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Protests expose complexity of land ownership in India

Rahul Gandhi, scion of India's premier political dynasty and general secretary of the ruling Indian National Congress, was arrested on Thursday night – causing many Indian wits to remark sardonically that that filled out his resume, since time in jail seems to be a necessary qualification for holding political office these days.

Mr. Gandhi was picked up as a "protective measure" in Uttar Pradesh when he snuck in to a tent camp erected by protesting farmers, who are battling the state government of charismatic opposition politician Mayawati over compensation for land earmarked for industrial development. The Rahul-vs-Mayawati show is grabbing headlines here, but the farmers' protest -- which has descended into brutal clashes with police several times over the past week -- highlights a critical underlying issue: the complexity of land ownership transfer in India.

The land in Bhatta Parsaul, where Mr. Gandhi had pledged to sit with villagers until their demands were met, is slated for development by government. But Mr. Gandhi's party alleges that farmers were forced to sell at rates as low as $20 a square metre, and the land will be resold by government at $65 a metre -- a charge Mayawati's administration denies.

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But similar allegations are made here all the time, and the acquisition of land for development or expansion has become the bane of many big corporate players, according to Deepak Parekh, chairman of HDFC Ltd., the country's flagship bank. "Our land acquisition act is archaic," he told The Globe in a recent conversation. And the practice is often deeply unfair: "aggregators" buy up the parcels of small farmers at low rates, then sell large pieces to industry at high prices.

And at that point, he said, non-governmental organizations get involved, organizing strikes of the kind Mr. Gandhi was visiting, and developments can be tied up for years. The most famous example is the factory that the Tata Group tried to build in West Bengal to produce its ultra-cheap Nano car; after years of fighting for the land, Tata picked up and took its factory (and thousands of jobs) to Gujarat, one of the few states to have streamlined the land transfer process. Tata now has a steel mill in Orissa that has been on hold for nearly eight years, because it has managed to resolve the question of title to only half the land it tried to acquire.

"We need to have proper compensation," said Mr. Parekh. "And total transparency." He wants to see national legislation to enforce a system like Gujarat's, where the state acquires the land from owners, and sells it at the same price to industry. "Everyone is aware of how big a problem this is," he said, "But no one is doing anything about it."

But perhaps Mr. Gandhi had time to give it some thought, during his night in jail.

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About the Author
Latin America Bureau Chief

Stephanie Nolen is the Latin America correspondent for The Globe and Mail.After years as a roving correspondent that included coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Stephanie moved to Johannesburg in 2003 to open a new bureau for The Globe, to report on what she believed was the world's biggest uncovered story, Africa's AIDS pandemic. More

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