After the farm loan waiver, the newly elected Congress government in Chhattisgarh has announced that it plans to begin the process of returning land acquired from tribal farmers in Bastar for a Tata Steel project which did not materialise.
Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel is learnt to have instructed officials to begin the modalities of the process and submit an action plan before the next Cabinet meeting, which is likely to be held after the swearing-in of additional ministers on Tuesday.
In its poll manifesto, the Congress had promised that in case of projects which fail to take off within five years of land acquisition, the land would be returned to their owners. Party president Rahul Gandhi had reiterated this promise to farmers in the affected region in the run-up to the assembly elections.
In 2005, the then BJP government had signed a memorandum of understanding with Tata Steel for a Rs 19,500-crore integrated steel plant in Lohandiguda area of Bastar district. The acquisition of land — which belonged to tribals —began in 2008, and the government acquired 1,764 hectares from the 10 villages of Lohandiguda, Chindgaon, Kumhali, Beliyapal, Bandaji, Dabpal, Badeparoda, Belar, Sirsiguda and Takraguda.
While there was widespread debate among farmers and unrest over the land acquisition process, with activists calling the process exploitative and under duress, 1,165 farmers of the 1,707 farmers whose land was acquired accepted the compensation. The government maintained that the compensation for the rest had been deposited with the revenue deposit fund.
In 2016, even as the government hadn’t yet “taken possession of the land”, Tata Steel announced that it was pulling out of the project. Officials cited various reasons, including protests, procedural delays including in acquisition of land, and Maoist threat in the region.
The Congress, then the Opposition party, had said the acquired land should be returned to their owners. But the then BJP government had said the acquired land would go to a land bank, to be used for industrial purposes. Official sources had then indicated to The Indian Express that the land was likely to be given to NMDC.
With the Congress government now planning to return the land, senior officials said they were working overtime to finalise the modalities and would submit a consolidated document before the Cabinet.
Senior Congress leaders said the Cabinet’s decision, when cleared, would be “historic”. “If you look at the history of land struggles in India, this has rarely happened, whether it is Singur or Bhatta Parsaul. Even in Bastar, there was strong opposition to this acquisition, and reports that many youths got disenchanted with the government because of this. This shows the empathy of the Congress government towards the farmer, and will send a strong pro-farmer message, not just to Chhattisgarh but to the rest of the country,” said a senior leader.
“This is also a signal of how the new Congress government intends to tackle the issue of Naxalism with pro-people policies,” said Ruchir Garg, media advisor to Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel.