'Kill us if you take our land', protesting Indian farmers say

A shepherd grazes his sheep in a dried paddy field on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, India, September 8, 2015. REUTERS/Amit Dave

More than 5,000 farmers in the western Indian state of Gujarat have told authorities they would rather die than live without their land

BANGKOK - More than 5,000 farmers in the western Indian state of Gujarat have told authorities they would rather die than live without their land, as disputes over the resource become increasingly contentious in the country.

Farmers in Bhavnagar district said they have written to state officials and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, demanding the return of more than 2,000 hectares of land they say was acquired by a power utility more than 20 years ago, but has lain idle.

Most farmers had gone back to cultivating the land, but they were forcibly removed some months ago, said Narendrasinh Gohil of the Gujarat Khedut Samaj, the group leading the protest.

"They had not done anything with the land for so long. Either they must reacquire the land under the new law, or return it to us, so we can cultivate it and earn a living," Gohil said.

"Without our land, we are dead. So they may as well kill us," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A Bhavnagar district official acknowledged they had received a letter from the farmers, and said police had not used force in removing them from the property.

"The land was acquired following due process under the previous law, with adequate compensation paid to the farmers," said the official, M.A. Gandhi.

"Developing a project takes time. They were occupying it illegally for many years, and are now demanding compensation under the new law," he said, referring to a law passed in 2013, that aimed to protect poor farmers.

The 2013 Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act requires consensus to buy the land, a social impact assessment, rehabilitation for those displaced and compensation of up to four times the market value.

Farmers across the country are protesting in increasing numbers for the recognition of their rights over land and forests, and demanding a halt to acquisitions for industrial projects the government says are key to faster economic growth.

Last month, more than 30,000 farmers walked 180 km (112 miles) over several days to Mumbai from the town of Nashik, in one of the largest such protests in recent years.

Officials in Gujarat, one of India's most prosperous states, are luring investors to set up more industries, which often pits them against farmers and villagers fighting to keep their land.

Idle land is particularly contentious, with a case filed in the Supreme Court last year petitioning for such land to be returned after a period of time.

The farmers in Bhavnagar will continue to protest till their demands are met, or ask to be killed by the state, Gohil said.

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