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Sonia takes up cudgels for farmers
Anita Katyal
Tribune News Service

Nainital, September 23
Besides taking up the case of minorities, Congress president Sonia Gandhi also sought to refurbish her party's "pro-farmer" image today as she expressed serious concern about the government's policy on Special Economic Zones (SEZ), which has become a highly contentious issue among farmers whose lands have been acquired for these projects.

Setting the tone for the two-day deliberations of the seventh conclave of Congress chief ministers here, Ms Gandhi's opening speech made a pointed reference to the diversion of prime agricultural land for non-agricultural uses. She said while industry needed land, this should not be at the cost of the farmer.

"This must be done without jeopardising our agricultural prospects," Ms Gandhi said, adding that farmers must get proper compensation for their land. She suggested that farmers could be made stakeholders in the projects for which their land is acquired, adding that rehabilitation and resettlement policies must be implemented in an effective manner so as to inspire confidence among the people who are being displaced. .

The government's policy on these zones over 150 SEZs have been approved by the Centre so far have come in for sharp attack and has become a hot political issue. For instance, Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda is facing flak for diverting fertile agriculture land for a SEZ project and for not paying adequate compensation to farmers who stand to loose their land. While the Congress is at the receiving end in Haryana, it has launched a campaign against the Left government in West Bengal on the same issue.

With Mrs. Gandhi advocating caution on the SEZ issue, Mr. Hooda was pushed on the defensive. In the deliberations that followed, the Haryana Chief Minister was at pains to explain that his government was applying stringent conditions on the project promoters who, he said, had been asked to buy 75 per cent of the total land from the farmers directly, thus ensuring a fair price for them.

Drawing attention to the stagnation in the production of wheat and pulses, the increasing cases of suicide among farmers and the lack of cheap credit for farmers, Mrs. Gandhi's agenda-setting speech called for a second green revolution and massive public investments in agriculture to give the necessary push to this vital sector.

Seconding Mrs. Gandhi's call for a second green revolution, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also announced a package for the states of Andhra, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Kerala for farmers in his address. Identifying agricultural indebtedness as a major cause of concern, the Prime Minister announced that an expert group has been set up to look at this issue in totality and suggest remedial measures.

Dr. Singh repeatedly stressed that agricultural production must go up, stating that more attention needs to be paid to land reforms and made a strong pitch for freeing agricultural market from unnecessary regulations which, he said, would benefit farmers. 

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