Striking unity

Published : Sep 10, 2010 00:00 IST

Opposition to land acquisition has brought people together, irrespective of caste, against the Mayawati government. By Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta in Aligarh

in Aligarh

THE loss of a son was the latest in a series of misfortunes that struck Shripal Singh's family. First, he had to part with his small piece of land for the construction of the Yamuna Expressway. Then he had to spend around one lakh rupees for the treatment of dengue fever at a private hospital, and now he has lost his youngest son, said one of the neighbours who gathered at Shripal's house at Kirpalpur in Aligarh district of Uttar Pradesh on August 19 to mourn Mohit Singh's death. Like other children his age, Mohit Singh, 13, had gone to neighbouring Zikarpur village, two kilometres away, to see the ongoing agitation by farmers against the expressway project when a bullet hit him. He died on the spot. Two others, Prashant Sharma, 12, and Dharmendra Singh, 25, were also killed in the police firing on August 14.

Life has been tough for many like Shripal, a Dalit Jatav, who were forced to become agricultural labourers after losing their land to the expressway for a pittance. The Jatavs, the largest community among Dalits in the region, own small pieces of land or work in the fields of Jats. The big farmers of the region have on an average around 15 acres (six hectares) of land. Traditional landlords, Jats are politically very powerful. The two other socially powerful castes are Brahmins and Thakurs.

The Jatav-dominated village of Kirpalpur was a stronghold of the ruling Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) until land acquisition for the expressway and a proposed hi-tech city around it turned its residents against the Mayawati government. Ironically, Dalits of Tappal block in Aligarh, which includes Zikarpur and neighbouring areas, have lent their support to Jat farmers who are leading a movement against the government demanding better compensation for their land.

This is a relatively new phenomenon in western Uttar Pradesh, which is deeply divided along caste lines. The land acquisition seems to have brought all the castes together though it may not radically alter the political equations in the area.

It all began when the BSP government announced the construction of the expressway three years ago. The project was meant to cut the travel time of tourists from Delhi to Agra by about 100 minutes. JP Infratech Ltd landed the contract for the construction, but the public-private partnership model required the government to acquire the land. Many farmers in the region sold their land for the project. For big farmers, that did not mean a big loss, but the smaller ones had to part with all their land. Shripal, for instance, had to sell all of his two acres.

The construction of the expressway, which is almost half way through, has progressed without much resistance from the farmers. Trouble began when big farmers came to know that the government planned to acquire more land, this time for a proposed hi-tech city around the expressway. It was about a year and a half ago that we got to know about the hi-tech city. This meant most of our fertile lands would go, said Suraj Chaudhary of Zikarpur, who is set to lose all his 12 acres of land.

The government notified the land acquisition in the Tappal area for a compensation of Rs.336 a square metre. This led to stray protests from the farmers as the market rates were much higher. In 2008, farmers agitating against land acquisition in Ghori Bachera, a village near Noida (Gautam Buddha Nagar), had got a better deal. In a turn of events similar to what happened at Zikarpur, some people were killed in police firing, but the BSP government relented and increased the rates to more than Rs.800 a square metre.

In July 2009, farmers, under the leadership of Rambabu Katheliya, a local Jat leader belonging to the Congress party, led a successful movement in Bajna in Mathura district demanding a hike in the acquisition rates. They had the support of the All India Kisan Sabha.

This gave farmers in adjoining Tappal confidence to fight for their rights too and they demanded rates equal to what the government had paid in Noida.

They asked Katheliya to lead the Tappal farmers' movement, to which he agreed in early 2010. On July 27 this year, farmers in the area began an indefinite dharna under his leadership. When the movement began to gather steam, the police came to arrest Katheliya on August 14. This led to an altercation between the police and the farmers and that resulted in the police firing that killed Mohit Singh and the others.

The incident drew the attention of political parties to the Tappal movement. The main opposition parties in Uttar Pradesh the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), the Congress, the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stalled the proceedings of Parliament for a day demanding an explanation from the BSP for the police brutality. National leaders of all political parties except the BSP visited the agitation site in Zikarpur village almost every day.

Amid all this, Katheliya struck a compromise with the State government on August 17 for a compensation of Rs.570 per square metre. But the farmers decided to intensify their struggle until the government met their demand to give as much as it had given in Noida. A few months ago, the farmers had rejected a deal struck by Katheliya with the State government which offered Rs.464 per square metre. Katheliya has since withdrawn from the movement and returned to his village in Mathura.

The farmers stand to lose in a big way because of the expressway project. At a cost of around Rs.9,500 crore, the expressway will need 43,000 hectares of land; 1,191 villages were notified for the project. Some 512 hectares of land has to be acquired in Aligarh district alone.

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). Townships are proposed to be built in all districts except Mahamayanagar. In Tappal block alone, the township will require land from seven villages Zikarpur, Kirpalpur, Udaipur, Kansera, Jahangarh, Tappal and Birjanegla.

Professor Sudhir Panwar of the Kisan Jagruti Manch said there seemed to be a pattern in the way the BSP government had been handling farmers' movements in the State. If you look at it closely, the turn of events at Ghori Bachera, Bajna and Zikarpur villages has had the same pattern. The farmers stage a dharna, their leader is arrested, the police then fire at an agitated crowd, and a compromise is reached between the leader and the government, he said.

Such violent tendencies among farmers are just the symptom of a larger problem in Uttar Pradesh. The farmers are angry at the unfriendly agricultural policies of the government. The BSP government has been unkind to farmers ever since it came to power as they have never been the party's vote bank. None of the schemes for farmers or policies such as the Rashtriya Kisan Vikas Yojana functions properly in the State because of corruption. To top it all, farmers are being forced to sell their land for such fancy projects, he said.

Congress' strategy

The Zikarpur farmers' movement has created a political stir in the State. Evidently, the movement is led by Jats, who constitute a traditional vote bank of the Ajit Singh-led RLD. Despite the RLD's presence in the region, Katheliya, a Congress leader from Mathura, had hogged the limelight until now. He is currently the district secretary of the party. As a part of its political strategy of building inroads into western Uttar Pradesh, the Congress was keen to promote him.

Predictably, the RLD, despite all its pretensions of planning to strike an alliance with the Congress for the 2012 Assembly elections, is reluctant to give away its political space to the Congress. The BSP is cautious as such incidents can cause a shift in its vote bank consisting of Dalits and a section of Muslims towards the Congress. The Congress emerged as the second biggest party, after the S.P., in last year's parliamentary elections, causing concern for both the S.P. and the BSP.

Katheliya was a member of the BJP during the Ram Janmabhoomi movement in the early 1990s, after which he was with the RLD for a long time. He has a clean image as a farmers' leader. In the last Assembly elections, he contested as an independent candidate and won around 24,000 votes.

Since he is also a Jat leader, the Congress planned to reap political benefits out of his popularity in the next Assembly elections. After Katheliya stuck a deal with the government, the Congress has been trying to revive him as a farmer leader. They allege that police torture and government highhandedness pressured Katheliya into accepting the deal. However, the party is also treading a cautious path so that its relations with the RLD are not affected.

The RLD, meanwhile, has emerged as the party controlling the whole movement after Ajit Singh visited the area and spoke to the agitating farmers. Manbir Singh Tewatiya, an accomplice of Tappal MLA Satpal Singh and former MLA Dalbir Singh, both of the RLD, has been leading the movement after Katheliya's exit.

In villages dominated by Dalits, the BSP has been canvassing directly against the RLD, terming the movement as a conspiracy to prevent Jatavs from becoming richer from the compensation they would get by selling their land. It is another matter that poverty has driven many Jatavs into selling their land for the money they would get as compensation. However, they have been supporting the Jats in their struggle out of their own will and also because they know that they will have to work in the Jats' fields eventually.

Mahendra Singh Tikait of the Bharatiya Kisan Union, a tall leader of farmers in western Uttar Pradesh and a former disciple of Ajit Singh's father Charan Singh, has also taken up the cause of Tappal. Consequently, Mayawati was forced to issue a statement in Lucknow on August 18 that farmers would be asked to sell their land only if they wished to do so and that the hi-tech city was not a necessity.

Land Acquisition Bill

A macro-political aspect that is back in reckoning after the police firing is the debate on the archaic Land Acquisition Act of 1894. It is the law that was established in 1894 that Mayawati is using to acquire your land. My son Jayant is going to introduce an Act in Parliament which will make it impossible for the government to acquire land without the consent of the local people, Ajit Singh proclaimed in front of an excited crowd at the agitation site.

The public-private partnership model, under which the expressway is being built, is also facing a lot of flak. The JP group has the right to sell the hi-tech city property and collect toll on the highway for 36 years, but it is the government's responsibility to acquire land. For example, in Aligarh, the government has offered farmers Rs.570 per square metre when the market rates are anything between Rs.8,000 and Rs.20,000 per square metre. The rates at Noida are between Rs.30,000 and Rs.60,000 per square metre, but they got only around Rs.850 per square metre.

The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre in 2007 proposed changes to the Act. The Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill, 2007, suggested that land could be acquired for public purpose, but the state could not buy land for private companies. According to it, companies would have to buy 70 per cent of the land, and only if they did so could the state acquire the rest for a particular project. It also proposed alternative grievance redress mechanisms instead of courts.

Allies of the Congress in the UPA, such as the Trinamool Congress, opposed it saying that private companies would use money and muscle power to force farmers and tribal people to acquire land. The Planning Commission opposed it on the grounds that the proposed changes were inadequate. Planning Commission member Mihir Shah was quoted as saying in a national daily: Sustainable industrialisation cannot be realised without a more informed land acquisition policy and without stakeholders on board. Seventy per cent of 190 infrastructure projects in the pipeline have been delayed due to land acquisition problems.

He added: A blanket sanction to public purpose' as proposed by the Bill qualifies the assertion of absolute sovereign power by the state over natural resources. He was of the view that public purpose' should be carefully defined and social assessment study should be an integral part of the Bill.

The hypothesis seems to be in tandem with the reality in Uttar Pradesh. According to Kaukab Hamid, an RLD leader, road development projects in the State could displace 23,512 villages, including those that the Yamuna Expressway and the Ganga Expressway planned by the Mayawati government would displace.

Suneet Chopra, joint secretary of All India Agricultural Workers' Union (AIAWU), said, The total commitment of the Central government and a number of State governments to acquire the meagre holdings of peasants who depend on them for their livelihood to serve the interests of billionaires who have little respect for law, as the affairs of the Reddy brothers in Karnataka, Posco and Vedanta in Orissa, and Dow Chemical in Bhopal show, is responsible for terrible happenings like the Zikarpur police firing all over the country. The AIAWU staged a dharna at the Mathura Collectorate against the police firing, under the leadership of Brijlal Bharti, a Jatav.

All this speaks a lot about the negative impact of anti-people policies on people as a whole, irrespective of what caste they belong to. Prem Singh Gahlawat of the All India Kisan Mahasabha said: If land reforms had been in place and absentee landlordism had been tackled, the agitations of farmers against such policies would have been much stronger and political in nature. The government promotes inequalities in a village economy by not implementing land reforms precisely for this reason. It fears that farmers will get united, irrespective of their castes.

Zikarpur definitely points to a nascent trend of this developing unity.

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