Ranjit Singh, of Sirsa Nangal village in Ropar district, is busy making plans for the crop that he would be sowing once land is “ready”. The eight-and-a-half acres that he is hoping to cultivate is the land the Punjab government acquired from him for construction of the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) Canal, and now wants to give back to him.
A driver by profession, Ranjit’s land was acquired in 1978 for Rs 8,000 per acre. The canal runs through the middle of his land dividing it in two halves. He hopes to fill the canal and start agriculture on the entire stretch. The huge mounds of mud are evidence that he has already set out to do this.
A total of 820 acres was acquired in Ropar, a Shiromani Akali Dal stronghold. Around 100 acres of this is in Sirsa Nangal village.
The windfall opportunity presented by Punjab Sutlej-Yamuna Link Land (Return of Property Rights) Bill 2016, may never become a reality but everyone along the canal already has a plan, fuelled by the prevailing high prices of land.
Along both sides of the alignment, land prices range from Rs 10 lakh per acre to even Rs 1 crore per acre, depending on how close it is to the highway. Despite the order of the Supreme Court freezing all landfilling activity and maintain status quo at the canal, the people who stand to benefit hope that politics will trump legalities.
“We are in possession of the land now, we are prepared to fight for it. If they want it back, they have to pay us the new rates,” is the refrain everywhere.
Paramjit Singh Makkar, the president of Ropar MC, says people are of the view that they own the land now that the Bill has been passed by the Assembly. “The general sentiment is that even if the SC passes an order, the land has already been reclaimed. The order will be on SYL and not their land is how people see it,” says Makkar, who has been touring villages in Ropar. He says there was jubilation among the people when the Bill was passed and now they are satisfied that they are owners of this land.
For Swaran Singh of Bada Pind of Ropar, whose family has had to relocate no less than three times due to land acquisition for various projects, last week’s Bill in the Punjab Assembly has opened up new possibilities.
“We had around 40 acres of land in the area. Some was acquired by the Railways for laying a track. Then it was acquired for Bhakra Canal and a few years later for SYL. I have three other brothers. Together we have 10 children. The landholding kept shrinking. We would now be getting around 7 acres land back. We have many plans. Either we could start a fish farm or start cultivating the land. The land has opened many new options” he said
Ranjit Singh said he took over the land only after being asked by SAD leaders to do so. “The land was acquired by the government from my father. We were paid a pittance then. A case was filed in the High Court seeking enhancement in compensation. We spent more money fighting court cases than what we received. No enhancement was given,” he said. JCBs leveled his field last week, and he supervised the work.
A few metres from Ranjit Singh’s plot, Lakhbir Singh. who has also taken back his land, said with Hola Mohalla approaching, he would make available his four acres to devotees who come to the village gurdwara as a parking area, and then he would start cultivating it. “I want to grow wheat and paddy here. It is a fertile land The land was acquired before I was born. I do not know the exact amount my grandfather was paid. At present, the cost of the land is around Rs 15 lakh per acre. I am thrilled,” he said.
After the real estate boom, land prices have skyrocketed.
“My family lost 17 acres to SYL. That was in the late 1970s. We were given compensation of Rs 40,000 per acre then. Today, every acre in our village is worth Rs 2 crore. Even if I sell it off at half the market price of Rs 1 crore each, it could fetch me Rs 17 crore,” said Gursewak Singh, a farmer of Bhatrias village in Patiala district, with a spark in his eyes.
Left with 16 acres after the acquisition of 17 acres, he has been growing potatoes, peas and other vegetables on the land, sinking tubewells for irrigation.
“The land should be given back to us. Badal sahib is right when he wants to give it back to the farmers,” he added.
Ajeet Singh Jeeti of Fatehpur Garhi village in Patiala said an impossible dream would come true. He was growing vegetables on eight acres of land. Four acres was acquired for the SYL. But working over two days with JCBs, a team of Youth Akali Dal led by the outfit’s Malwa II president, Harpal Juneja, turned the clock back for him. “It is a plain field now. I can grow anything. It feels good to see the field that I was told about by my father.”
He said he had planned to sow fodder crop, but would now wait to see how it played out in the Supreme Court.
Those who did not level the canal on Day 1 after the Bill was passed, are wishing they had done so before the Supreme Court’s status quo order. “The JCBs have been sent back. But I am hopeful. When a legislature passes a bill, it does hold sanctity,” said Gagandeep Singh, a farmer in Fatehpur Garhi village.
The people are confident that the government will find a way out of the legal imbroglio. “Our land is nearer to the highway and would cost anything between Rs 35 to Rs 50 lakh an acre. The government has given us our land back and we have full faith,” said landowner Amrik Singh of Bada Pind in Ropar “that our interests would be protected.”
Amrik Singh said the youth are unemployed. They have no other option but to return to agriculture. “The canal was and is a waste,” he said.