Right to land is top demand as Indian farmers march to parliament

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Tens of thousands of farmers marched to the Indian parliament in New Delhi on Friday, demanding that lawmakers hold a special session to discuss their most pressing issues, including a lack of land rights, mounting debt and plunging produce prices.

It was the latest of several protests this year.

Thousands of women farmers marched into Mumbai alongside their male peers in March, demanding recognition of their rights over forest and farm land.

“We are demanding legal rights for farmers - especially for tenant farmers and women farmers with no rights,” said Kavitha Kuruganti, with the advocacy group Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture.

“Our farmers need secure rights over land and better prices for their crop to be free from debt,” she said.

Campaigners say implementation of the landmark 2006 Forest Rights Act (FRA), which was meant to benefit a fifth of India’s population, has been hobbled by conflicting legislation and a lack of political will.

At the same time, states have diluted several protective clauses of the Land Acquisition Act of 2013 to speed up purchases for industry and infrastructure.

Since the laws are not effectively applied, farmers need “stronger rights to their land”, said Namita Wahi, a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research, a think tank in New Delhi.

“(Farmers need) not only a title, but also use, possession, occupancy and livelihood rights,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The rights of farmers and indigenous people have grabbed an unlikely spotlight in elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh states.

Analysts say their discontent could hurt Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party in an upcoming national election.

The government points to initiatives such as improved irrigation, crop insurance and electronic trading platforms as evidence it has helped rural Indians, who make up about 70 percent of the 1.3 billion population.

But lawmakers have to do more to fix the farmer crisis, said economist Niranjan Rajadhyaksha, who called for the right to property to be reinstated in the constitution.

India’s constitution of 1950 recognized the right to property as a fundamental right. But subsequent laws undermined that right, and it was scrapped in 1978.

No major political party has since made reinstatement of the right to property a campaign issue, lest they be seen as pandering to the rich, Rajadhyaksha wrote in Mint, a daily newspaper.

“Property rights are a tool of inclusion rather than exclusion,” he wrote.

“The poor have neither the legal resources nor the political heft to fight laws or administrative orders that allow the takeover of their land, (and) not enough opportunities to make a living in case they are forcibly separated from their property.”