties of building infrastructure in India. The farmers, most in traditional white dress, gathered near the national parliament in the early afternoon to listen to speeches from the leaders of the movement. They came from the northern state of Uttar Pradesh to protest against what they perceive as a land grab to build a new highway between Agra, home to the Taj Mahal, and New Delhi.

Farmers in the district of Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh have been demonstrating for three weeks to demand higher compensation for their land adjacent to the proposed Yamuna Expressway, resulting in frequent clashes with police. Four people including a policeman have died in the violence, according to the Press Trust of India news agency. Forced land acquisition for infrastructure and industrial facilities, both of which are crucial for India's economic development, is frequently dogged by controversy and the government has promised a new law to clarify procedures.

The Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, has reportedly promised an amendment to the existing law, which dates from 1994, will be brought in the next session of parliament, which begins in November. A draft law under consideration redefines when land can be forcibly acquired for "public purposes", such as defence, infrastructure or for projects deemed useful to the general public. It will mandate a social impact assessment study for acquisitions resulting in large-scale displacement and widens the net for those eligible for compensation to nomadic tribal groups and anyone with tenancy rights.

The most famous land dispute in recent memory occurred in the eastern state of West Bengal over a proposed factory for the car manufacturer Tata, which was eventually abandoned. Tata ploughed US$350 million into its Singur factory, intended to manufacture its Nano mini-car, before giving up in the face of violent protests by the state opposition party and farmers who said their land was stolen. * AFP