Millennium Post

A wrong set right

As Chhattisgarh becomes the first state to return forcefully acquired land, it remains to be seen if other states will follow suit

The excitement is palpable among thousands of farmers in Chhattisgarh's tribal district of Bastar. Every day dozens of people from Lohandiguda and Takarguda blocks visit the panchayat office to verify land titles. Some are even filing succession certificate for transfer of the title. Patwaris Pramod Kumar Baghel and Anil Baghel are carefully carrying out the paper works, for the newly-elected chief minister Bhupesh Baghel has directed officials to return the acquired land to farmers under the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act (RFCTLARR), 2013. The intention behind the Act was to make land acquisition humane and participatory. Once implemented, Chhattisgarh would be the first state to return land acquired for industries.

The land, spanning 1,765 hectares (ha) across 10 villages, was acquired 10 years ago for Tata Steel, which had proposed to set up a Rs 19,500- crore plant in Lohandiguda. But people say most of the land acquired for the project is fertile farmland. "We used to grow two to three crops a year which was enough to sustain our families," recalls Pilu Ram Mandavi from Belar village. The acquisition, thus, spurred widespread protests in the region, with most of the 1,707 farmers refusing to accept compensation for their land. Between 2009 and 2010, more than 250 farmers were arrested for participating in the agitation. "The government sent me to jail for 45 days for participating in the agitation," says Mandavi. Madda Ram from nearby Badanjee village was arrested thrice. "The government had acquired my entire 6.47 ha farm for Tata. As part of our protest, I did not accept the compensation money. Since then, it has been difficult for us to make both ends meet. We never thought that we would get back our land," says Ram.

The attempt to implement RFCTLARR was part of the Congress government's electoral promise. "After Tata Steel relinquished its hold on the land in 2016, we raised the issue in the Assembly. When Rahul Gandhi visited Bastar a year ago, he promised that the lands would be returned if the Congress came to power," says Deepak Baij, Congress member and MLA elected from Chitrakoot. "We included his assurance in the party manifesto during the recent Assembly elections and are now implementing it," says Baij.

Hailing the move, Jharkhand's first chief minister Babulal Marandi says such examples would repose people's faith in the law.

An inspiring example

As per Section 101 of RFCTLARR, when a piece of land remains unused for five years from the date of taking possession, it may be returned to the original owner or put in the land bank. There is also the retrospective clause, which says the land acquisition will lapse in case of a pending process where compensation award was declared five years before 2013, but physical possession was not taken and compensation was not paid. "Land Acquisition in India: A Review of Supreme Court Cases (1950-2016)", a report by Delhi-based think-tank Centre for Policy Research, shows that between 2014 and 2016, some 280 cases were filed in the Supreme Court under this provision. In 95 per cent of the cases, the court invalidated the acquisition proceedings. Many owners have either got their lands back or have been compensated.

Like Chhattisgarh, West Bengal had shown the goodwill gesture by returning agricultural lands to farmers. In 2006, Tata acquired 403 ha land in Singur to roll out its small car Nano. Though farmers got back the land after a protracted struggle, Tata had almost finished building its car shed on the land. Even though the shed was demolished before returning the land, the construction has made the patch unsuitable for agriculture, says social activist Anuradha Talwar, who protested against the project. Mahadeb Das, one of the farmers affected by the project, agrees: "I got my entire 1.41 ha back in 2016. Though the state government is trying to revive the damaged lands, I am able to use only 0.60 ha of it for farming."

Subverting land rights Act

However, several states do not have the provision of returning the land and are putting those in the land bank. Several others have amended the Act to acquire lands easily. Consider the case of POSCO in Odisha's Jagatsinghpur district where acquired lands were not returned even though the project did not come up.

A total of 1,092 ha was forcefully acquired across three panchayats in 2011 and in 2013. After the Korean steel major withdrew in 2017 following massive agitation, the state put the land in the land bank. After land rights activists pointed out that forest land cannot be put in the land bank, the government handed it to JSW Steel in 2018. "In such cases, there is a lack of commitment on the part of governments towards farmers' issues. Many states where land has been taken can learn from Chhattisgarh," says Prashant Paikray, spokesperson of POSCO Pratisodh Sangram Samiti.

Dayamani Barla, a social activist in Ranchi, hopes for a countrywide awakening on land acquisition. "It is wrong how, in Jharkhand, even common lands are being acquired as part of the government land bank." Palamu activist Sunil Minj, who has been associated with the controversial Kutku Mandal dam project on the North Koel river, says people are continuing their protest. This was evident when Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to Palamu on January 5. Residents of 17 villages under the acquisition shadow protested, he adds.

(With inputs from Ishani Sonak. The views expressed are strictly personal)

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