Thousands march to New Delhi to protest proposed law change that would allow mass land evictions.
India’s opposition leader Rahul Gandhi is leading a massive rally against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s legislation that critics say would facilitate the acquisition of land for richer companies and deprive poor farmers of sustainable livelihoods.
Tens of thousands of farmers are taking part in Sunday’s protest in capital New Delhi against the bill, which Modi says is needed to improve the efficiency of land purchases for factories, industrial corridors and other development projects.
The rally comes on the eve of parliament’s reopening on Monday when Modi’s government is expected to push ahead with efforts to pass the bill in the upper house of parliament.
Opposition leaders have predicted that up to 100,000 farmers – most of whom travelled from rural areas across the country’s north – will turn out for the day-long demonstration in New Delhi.
Dressed all in white and waving opposition Congress party flags, busloads of farmers have been gathering in the capital.
Just hours before the rally was set to start, Modi accused the opposition of manipulating farmers and denied that his right-wing government was “anti-poor”.
“This is a government for the poor. We are dedicated to the poor,” he told a meeting of lawmakers from his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“Instead, anything we say is ripped and twisted by the opposition. Can’t we speak? Is this a crime (that) we are doing?”
The legislation exempts projects related to defence, rural housing and power, along with industrial corridors, from the current requirement that 80 percent of affected landowners must agree to a sale.
It also scraps the need for a “social impact assessment” to find out how many people would be affected by the loss of land.
Businesses argue that the current requirements hold up projects for years, and the government has defended the changes to the law as a catalyst for growth.
But Harsh Mandar, an analyst on human rights issues in India, told Al Jazeera that the legislation might yield financial growth, but noted that “recent high economic periods in the country have failed to correlate with a rise in jobs”.
He also warned that food production, which is especially vital in a country with such a massive population, would face serious setbacks if land is increasingly taken away from farmers.
Mandar added that Modi’s government is “idealogically committed to anything good for market fundamentalism and big business”.
The protest is widely seen as a chance for the 44-year-old Gandhi to relaunch himself as a strong head of the Congress party and eventually replace his mother.
“A whole generation is depending on him (Gandhi) to take on this Modi government and its anti-poor policies,” Congress party leader Madhu Goud Yaskhi told the NDTV network from the Ramlila Maidan protest ground.
Additional reporting by Ryan Rifai