Death toll grows as India goes to war over cut-price land deals

Housing boom for nation's growing middle-classes drives villagers from their farms

For more than a day, nobody bothered to tell Ombati Devi that her husband was dead.

When he failed to return home on the day farmers were protesting in their village Bhatta-Parsaul, she was told he had been wounded but that he had been taken to hospital where he was receiving treatment. The following evening the police arrived at her home, revealed the truth and took her to the mortuary where she was confronted with the sight of his corpse, caked with dried blood and ruptured by three bullet wounds. "He got injured in the crossfire while he was trying to flee the trouble spot," she said, her voice breaking off.

Her husband, Rajpal Singh, a farm-hand in these twin villages east of Delhi, was the latest of a number of people to be killed or injured in land disputes that have erupted across the length and breadth of India. As state authorities push the pace of industrialisation and private developers look to buy up agricultural land to build new towns and resorts for a newly wealthy upper-middle class, so clashes have become common. At proposed steel factories in Orissa, nuclear plants in Maharashtra and road projects in Mangalore, clashes have broken out when the authorities have sought to force people to part with their land.

Mr Singh was one of four people killed on 7 May, two of them police officers, when farmers held a protest over the amount they were paid for their land by local authorities who are building a new, 110-mile expressway alongside the Yamuna river to Agra, the city famous for the Taj Mahal. As in similar protests elsewhere in the country, the farmers complained that, while they were forced by the government to sell their land in return for a modest sum in compensation, the land was subsequently sold on to private developers for 10 or 15 times the amount.

What turned Mr Singh's death into a national issue was that the incident was leapt on by Rahul Gandhi, son of the assassinated former premier Rajiv Gandhi and a man widely expected to himself become prime minister at some point. Mr Gandhi first showed a fleetness of both mind and foot by leaping on the back of a motorbike at dawn and evading policemen who had established a cordon around the village so that he could meet the farmers last week. He joined in the protest and was briefly arrested. He subsequently let matters get away from him by claiming people there were being raped and murdered. "There is a large 70ft [mound of] ashes there with dead bodies inside. Everybody in the village knows," he said.

The state government in Uttar Pradesh, where these villages are located, has denied the accusations and said forensic tests on the ashes have revealed they contain no human remains. Mr Gandhi, whose mother, Sonia, heads the ruling Congress Party, has since had to retreat from the allegations. In truth, his decision to seize on the issue may have at least partly been inspired by state elections scheduled for next year and his desire to score political points against UP's chief minister, Mayawati, who heads a rival party.

The irony is that the Congress-led government has for several years been promising to introduce new legislation to oversee the sale of land for public projects. Yesterday, Mrs Gandhi again repeated the vow, telling party colleagues: "We will soon bring a bill in parliament on land acquisition."

Transfers of land are currently controlled by a land acquisition act dating from 1894. According to the act, the authorities can enforce the sale of land for projects in the "public interest". Originally this meant roads, dams, hospitals and other such projects, say experts. But, increasingly, the authorities have used the law to force farmers to sell land for all manner of projects.

"The way forward is that the government should acquire land only in matters of high public interest. It should not be used to get land for general development," said Mukul Rohatgi, a Supreme Court lawyer who has worked on many land dispute issues. "The law should also not allow the industrialisation of fertile land. We must not forget that at heart we are an agrarian society. We have more than one billion people."

Many of the land acquisition disputes have taken place close to the nation's cities, which are continuously growing and where new townships are springing up on the peripheries. East of Delhi, in the Greater Noida region, new apartment blocks are going up at a phenomenal pace, set alongside newly built roads that for now have little traffic.

A number of the residential projects are being built by the Jaypee Group, which is also heading up the Yamuna Expressway. A company spokesman failed to respond to questions about the dispute, as did the Yamuna Expressway Industrial Development Authority, a body set up by the UP government to oversee the road project.

For the people of Bhatta-Parsaul who find themselves at the centre of India's latest seething land dispute, it is a time of anxiety. In the aftermath of the protests, police reportedly tore through the narrow lanes of villages, setting alight hayricks, destroying property and beating people. Several villagers displayed washing machines and radios that had been smashed and broken. Dozens of local men are apparently on the run, fearful of being arrested.

"I have three sons. All of them have run away," said a sobbing 65-year-old woman called Sirdari. Another woman, Sukbiri, said her son and daughter-in-law had fled. "My daughter has also gone. They are scared of the police," she added.

The family of Rajpal Singh says they have received no word from the authorities. His brother, Hazira Lal, along with other relatives insisted Mr Singh had not even been taking part in the protest, but was instead gathering cattle fodder nearby. "We have received no compensation payment," he said. "None of Mayawati's people have come."

Rahul Gandhi: The scion at the centre of a storm

Rahul Gandhi, son of Sonia and her late husband Rajiv, grandson of Indira Gandhi and great grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, is a man with many expectations upon his shoulders. Currently general secretary of the ruling Congress Party, he has spent much effort democratising its youth wing while avoiding taking up a cabinet position. Most assume it is only a matter of time before he becomes prime minister.

While few doubt that should he want to become premier the position would be available to him, there have been questions about his impact on the campaign trail. Particularly in the state of Uttar Pradesh, he has had varying success.

Many believe he must soon make up his mind. Will he become the latest in the Nehru dynasty to run the country, or will he decide it is not something he wants?

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Neil Young performs on stage at Hyde Park
musicAnd his Hyde Park set has rhyme and reason, writes Nick Hasted
News
Women have been desperate to possess dimples like Cheryl Cole's
people Cole has secretly married French boyfriend Jean-Bernard Fernandez-Versini after just three months.
Arts and Entertainment
AKB48 perform during one of their daily concerts at Tokyo’s Akihabara theatre
musicJapan's AKB48 are one of the world’s most-successful pop acts
News
Ian Thorpe has thanked his supporters after the athlete said in an interview that he is gay
people
News
South African writer Nadine Gordimer's 'The Conservationist' won the Booker Prize in 1974 jointly with Stanley Middleton's 'Holiday'
people
News
The headstone of jazz great Miles Davis at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York
news
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll has brought out his female alter-ego Agnes Brown for Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie
filmComedy holds its place at top of the UK box office
News
newsBear sweltering in zoo that reaches temperatures of 40 degrees
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Kathy Willis will showcase plants from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
radioPlants: From Roots to Riches has been two years in the making
Extras
indybestThe tastiest creations for children’s parties this summer
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
Arts and Entertainment
Paolo Nutini performs at T in the Park
music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Infrastructure Engineer

£28000 - £34000 per annum + excellent bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: In...

Web / Digital Analyst - SiteCatalyst or Google Analytics

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client who are a leading publisher in...

Campaign Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A leading marketing agency is currently ...

Software Engineer - C++

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Software En...

Day In a Page

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

Meet Japan's AKB48

Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
In pictures: Breathtaking results of this weekend's 'supermoon'

Weekend's 'supermoon' in pictures

The moon appeared bigger and brighter at the weekend
Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor