Next, though, came something less predictable. Rather than the usual standoff, the state's chief minister increased payments to farmers and offered them annuities for the next three decades. The new policy also gave farmers stakes in residential developments being built alongside the toll road, known as the Yamuna Expressway, and promised jobs connected to the project.
Today, the Yamuna Expressway is again under construction, and if some farmers are still not satisfied, the project is now regarded as a tentative sign of progress in India's wrenching fights over land, one of the most serious yet seemingly intractable challenges facing the country.
Angry confrontations between farmers and business interests occur in every corner of India, yet India's coalition national government is deadlocked on reforming land acquisition laws written in 1894 during the British Raj.
The political paralysis has only deepened public cynicism about the ability of Indian politicians to get things done on critical national issues. But the Yamuna Expressway may point to a more promising trend. Even as the national government is stalled, some of India's poorest states, facing rising public pressure to deliver good governance and economic growth, are making progress.
"Several of the state governments that normally you would think of as incompetent and ungovernable are the ones taking new initiatives," said Himanshu, a social scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, who studies regional politics.
He said the key to Uttar Pradesh's new land policy was recognizing that farmers needed a future livelihood, not just a one-time payoff. "Land is not just an asset you can dispose of," he said. "It is an income stream for them."
Politically, any improvement in governing by India's poorest states would have a significant national impact and help reduce the grinding inequity that exists beneath India's economic rise. Already, economic growth in the impoverished state of Bihar has risen sharply after its reform-minded chief minister, Nitish Kumar, improved services and cracked down on lawbreaking.
Uttar Pradesh, with nearly 200 million people, is one of the poorest places in the world and has long been awash in corruption allegations under the chief minister, Mayawati, who has spent millions of dollars in public funds building statues of herself. But facing a re-election campaign next year, Ms. Mayawati has appeared to pivot, focusing on development projects, like ambitious highway plans.
Many analysts say voters are beginning to compare the performance of their state government with those in neighboring states -- and to demand results. Officials in Uttar Pradesh, who were initially criticized for their handling of the Yamuna Expressway project, now boast that their land policy is unmatched in India.
"This is the most liberal policy in the country," said Vijay Shankar Pandey, a spokesman for the Uttar Pradesh government. "This is not giving compensation alone but also rehabilitation. In some cases people lose all their land, so they have to be provided some alternative kind of living."
Anyone handicapping India's chances of becoming one of the world's most important economies inevitably points to infrastructure as a glaring weakness. New highways, new ports and new rail links are all needed -- yet progress is halting at best.
Less than two years ago, India's roads minister, Kamal Nath, pledged to pave an average of 12 miles of new highway every day. Instead, Mr. Nath was transferred to another ministry last month amid questions about corruption and mismanagement; in 2010, Mr. Nath's ministry managed to pave less than four miles of highway a day.
But problems erupted last August after farmers in Jikarpur blocked work, complaining that their land compensation was far lower than that paid to farmers on the outskirts of New Delhi.
Moreover, farmers were doubly outraged when they found that prices for apartment space in the proposed residential developments were substantially higher than what they got for their land. The anger exploded when farmers clashed with the police, leaving three people dead, including one officer.
The controversy exposed the potential for abuse in what has become India's template for infrastructure projects -- as governments use their powers of eminent domain to acquire land for private developers.
In this case, Jaypee Infratech, a private company, agreed to build the $2.1 billion toll road in exchange for 6,000 acres of roadside property, tax breaks and other benefits. Farmers could not sell their land to Jaypee on the open market, but were expected to accept "market" compensation levels set by the state government. And these rates were set before the land was rezoned from agricultural to commercial use.
"Any agricultural piece of land, when it is turned into industrial or commercial land -- that act itself raises the value of the land by a factor of 10 to 100," said Ashutosh Varshney, a scholar at Brown University who has studied India's land policies. "So the offer of a 'market' price is actually meaningless."
For Ms. Mayawati, who is India's most famous politician from the Dalit caste, or untouchables, the scandal created the impression of the state's using its unfettered powers to push farmers off the land to help a private partner reap huge profits.
Under fire from opponents, she announced her new land policy and also later rezoned all the land along the project as commercial, instantly increasing its value.
Now, farmers along the project site have mixed feelings. A small group of farmers, still protesting for higher compensation at a village called Bhatta Pasrol, clashed with the police this week. In Jikarpur, most farmers have already sold their land for the project, though some are still holding out and even contemplating future protests.
But others are optimistic. Ganga Charan Singh, 65, who joined the initial protests, is now adding a second floor to his brick home. He recently received a payment of 450,000 rupees, or about $10,000, for a small piece of land lost to the road and expects to qualify for the promised annuity.
"We are supposed to get a plot in the project, too," he said. "We'll see. Many farmers thought that if they are now giving us money every year, it is not a bad deal. Slowly, people realized there is not much harm. They also realized there is no way out."
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