Andhra Pradesh

Capital punishment

Print edition : September 04, 2015

At Mandadam village in Guntur district on June 6, Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu and other dignitaries at the “bhoomi puja” ceremony for the construction of the capital city, Amaravati. Photo: Ch. Vijaya Bhaskar

A lone armed policeman, Ventaka Ramana from the Kurnool battalion, standing guard at the site where a bhumi puja was conducted for the construction of the proposed capital city. Photo: Kunal Shankar

At Mandadam, where the Chief Minister broke ground for the capital city, the last banana crop getting loaded onto a truck. Photo: Kunal Shankar

The farmworker Mandala Nagundleshwari, a resident of Uddandrayunipalem. She has chosen tailoring or working at a shopping mall as alternative occupations at a "social enumeration" conducted by the government. Photo: Kunal Shankar

Ch. Baburao, former Vijayawada Deputy Mayor and Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader, who has been mobilising workers in the region demanding higher compensation for workers who lose their job. Here, he, along with farmers, clearing fields at Thullur village in Guntur district. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Land acquisition for Andhra Pradesh’s proposed capital leaves farmers and landowners at their wits’ end.

AS the Krishna river winds its way into the Bay of Bengal from Prakasham Barrage in Andhra Pradesh, it passes seven islands–locally known as Lanka lands, all farmlands until now. All that is about to change now with the State government’s announcement of a plan to build a 17-kilometre-long riverfront capital, Amaravati.

According to this plan, two major cities across the Krishna, Guntur and Vijayawada, will together form part of what would be the country’s third largest urban agglomeration, after Bangalore and Hyderabad. With a demarcated area of 7,068 square kilometres, they come under the newly formed Capital Region Development Authority, or CRDA.

At 8:49 a.m. on June 6, considered an auspicious time, Chief Minister Nara Chandrababu Naidu broke ground for Amaravati. On his orders, farming activity has been stopped in the area since April. Television cameras streamed the “bhoomi puja” live, amid the chanting of mantras. Chandrababu Naidu’s wife, Bhuvaneswari, and his son, Nara Lokesh, were by his side at the ceremony.

Several acres of banana plantations were cleared to erect a makeshift stage where the entire Andhra Pradesh Cabinet and senior Telugu Desam Party (TDP) members stood along with Union Commerce and Industries Minister Nirmala Seetharaman as the Chief Minister vowed to build a capital “bigger and better” than Hyderabad. Chandrababu Naidu is sore that Hyderabad was “snatched” from him.

A week later, a lone armed policeman, Ventaka Ramana from the Kurnool battalion, stood guard at the site. Ramana takes turns with his colleagues who are now stationed at Mandadam, one of the 29 villages contiguous to the 217 sq km capital region. The “Master Plan” for Amaravati is ready. The Singapore government, entrusted with the job of designing the city, has also handed over a “Seed Capital” plan, which will house the important landmarks of the State: the legislature, the High Court, the Secretariat, and so on.

Right behind the ground on which the stage stood, farmworkers were loading the last banana crop of the region. Mala and Madiga, Dalit men in their 30s and 40s, are resigned to the idea that their lives will change forever but are not sure what it will mean for them.

Uncertain future

A short walk down the road that leads to the river, Korapati Sekar and his wife, Kumari, in their late 50s, are cutting grass to feed their cattle. They have had no work for the past three months. Sekar has parted with his 15 cents of farmland that he inherited from his mother to the pooling process. The Land Pooling Scheme or LPS, is land acquisition in slow motion; it will go on for over 10 years. It has been conceptualised to overcome the need for Central clearances. “Finding work here was never an issue so far. Workers from the Rayalaseema and Telangana regions normally come here to work, but it looks like we will have to leave now. The problem is we don’t know any other kind of work but farming. My only daughter is doing her M.Tech in engineering and I haven’t paid her last semester fees,” said Sekar.

Workers across the region share the couple’s feeling of uncertainty. They constitute nearly half of about 1.5 lakh people living in the 29 villages. Most of them belong to the Other Backward Classes, the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. Government records categorise them as “agricultural labourers, household workers, other workers and houseless poor”.

The government says all workers will be “reskilled” in order to accommodate them in the proposed industries of the region. “All the landless families are being provided training in any field they opt for, be it construction or manufacturing. The Andhra Pradesh State Skill Development Corporation [APSSDC] is taking care of reskilling these people,” said CRDA Commissioner Srikant Nagulapalli, hand-picked for the job by the Chief Minister (see interview).

Waiting for compensation

The State government has proposed a range of compensation measures for landowners as part of the land pooling scheme—developed residential plots of 9,000 square feet for every acre of land foregone and 200 or 300 square feet of commercial space in the new city based on the category of farmland acquired, dry or wet. Dry lands are those that are irrigated by canals and wet lands are generally riverside plots where water is available at about 10 feet below the ground. There is also an annual monetary compensation of Rs.30,000 an acre for dry land and Rs.50,000 an acre for wet land, with a 10 per cent increase every year for the next 10 years.

This has found many takers among the landed families. An overwhelming majority of them own less than five acres (one acre = 0.4 hectare), and a good number of them are from the Kamma community, which the Chief Minister belongs to. They constitute the traditional social base of the Telugu Desam Party. That is one of the reasons why, political analysts say, Chandrababu Naidu chose this region, overlooking the decentralised model suggested by a committee that was formed by the previous Central government to formulate a plan for the new capital. The government also overlooked the apprehensions expressed by the committee headed by the late bureaucrat Sivaramakrishnan. The committee foresaw a “threat to the economy of the state” owing to “environmental degradation” and loss of agriculture. According to the State’s Municipal Administration and Urban Development Minister Ponguru Narayana, about half of these lands have been “acquired” so far.

It is the workers who feel short-changed. They have been offered only Rs.2,500 a month as compensation, but the offer remains only on paper for most families. Only 1,300 families have been given July’s compensation so far. The authorities assured the workers that it would be paid retrospectively and blamed the delay on the exercise of a “social enumeration” that had taken a month to complete. It was a survey conducted to locate the number of landless families and elicit from them their choice of alternative occupations. According to Nagulapalli, the authorities have located 24,000 such families so far. The family size is ascertained on the basis of the workers’ “self-declaration”. Anyone who is above 18 years of age can claim the monthly compensation of Rs.2,500.

However, the information has not percolated to the ground. At Uddandrayunipalem, a predominantly Dalit village, Mandala Nagundleshwari, in her late 30s, says, “When the authorities came for the survey, I said I wouldn’t mind being a tailor or a worker in a shopping mall. I have always been a farmworker and I don’t want to get into construction work. But how many malls are going to be there?” Nagundleshwari is unaware of the fact that she and her husband could have chosen to declare themselves as independent families so that they could together claim Rs.5,000.

There is also no year-on-year multiplier component in the compensation as has been provided for the landed families. Nagulapalli says this problem will get addressed once jobs materialise in the region and adds that the skill training also comes with a “stipend” of an equal amount.

Vijayawada’s former Deputy Mayor Ch. Baburao, a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has been mobilising workers in the region demanding that the workers’ compensation be raised to Rs.9,000 a month. Baburao has an ally in the Madiga Reservation Porata Samithi (MRPS), a Dalit rights group that has been campaigning actively in Guntur and Vijayawada. Resentment appears to be gaining ground as workers say they do not have a “link” any more with the landowners, their employers. Indeed, one can see the last remaining standing crops, with workers collecting whatever they can to survive. A woman worker said: “We are residents of the capital region for in name only. We have to drown ourselves in the Krishna after farming these lands for so many years. My husband and I would together make between Rs.12,000 and Rs.15,000 a month. For the past three months, I have been collecting what’s left of the cotton to make ends meet. The landowners don’t seem to care about us.”

Scuttling protests

Nearly every time there is a government function, farmworkers’ organisers and rights activists are arrested to scuttle protests. When Chandrababu Naidu attended a big function in the area during Ugadi (Telugu New Year) in March this year, All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) and MRPS activists were arrested from their homes around midnight and released the next day after the function. A protest was organised by the Medha Patkar-led National Alliance for People’s Movement, the AIKS, the MRPS and the principal opposition YSR Congress on April 9, which bolstered voices against the land acquisition.

A short boat ride into the Krishna Lanka islands reveals a different problem: the status of what are categorised as “assigned lands”. These are farmlands “assigned” to landless families as a measure of economic redistribution carried out over the years since Independence. They are farms that became available to the government either by way of land-ceiling legislation or the bhoodan movement, or are simply surplus government land. The government says that the status of the ownership of these pieces of land is now being considered on a case-by-case basis by the District Collector and the Revenue Divisional Officer, who are doubling as “quasi-judicial” authorities.

The delay in the acquisition process, according to the government, is because of a 1977 State law that prohibits the sale of land by assignees to anyone except to another “landless poor prior to the commencement of the Act”. Section 3(5) of the Andhra Pradesh Assigned Lands (Prohibition of Transfers) Act says: “Nothing in this section shall apply to an assigned land which was purchased by a landless poor person in good faith from the original assignee or his transferee prior to the commencement of this Act and which is in the possession of such person for purposes of cultivation or as a house site on the date of such commencement.” The Supreme Court upheld this provision in a 2009 case that came in appeal from the Andhra Pradesh High Court. The High Court had recognised the sale of an assigned farmland in Visakhapatnam in 1970 by the original beneficiary. The buyer sold the land again to another landless farm worker in 1982.

Different yardsticks

Another grouse is that owners of assigned lands will not get what general category owners get. The residential space in lieu of every acre foregone would be 200 square yards less than those for regular landowners. The commercial space that they would get is also half that for regular landowners in the case of dry land and 100 square yards less in the case of wet land.

About 35 families live in Uddandrayunipalem Lanka. All are Mala Dalits who converted to Christianity about 40 years ago. Each family owns about two acres of land on which they farm. “We received notices from the CRDA some three months back, but there has been no communication since. We have decided to continue farming as we have not been told otherwise. We are willing to give up our lands for the pooling scheme, but we fear the government wants these lands for free,” said Pulli Prakash, 39, a resident of the village. The island lands were assigned to these families when the Central government offered to give monetary support to build modest homes for the rural poor under the Indira Awas Yojana. When the islands shrink during the rains, the villagers go to the mainland and return during the dry season. Several mainland families own land in the islands, and hence the names, too, are extensions of the names of the villages they come from, Uddandrayunipalem Lanka being an example.

Government records show the extent of land in six islands as 7,000 acres, but some news reports cite a figure of 20,000 acres. Not all of these are assigned lands. Permanent concrete structures exist with all the requirements of a neighbourhood: primary schools, health centres, common areas, roads and street lighting.

Ever since the announcement of the plan for a new capital, land prices in the islands have soared. The Master Plan envisages the use of some parts of the land for “recreational and tourism purposes” and conservation of other parts. Boat rides and riverfront restaurants, hotels and parks are part of the plan. Villagers say political and vested interest groups have evinced enormous interest in the land.

“An MP came here last December and asked us if we would sell 100 acres to him. An MLA also visited us looking for land. He wanted to see our bank passbooks to ascertain land ownership. He backed off when he realised that these are assigned lands after his meeting with the Guntur Collector,” said one villager. Some others said that about 20 TDP leaders had visited the area in April this year expressing interest in buying lands, but they refused.

Farm loan waivers of Rs.1.5 lakh, as promised in the CRDA Act, have also not materialised. The Act also envisages loans of up to “Rs.25 lakh to all the poor families for self-employment”. Nothing has happened on this front ever since the farm work was stopped. With Chandrababu Naidu’s inability to leverage his political alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Central government to bolster his cash-strapped treasury, and his own preoccupation with fighting corruption and bribery charges against his party leaders in neighbouring Telangana, the patience of farmers and workers who stand to lose from the capital project has been wearing thin.

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