EARLY this month, Raghunath Sutar (32), a Warli tribal from Dahanu taluka in Palghar district, was at the office of the district collector when his neighbours in Sakhare village sent him WhatsApp messages and photographs of a team of officials insisting on conducting a survey of privately owned farmlands.
“There were policemen, and also riot control police. We were at the Collectorate to discuss our opposition to losing any land for the bullet train project when the survey team arrived on our lands, forcibly, without any prior notice. When villagers protested that they had no business bringing their equipment and their men on our privately owned land, they threatened us. Eventually, they left after protesters began to gather with lathis, but they were back in the neighboring village of Kotabi two days later,” says Sutar.
His neighbours from Sakhare and nearly two dozen other villages along the Palghar-Dahanu belt were among the 1,000-odd tribals who gathered in Mumbai’s Azad Maidan on Thursday to demand protection of their unique land rights. Even as the Devendra Fadnavis-led Maharashtra government races to meet a self-imposed six-month deadline to resolve tens of thousands of pending claims from tribals for land ownership under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), adivasis are contending that the same government is seeking to weaken their community institutions and dilute the powers their gram sabhas have to prevent land alienation from tribal families.
Tribals of the Bhiwandi-Palghar-Dahanu belt, where farmland is set to be lost to the proposed Rs 1.08-lakh crore Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project and tribals from Nashik and Aurangabad, set to lose land to various other infrastructure or industrial projects, are protesting a November 2017 notification issued by the Governor.
According to the notification, the gram sabha’s sanction is no longer required for the purchase of tribal-owned land by the state government through mutual agreements with owners, if such land is required for “vital” public projects. The notification, dated November 14, 2017, negates provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, which recognises the centrality of the gram sabha in preventing land alienation among the Scheduled Tribes.
“…Vitally important for whom is the vital question” reads a submission to Governor Ch Vidyasagar Rao by the Bhumi Adhikar Andolan, which led Thursday’s protest. Sutar, who owns 5.5 acres of irrigated land with two paddy crops a year, says the bullet train is of little meaning to anybody in Sakhare or the 40-odd villages where land is to be acquired. And everyone near Sakhare discusses the plight of tribals from villages where land was submerged by the nearby Dhamni dam across the Surya river — in their rehabilitation villages of Chandranagar and Hanumannagar, land titles are not yet transferred to the oustees, even three decades later.
The bullet train project kicked off after discussions between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe, is being built with a Rs 88,000-crore soft loan from Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Earlier this month, the Japanese Consul General in Mumbai, speaking in Ahmedabad, said India must immediately solve the land acquisition problem. Until now, the National High-Speed Rail Corporation (NHSRC) has acquired only 0.9 hectares in Bandra Kurla Complex, where the Mumbai station will be built. Of 1,400 hectares to be acquired, 353 hectares are in Maharashtra.
Activists who led a delegation that met the Governor’s deputy secretary requested that the notification is repealed, or reworded. “These notifications under Schedule V of the Constitution, pertaining to special provisions for the Scheduled Areas, are inherently assumed to be to protect the interests of tribals living in the Scheduled Areas, not to curtail their rights,” said Brian Lobo of the Andolan.
He added that the notification is antithetical to the very spirit of the Schedule V of the Constitution. Ranjit Kumar, Deputy Secretary to the Governor, confirming that the submission was made, said he could not comment on the future course of action.
Pandurang Mhatre of Vaveghar village at Roha in Raigad is not affected by the bullet train, but is in agreement with others that infrastructure or industrial projects will have an adverse impact on land. “A coal godown two km away from our village, near the jetty, has rendered our land infertile. There’s coal dust on our lands with every breeze,” says Mhatre, in his sixties. “There will be dust and pollution everywhere near the bullet train. It shouldn’t become easier for the government to just acquire our lands.”
A group of women from Vanai village in Dahanu, having marched to Mumbai for the CPI(M)-led farmers’ long march two months ago, said it’s odd that on one hand, the government has promised to resolve their grievances under the FRA, and on the other hand, is enabling quicker purchase of tribal land.
While landowners are outraged that surveys and measurements by the NHSRC are being undertaken without taking them into confidence, officials at the Palghar taluka said villages to be affected by the project were issued notices in April regarding the surveys. In fact, almost all the villages, through their gram sabhas, have adopted resolutions against the proposed acquisition and handed over copies of the same to the Collectorate or the panchayat samiti offices.
Dhananjay Kumar, spokesperson for the NHSRC, said the opposition to the land acquisition is entirely politically motivated.
“Those actually losing land are in consultation with us, the compensation to be paid is five times the government-recognized market rates in the area, with additional compensation for trees, etc. The protests are happening only because the Palghar election is around the corner.”
The Palghar Lok Sabha seat will witness a bypoll on May 28, necessitated by the death of the sitting BJP MP. Kumar said prior intimation about the surveys was given through local government offices and newspaper advertisements.
For the Fadnavis government, the tribals’ opposition to the 2017 notification doing away with the gram sabha’s role in protecting tribals’ land ownership, the bullet train is only one area of opposition.
While land acquisition for the ambitious Mumbai-Nagpur Expressway or the Samruddhi Corridor is well underway, there are still pockets of resistance.