Fri, Aug 01, 2008 - Page 5 News List

Indian politician sparks protests with ‘land grab’

WELL-TRIED TACTIC? Officials accused the protesters of often trying to get more money for their land even after all parties had already agreed to the selling price

THE GUARDIAN , NEW DELHI

She may be a former schoolteacher from a poor, Dalit family, but Kumari Mayawati, India’s Dalit queen and prime minister-in-waiting, wants people to know she is born to rule.

The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh has ordered officials to acquire 400 hectares of farmland because her imposing pink marble palace in her hometown of Badalpur needs a garden.

The order has infuriated locals, who have spent days protesting the “land grab.” Farmers said they were being short-changed as the state government was offering to pay just 15 percent of the market rate — 4,500 rupees (US$105).

“We don’t mind if our land is taken away for a hospital. We don’t want a garden,” one farmer said.

Hundreds of villagers pelted police officers with stones, only to be dispersed by baton charges. Around 30 people were injured in the clash and opposition politicians who came from Delhi in support were put into prison.

Sunil Kumar, Uttar Pradesh’s director of information, said many local residents had already accepted the compensation package.

“What tends to happen in these cases is that landowners are convinced they could have got a better price from the market and they begin agitations. This is a well-tried tactic,” Kumar said.

Last month, Mayawati ordered officials to replace her 4m bronze statue with a larger one at a cost of around US$1 million. With a population of 175 million, Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populous state and also one of its poorest.

Mayawati’s victory last year was the first time a Dalit-led party had won a state election single-handedly, and analysts say she has a chance of running India.

This would make the 52-year-old leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party the country’s first “untouchable” prime minister.

But she and her family have been accused of illegally accumulating US$2.4 million in property and more than US$1 million in bank accounts.

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