By Rina Chandran
BANGKOK, Dec 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - India's Supreme Court has asked five states to explain why they amended a federal land acquisition law to do away with key provisions meant to protect the rights of farmers.
The top court earlier this week issued notices to Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Jharkhand states, asking them to respond to a plea filed by about a dozen activists who say the amendments go against the law.
Those states are accused of diluting a 2013 law that placed tight restrictions on land purchases, including consent from the farmers, a social impact assessment, and adequate compensation and rehabilitation for those displaced.
"The 2013 land acquisition law clearly stated no private land could be purchased unless there is an overwhelming public interest," said Prashant Bhushan, a lawyer who is representing the petitioners.
"It had provisions to protect the livelihood of farmers. By removing the safeguards, their fundamental right to living with dignity has been denied," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
India's Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act (2013), passed by the previous government led by the Congress party, replaced a colonial-era law with an aim to safeguard farmers.
However, states say the law delays land acquisitions for industrial projects needed to spur economic growth.
Within a year of the law coming into force, a new government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party attempted to amend it by exempting some categories from the need for consent and social impact assessment.
But the ordinance failed to pass due to a lack of parliamentary support. Since then, about half a dozen states have amended the law with presidential approval, as required.
While states can amend federal laws, the latter supersedes the former if there are conflicts, or if there is a violation of the "basic structure" of the central law, Bhushan said.
As land is sought for industrial use in one of the world's fastest growing major economies, disputes have arisen, with about 660 recorded by the research firm Land Conflict Watch.
"The 2013 law was passed after a prolonged struggle by the people to protect the rights of farmers," said social activist Medha Patkar, who is a petitioner on the plea.
"By diluting the act, unjust ways of land grabbing have resurfaced, defeating the purpose of the law. So it is necessary to challenge the actions of the states," she said.
Farmers have taken to the streets to protest, most recently marching to the parliament in New Delhi, demanding that lawmakers hold a special session to discuss their most pressing issues, including a lack of land rights.
Land rights and forest rights have become a key issue in state polls ahead of crucial national elections likely to be held in May next year.
(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Jared Ferrie. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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