Invisible in the ‘development’ mirage
The fairy tale of development in India would seem to have an unhindered progression towards a happy ending, but for the repeated roadblocks by the proverbial villain of the story: the farmer. The farmer who objects to his land being forcefully acquired, the farmer who protests at inadequate and grossly unfair compensation; the farmer who takes legal recourse to uphold his constitutional rights; the farmer who sits on satyagraha to prevent forcible dispossession of land which he tills with sweat and sometimes with his blood. If only this villain would cease to be anti-development, India would sky-rocket onto the fairy-tale path of infrastructure development and economic growth. Surely the country’s growth and development would benefit the farmer as well? Surely democratic institutions would somehow magically protect the interests of all sections of society? Why then is this villain such an irrational obstructionist? The talking heads who visit television studios seem to be befuddled. As soon as they step out of their air conditioned cars they express their confusion as to why the Indian farmer refuses to join the bandwagon of ‘development’?
One such story of obstruction is playing out right now in a village called Ghoghalgaon in the Khandwa district of Madhya Pradesh. Farmers of four villages have been protesting the submergence of their lands by sitting in almost neck deep water for the last 25 days. So what are these so-called anti-development agitators demanding? All they are asking for is the provision of adequate compensation and rehabilitation before being dispossessed from their lands and livelihood. What they are asking for is the implementation of the rehabilitation policy of the Madhya Pradesh government. In other words, they are asking for the implementation of the Supreme Court judgement that upholds this policy. Unfortunately for the implementation of the policies and orders of the highest democratic institutions, these farmers have to put their health and lives at risk by standing in water for 25 days.
The stated rehabilitation policy of the Madhya Pradesh government promised land in lieu of acquired land, with a minimum of 5 acres of irrigated land to be given to anyone displaced by the Omkareshwar dam. It was under these stipulated conditions that this project got clearance from a multitude of ministries. However, once the project was completed in 2005 and the dam reservoir was to be filled, the government played a turncoat on its own policy and offered extremely inadequate cash compensation to those who were ousted. After a long and protracted ground struggle, held concurrently with a legal battle, the rehabilitation policy was upheld by the Madhya Pradesh High Court and Supreme Court. The apex court reaffirmed in 2011 that those displaced by the Omkareshwar Dam were to be given a minimum of 5 acres of irrigated land or compensated by a market value of the same. Unfortunately till today these villagers are struggling for the implementation of this Supreme Court judgement. They have been offered uncultivable or encroached land or cash compensation at much lower than market rates. If this is not political vindictiveness then one is not sure what is. While some farmers undergoing financial duress have accepted lower compensations, many of them continue to demand their fair share. Without completing the stipulated rehabilitation process, the government tried to forcibly dispossess these farmers by raising the water level of the dam reservoirs and submerging their lands. This submergence was accompanied by the deployment of a large number of menacing police and excavators (JCBs).
It was at this critical juncture that the farmers of Ghoghalgaon entered their fields, while the water levels were rising. They have now been there for 25 days, demanding the lowering of the water level; demanding rehabilitation before being dispossessed of their lands; demanding the implementation of a Supreme Court judgement. If this is the state of rehabilitation and compensation for farmers with the weight of the Rehabilitation Policy and the Supreme Court judgement behind them, then what is going to be fate of the farmers of this country with the new Land Acquisition ordinance, which does away with so many of the safeguards that existed for the land-owners in the 2013 law?
The struggle of the farmers of Ghoghalgaon is the true story of Land Acquisition in India; it is the story of farmers who are struggling to maintain their basic life and dignity in earning their livelihood; it is the story of those who pay the price for economic growth and development. The Omkareshwar dam is built, the Narmada Hydro-electricity Development Corporation (NHDC) is making substantial profits, and yet the farmers in these areas are still left without rehabilitation and it is this unrehabilitated farmer who is being forcibly dispossessed.
When it comes to development in the context of India, it is the farmers who end up being collateral damage. This is the reality of Land Acquisition in India. The farmer - far from being the villain of the fairy-tale is the victim in the saga of development and land acquisition for it. And it is this pertinent question that needs to be addressed as the country debates the new Land Acquisition Law. Why is the farmer who is in reality the victim of this story being made into a villain?
(Atishi Marlena is a social activist and policy researcher, who has been with the Aam Aadmi Party for the past two years)