Livelihood Issues

A fight for their land

Print edition : September 02, 2016

Outside Singaram panchayat office, women from the village, who have been on a relay hunger strike for over a month. Others from neighbouring villages are sitting to participate in a protest meeting about to commence. Photo: Kunal Shankar

Police at the farm of Eatigaddakishtapur sarpanch Pratap Reddy on May 7, after villagers allegedly damaged standing crop and the sarpanch’s house after news that he had struck a deal with the government on land acquisition. Photo: By Special Arrangement

The mounting opposition to land acquisition for the Mallanasagar project, which threatens to submerge 14 villages, is turning out to be the first serious political challenge to Telangana Chief Minister Chandrasekhar Rao.

DAMARANCHA PRASAD REDDY is a techie working in Hyderabad, Gulam Ahmed Mohammed works as an accountant in Saudi Arabia, and Vanga Srikanth Goud runs a restaurant near Ahmedabad in Gujarat. They are back home to lead a protest along with other twenty-somethings in their villages which are in danger of submergence if Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao’s audacious plan to redesign almost the entire State’s irrigation projects is carried out.

As many as 14 villages with a total population of over 20,000 constitute a contiguous stretch of land about 90 minutes’ drive from the State capital, Hyderabad. Two of them lie in the Chief Minister’s Assembly constituency, Gajwel, in Medak district. Chandrasekhar Rao has proposed a massive reservoir here as part of the re-engineering of a decade-old irrigation and water harvesting plan, which he argues is essential if the State is to meet its future water needs.

The reservoir is named after a local deity, Mallana, as is the Chief Minister’s wont to name irrigation projects after gods, which critics say is possibly to make peace with the local people. But this time it has not helped him. On the contrary, it has become what is arguably Chandrasekhar Rao’s biggest political challenge two years after his party, the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS), won the State’s first-ever election following a protracted struggle for statehood.

The Mallanasagar reservoir is proposed to be a 50 thousand million cubic feet (tmcft) waterbody—over 60 times the storage capacity of Hyderabad’s Husssainsagar lake, which was a similar project undertaken by monarchs nearly 500 years ago. The government says it requires 22,000 acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare) in Medak’s Gajwel and Dubbak Assembly constituencies, which is almost half the size of the proposed new Andhra Pradesh capital. Mallanasagar’s original design was only 1.5 tmcft and it was part of a network of small reservoirs that would have stored 160 tmcft of water pumped from the Pranahita river, the Godavari’s largest tributary, in the north of the State, all the way down south to Ranga Reddy district, with an intended irrigation capacity of about 12 lakh acres covering six districts along its course.

The plan, originally proposed by the late Congress Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy in 2005, ran into rough weather when Maharashtra raised objections. It was against building a diversion structure at the confluence of the Wardha, Wainganga and Pranahita rivers at Tummidihetti village on the border of Maharashtra and Telangana. The Pranahita has Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region to the east and Telangana’s Adilabad district to the west. The proposed structure would have submerged 30 villages in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli and Chandrapur districts, and “this is the main cause of unrest amongst the farmers from this area”, according to an angry letter dated October 15, 2013, written by then Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan to his Andhra Pradesh counterpart N. Kiran Kumar Reddy. Maharashtra accused the latter of “unilaterally undertaking considerable work on the project presuming the Full Reservoir Level of the barrage as 152 metres”. Chavan demanded a reduction of the size of the barrage to minimise submergence.

Chandrasekhar Rao blames the “ill-planned and politically motivated” proposal on the previous united Andhra Pradesh’s Congress government. The Officer-On-Special-Duty in Telangana’s Irrigation Department, Sridhar Rao Deshpande, says, “Rs.9,000 crore was spent between 2009 and 2014 even before resolving inter-State disputes and rights over forest lands and settling acquisition issues such as rail and roadways. Rs.900 crore was in fact given as mobilisation advance to contractors.”

A mutually agreed height of 148 metres has now been set for the Tummidihetti barrage, which according to Telangana will reduce the available water to 120 tmcft for a period of 90 days as opposed to 120 days going by the earlier proposal. To make up for the shortfall, Telangana has proposed another barrage further downstream at Medigadda close to Kaleshwaram, the temple town where the Pranahita joins the Godavari again to form the border between Maharashtra and Telangana with Gadchiroli to the north and Karimnagar to the south. All of this, according to the State, has almost doubled the cost of the project from Rs.38,200 crore in 2007 to anywhere between Rs.75,000 crore and Rs.77,000 crore now.

As part of this re-engineered project are 18 new reservoirs, large and small. The biggest of them is Mallanasagar at the highest point at 527 metres above mean sea level. According to the government, this proposed earthen reservoir with a water spread of over 80 square kilometres will not only irrigate an expected 12 lakh acres in Medak, Nalagonda and Nizamabad districts but also make up for the shortfall in existing structures such as the Singur dam on the Manjira river, which supplies water to Hyderabad, and the Sriram Sagar Project over the Godavari, which for long has not received adequate waters for its intended irrigation capacity.

Experts question the need for these many reservoirs with such massive storage capacities. According to them, an assured water flow of 120 days is enough, which as per plan is available for at least 75 per cent of the time from the Pranahita river at Medigadda. The main opponent of the government’s plan is the widely respected T. Hanumanth Rao, who retired as the Andhra Pradesh Irrigation Department’s Engineer-in-Chief 15 years ago. He has been involved with water harnessing projects worldwide through his association with the United Nations.

Hanumanth Rao has suggested doing away with reservoirs altogether as done on the Yamuna in Haryana at the Jawaharlal Nehru Lift Irrigation Scheme constructed in 1974. The project irrigates six lakh acres. He says smaller storage capacities will suffice for Hyderabad’s drinking water needs and for industrial purposes. But engineers in Telangana say Himalayan rivers, which are perennial, cannot be compared with peninsular ones. Besides, they argue that 120 days of water is adequate only for a single crop, while ideally they would like to make water available for at least two seasons.

The project and its purpose per se have not attracted as much ire as the government’s way of going about acquiring land for it. A cryptic Government Order dated July 30, 2015, now infamously referred to as GO 123, sets up “Procurement Agencies to procure lands for public purposes from willing land owners”. GO 123 has also created District Level Land Procurement Committees, or DLLPCs, with the District Collector as its chairman and the Joint Collector, a Revenue Divisional Officer, an Executive Engineer from the Roads and Buildings Department, the District Registrar and “a representative from the Procuring Agency” as its members. This has been used to circumvent the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (LARR)Act, 2013, as officials fear a loud, cumbersome and long-drawn-out process.

Prasad Reddy, 24, quit his job in Hyderabad three months ago and is now fully involved in mobilising villagers at the project site. His family owns 10 acres at Eatigaddakishtapur, the village from where most of the protests began. His uncle Pratap Reddy, who has been the sarpanch of the village for two decades, is accused of negotiating with the government a price of Rs.5.85 lakh for an acre for all the 14 villages without consulting others. Villagers say Pratap Reddy met with the Irrigation Minister, T. Harish Rao, on the evening of May 6 along with a few of his supporters in the gram sabha. “Three or four cars were hired that evening to go to Siddipet [the Irrigation Minister’s Assembly constituency] to meet Harish Rao, and by the next morning, we came to know that this deal had been reached. That very day over 1,000 people, including me, vandalised Pratap Reddy’s house as he returned to explain the deal to the rest of us,” said a villager who did not wish to be named.

The crops on Pratap Reddy’s 10-acre land were destroyed, and the police have filed a case against nearly 400 villagers. Pratap Reddy has been unable to return home ever since. Some say he has been given a safe house by the government. But this kind of secretive deal-making to acquire land has taken place not just in the 14 villages but in other regions of the State where there are similar ongoing projects.

‘Forced to sign documents’

A short drive from Eatigaddakishtapur is Vaddera Colony, a hamlet of 60 families. Elders here complain about the manner in which all the families were forced to sign documents in English, which they do not understand. Bodhaa Lakshmi, in her sixties, said the Mandal Revenue Officer came along with another government official and the sarpanch of the village to get some “forms” signed. These are two sets of documents—Forms 1 and 2, which came into being through GO 123. Together they take away virtually the entire gamut of rights enjoyed by victims of displacement, according to the provisions of the LARR Act, 2013. The first form, titled “Agreement to be executed for selling land/property voluntarily for public purpose through negotiation by the land owner to the Procuring Agency”, states that the “owner has agreed for payment of consideration towards the value of land and property, perceived loss of livelihood, equivalent costs required for rehabilitation and resettlement”. The second document takes away the right of an owner to seek higher compensation “in any court of law”.

Gandikota Raju, who is in his early thirties, said: “We initially resisted it. Then we were reminded that we should be grateful to receive any compensation at all, because after all our lands were assigned to us.” The Vadderas are a notified Backward Caste. They predominantly work in stone quarries, which is their traditional occupation. Land assignments have given them precious income during lean work seasons. Raju said they were initially told by the authorities that they would get Rs.5.04 lakh for their homes. “Now they say anywhere between Rs.30,000 and Rs.60,000 for our homes,” he said. Bodhaa Lakshmi’s house has “KMS 1-72/1” painted in red on the road-facing wall to signify that she has given up her house to the Komaravelli-Mallanasagar project. She said they did not know how to fight back, but after the incident at Eatigaddakishtapur on May 7, they had been emboldened.

Prasad Reddy says it took months to “educate” people about the government’s dubious games. He said only after sustained protests did the Medak District Collector, who is also the Chairman of the DLLPC, visit the village. The visit was not to make peace but to threaten villagers to fall in line. “We were told that willing owners would get compensated. And those who did not, their monies would be deposited in the court. Either way, the lands would be taken away,” said Prasad Reddy.

Gulam Ahmed Mohammed is an affable 28-year-old. He works as an accountant in Riyadh for the British Aerospace Systems and looks out of place in his polished shoes and smart, semi-casual button-down shirt tucked into his cotton trousers. He got back home a week ago to begin mobilising people. His family has been settled in Singaram from the time of the Asaf Jahi dynasty of the late 17th century. Singaram is also one of the 14 villages that could be submerged.

On July 1, his 71-year-old grandfather, Ghulam Ghouse Miyuddin Iqbal, told Communist Party of India (Marxist) Telangana State secretary Thammineni Veerabhadran who came visiting: “We got our lands on the basis of an Atiya [a royal decree for a land grant] 465 years ago. Muslims held nearly 700 acres between 52 families, but we brought in other communities to settle in these villages—the Reddys, the Gouds, the Vadderas and the Lambadas. But we willingly gave up our lands when tenancy was regularised in 1952. What is happening today is taking away what is left of the communities here. I now own 8.5 acres. Where will I go from here?” A striking feature of this region is not only its religious harmony but a flurry of lush farms—two crops even during drought years, say villagers, and no farmers’ suicides. Some 50 km further into the district, the situation was just the opposite less than three months ago.

Iqbal’s grandson Mohammed is among 20 young men from landed families here who have fond childhood memories of their villages but who were afforded a better education and a big city life in their formative years. It is they who have galvanised the entire community to give it a sense of oneness in these testing times. An employee of Infosys in Hyderabad, Chandrashekar Reddy from Eatigaddakishtapur, has been coming home every weekend to help in organising the protest, as have several others. Srikanth Goud’s business partner is managing his restaurant back in Ahmedabad, but he is at Eatigaddakishtapur busy getting signatures of Dalits and Lambadas to urgently petition the Hyderabad High Court. They want the government not only to stop the takeover of the land but also to shift or reduce the size of the project. They have formed the Victims of Mallanasagar Joint Action Committee, which functions out of a room in the village, where meetings are held and action plans chalked out. In February, they created a Twitter handle and a Facebook page.

Women have been in the forefront of the protests in every one of the villages. It is they who began relay hunger strikes at every makeshift meeting venue, mostly right outside panchayat offices.

The State’s entire political opposition has made a beeline for the villages in support of the struggle. The Congress organised a protest on July 26, while the CPI(M) conducted a four-day walking protest beginning July 1. The Telugu Desam Party’s Revanth Reddy went on a day-long hunger strike in mid June. Meetings take place from dawn to dusk, with hardly any work being done in the fields. Panchayat heads, once loyal to the TRS, have turned against the ruling party.

Twenty-two-year-old Venkatesh Reddy’s family owns 16 acres in Singaram, but his family shifted to Siddipet, the nearest town, for his education. Venkatesh has been a staunch supporter of Chandrasekhar Rao. “My voter ID card was initially for Siddipet, but I had it shifted to Singaram [which falls in KCR’s Gajwel constituency] to vote for the Chief Minister. Now I regret it,” he said. This is a common refrain across the villages which overwhelmingly voted for the TRS but now feel terribly let down.

Compensation package

The Land Acquisition Act provides for several measures ranging from a minimum of one acre in the newly irrigated area per displaced family to three times the market value of the land in question. Every adult above the age of 21 without a spouse or a child has to be treated as a family unit and is entitled to a one-time settlement of Rs.5.5 lakh regardless of whether he owns land or otherwise. If a one-time settlement is not possible, then a compensation of Rs.2,250 every month for 20 years accounting for annual increase in inflation has to be paid.

Dalits and Adivasis are entitled up to 2.5 acres when a new neighbourhood is created. And the entire village must be rebuilt in another area with at least the existing common infrastructure and facilities, but not less.

The government says land at the project site costs only Rs.60,000 an acre going by the market value. But the Act envisages a revised market value determined by the prevailing rate of sale at the time of acquisition. Villagers say their land rates have not been revised for at least three years now, and given their proximity to the city, the prices have shot up exponentially. Recent sales have been for about Rs.5 lakh an acre. The government’s plan, apart from being silent on rehabilitation and resettlement, does not factor in how the landless are to be compensated.

On August 3, a single judge bench of the Hyderabad High Court struck down GO 123 for its silence on how it would rehabilitate or compensate the landless. It was filed by 22 agricultural labourers from another part of Medak who were similarly affected by land takeovers for the proposed National Investment and Manufacturing Zone. It was overnight challenged by the State government and is now pending before a two-judge bench headed by Acting Chief Justice Ramesh Ranganathan.

While there have been pockets in several villages where sale took place, the bulk of the communities are in no mood to give up their fight. But their anguish has already taken two lives —farmers who committed suicide unable to see any hope in their struggle. Narsaiah, a 70-year-old farmer, committed suicide a day after nearly 75 per cent of Eatigaddakishtapur’s villagers gave up their land. Prasad Reddy says these have been out of fear and because of the government influencing villagers through his uncle, even while he is physically not present there. The police violence on July 24 against an attempted road blockade has only precipitated the villagers’ anger towards the government.

Vasa Ravi is one of the lawyers who appeared before the Hyderabad High Court on behalf of the villagers in a batch of petitions seeking to stall the land acquisition. The court dismissed the petitions on June 27 after the government assured that land would not be taken by force. But Ravi says: “The government is playing tricks on its own people. It is behaving like the real estate mafia. This will totally destroy the ethos of governance and erode the TRS’ moral authority to govern, which it gained through the Telangana struggle. It is now losing that authority very fast.”

On May 28 last year, the Chief Minister, in an interview to Frontline, listed out the reasons for the fight for statehood. He said: “The main issues for the Telangana agitation were three things: Nidhulu, neellu and niyamakalu.” Nidhulu means funds, neellu means water, and niyamakalu means employment. His land acquisition plan, while seeking to fulfil all these promises, seems to be doing just the opposite.