Fight for land

Print edition : June 03, 2011

A farmer who was injured in the May 7 clashes between farmers and the police at Bhatta and Parsaul villages in Gautam Buddha Nagar district of Uttar Pradesh rests at home. - ADNAN ABIDI/REUTERS

In Greater Noida, farmers resist fiercely attempts to take over their land for the Yamuna expressway and a hi-tech city.

IT is a tale of two worlds, one in the present and the other in the future; one living and breathing and toiling away in parts of the National Capital Region and the other beautifully blueprinted and waiting to be willed into reality by the government and its elites in the city. The dreams of tomorrow, however, may not have room enough for the realities of today. The Yamuna expressway proposes to reduce the travel time from Noida to Agra by two hours. A hi-tech city on the highway proposes to develop the region further. But for the people of the twin villages of Bhatta and Parsaul in Greater Noida and hundreds of other villages all the way up to Agra, this project means giving away their agricultural land and with it their livelihood.

On May 7, Bhatta and Parsaul saw violent clashes, with the police and government officials on one side and the residents on the other. Eight people, including two policemen, were killed and around 100 went missing. Following this, a few arrests were made, a curfew was imposed and construction of the expressway was stopped. The residents of the two villages were agitating for better compensation for their land on which the hi-tech city and the expressway are to come up.

Political parties were quick to enter the scene. High drama unfolded as Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi entered the curfew-ridden villages and addressed a meeting. He was arrested, but his presence galvanised the Congress rank and file in an environment filled with anger against the high-handed ways of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) government led by Mayawati.

This is not the first time that villages in the 165-kilometre stretch from Noida to Agra have risen in protest. A few months ago, a violent clash happened in Tappal village in Aligarh district. It was only following the example of a few villages in Mathura, Agra and Greater Noida, where residents protested and got themselves better packages in lieu of their land (Striking Unity, Frontline, September 10, 2010). Interestingly, the uproar against land acquisition for the expressway was muted. For the six-lane expressway the farmers were required to part with only a portion of their land. But when land acquisition for the hi-tech city began last year, it became clear that most of the people living in and around a 5-km stretch of the expressway stood to lose almost all the land they owned. (The city is to be built by private builders, of whom a major player is JP Infratech Ltd.) This is when the farmer-residents started to organise themselves to demand better packages for giving away their only means of livelihood.

The movement in Greater Noida started in January when the residents of 17 villages called Manveer Singh Tevatia, the leader in Tappal, to lead their agitation. The epicentre of the movement was Bhatta and Parsaul villages. The farmers demanded that at least 120 square metres of land should be left to them and that a revenue-sharing arrangement between the builder and the farmers should be worked out. The government rejected both the demands. There are two versions of the incidents of May 7. Addressing a media conference, Cabinet Secretary Shashank Shekhar Singh said the Greater Noida Authority started the process of land acquisition in Bhatta and Parsaul and other villages along the proposed expressway in March 2009 and completed it by July 2010. On the agitation, he said it was led by criminals, one of whom was Manveer Singh Tevatia.

During the clashes, the people looted an SLR, a carbine and another rifle from our policemen, Shashank Shekhar Singh told the media. He said people torched equipment meant for power generation and other purposes. He added that the site offices of the builder in charge of the expressway were attacked and the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) had no option but to open fire.

CONGRESS LEADER RAHUL Gandhi, in custody, waits outside the Kasna police station in Greater Noida in the early hours of May 12. Also in the picture are Congress leaders Raj Babbar (left) and Digvijay Singh (right).-AFP

Special DGP Brij Lal said: Tevatia, along with 50 men, has been instigating the farmers. Ninety-nine per cent of the farmers are satisfied with the new rehabilitation policy of the State. He hinted at the possibility of the protesting farmers being armed with the intention of attacking the security forces.

The farmers have a different story to tell. Mahendra Singh, a farmer of Motena village, told Frontline that since January, the police had been harassing the farmers systematically in many ways. On the violent clashes, he said: That evening, the farmers and Tevatia were present at the site to mourn the killing of one of their supporters the previous evening. Since the boy who was killed was active in our movement, most residents raised the doubt that it could be the act of a gang that supported the government. We were using the mourning period to chart our future course of action. It was then that the District Magistrate came with around 100 policemen and provoked the farmers. He had earlier called on the phone to say that he would be coming for talks. But when he arrived with armed policemen, we sensed something wrong. It was the police who fired first on the crowd so that they could arrest Tevatia. So a few villagers snatched a few arms from the policemen and retaliated to defend themselves.

According to Shashank Shekhar Singh, the present trouble is not linked to compensation and is a ploy by the opposition. He said Uttar Pradesh was the only State that acquired farmers' land under a karar niyamwali (a legal agreement). He added that the land was acquired as part of a normal development process undertaken by the Greater Noida Authority on the lines of its master plan.

However, Mahendra Singh said no one had a problem with land being acquired for the expressway. But giving away land for a city alongside it would mean that villages would not exist any more. At present, these villages have been notified under Section 4 of the Land Acquisition Act, which allows the government to mark the land to be acquired.

The government has offered Rs.880 a square metre when the market rate is over Rs.25,000 a square metre because of the area's proximity to Delhi and Noida. The farmers refuse to budge, notwithstanding the prices offered, and are fighting to keep some of their land intact for cultivation.

The agitation has seen unprecedented unity among communities in the Greater Noida area. Rajputs and Gujjars are the numerically strongest communities, followed by Jats. Gujjars and Dalits owned small pieces of land and most of them had given up all their land for the expressway. The movement in this area is, therefore, led by Jats and Rajputs.

SMOKE RISES AFTER the arson and clashes at Bhatta and Parsaul villages.-REUTERS

But it is clear that irrespective of the village that is affected, people have united across caste lines to press their demands. Muslims and Dalits of the area work as agricultural labourers and stand to lose their livelihood, as do Gujjars, whose main occupation is rearing animals for the landed class.

The BSP cannot afford to ignore the situation because the region is a traditional stronghold of the party. Gujjars and Dalits have voted the BSP to victory every time, but protests such as this one can hurt the party electorally. Predictably, parties in the opposition have used the farmers' movement in Greater Noida to their advantage.

The State government has used the controversial public interest clause in the Land Acquisition Act as one of the reasons for acquiring land. What represents public interest in this globalised age is a topic of debate across the country.

Real estate companies have evinced a lot of interest in the area because of its proximity to Delhi. Just a decade ago, Greater Noida city saw massive real estate development around the Noida-Greater Noida expressway. Land prices shot up in the area and real estate developers made huge profits.

A POLICEMAN ESCORTS injured Noida District Magistrate Deepak Agarwal to safety during the clashes.-AFP

The Yamuna expressway project, many builders believe, could bring them similar profits. JP Infratech Ltd landed the contract for the expressway, but the public-private partnership model requires the government to acquire the land. Many farmers have allegedly been forced to sell their land for the project.

At a cost of around Rs.9,500 crore, the expressway will need 43,000 hectares of land. As many as 1,191 villages have been notified for the project. The hi-tech city is expected to affect nearly seven lakh people and 334 villages in six districts Noida, Bulandshahr, Aligarh, Mathura, Agra and Mahamayanagar (Hathras). Since the average land holding in this area is two to four hectares, many farmers in this stretch have been affected severely. The JP group has the right to sell the hi-tech city property and collect toll on the highway for 36 years.

After the movement in Tappal, the government started a scheme where a farmer can get his compensation in the form of a yearly pension apart from a lumpsum amount at the time of land acquisition. This was welcomed but it did not see the light of day. Sudhir Panwar of the Kisan Jagriti Manch, a farmers' organisation working mostly in western Uttar Pradesh, pointed out the basic flaw in the project: Why is it that the government is playing the bargainer for a private builder in a project where the builder is going to reap most of the benefits?

In addition, the government has no consistent pricing policy for the expressway project. In Agra and Aligarh, it offers one price and in Noida another. There is not even one scaling policy that can ensure the farmers competitive prices vis--vis the market. This leads to protests all over, and when the government increases the prices after protests, the farmers in other areas are led to believe that only agitations can make the government hear their demands.

A DAY AFTER the clashes, a burnt motorcycle and the remains of the tent where farmers sat in protest at Bhatta village.-ADNAN ABIDI/REUTERS

Panwar told Frontline that forming an independent tribunal or a special purpose vehicle to decide pricing and profit-sharing formulas vis-a-vis the market price can contain such agitations to a great extent. He also said that the affected people who were solely dependent on land should be provided some means of livelihood.

The Yamuna expressway, in many ways, reminds one of many other land struggles in the country. In all the cases the government played bargainer for a corporate agency rather than ensure that people's rights were not violated.

The activist Medha Patkar told Frontline: It is not land acquisition that is the chief issue. The main issue is of planning and development. Anything and everything is being called a project in the public interest. What could be worse when even the government's statistics, in the Economic Survey of India, estimates that more than 60 lakh hectares has been taken in the last 15 years and hardly any among the poor has benefited out of this development. It so happens that the rural and urban poor, and not the elites of the country, have to sacrifice always for such development. And this is leading to a scenario of structural violence of the state against violence of the people.

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