They shout out the numbers as badges of honour. Three times, for a total of two months, one says. Twice, but for three months. Then comes the voice of a woman, Somari Bai. “They kept me in jail for 29 days,” she says. Thirteen years after they first heard that their land was to be acquired by Tata for a steel plant in Lohandiguda, and 10 years after their land was officially changed in records, the new Congress government in Chhattisgarh recently issued orders to begin the process of returning the land to farmers. Since then, memories of their time in jail have not been quite so oppressive. “We are proud. Because we fought. And we have won,” says Somari.
In 2005, then BJP government in Chhattisgarh signed an MoU with Tata Steel for a Rs 19,500-crore integrated steel plant in Bastar district’s Lohandiguda area. Land, belonging to local tribals. was acquired in 2008 — 1,764 hectares from 1,707 farmers across 10 villages. Even as the farmers protested, went to jail, the acquisition went through and 1,162 farmers were given compensation, many of them “forced” to accept it, those from the villages said.
In 2016, however, as PILs in Bilaspur High Court argued for return of the land, Tata Steel announced a pullout from the project for various reasons. And in the first meeting of the full cabinet of the Bhupesh Baghel government, ministers Ravindra Choubey and Mohammad Akbar announced that under provisions of Land Acquisition Act that require land to be returned to original owners in case industry isn’t set up in five years, land would now be returned to farmers, fulfilling a Congress promise that found its way into the manifesto and party president Rahul Gandhi’s pre-election speeches.
Farmers from Takraguda, Belar and Sirsiguda villages fought hard against the acquisition, with only 26.98, 57.14 and 41.61 per cent of affected farmers accepting compensation. “I went to jail thrice, and spent a total of two months in jail under absurd cases. Once, I was pulled out of a bus on my way to Jagdalpur and taken to the police station. They told me to accept compensation or they would move my case to another district and bleed me dry. But this was my land. Where else could I go?,” said Sudram Nag of Takraguda village.
Takraguda sarpanch Hadmu Ram’s white pagdi hides a scar from a lathi blow ten years ago. “The government held fraudulent gram sabha meetings. People from outside were called and we were prevented from going. Villagers themselves weren’t allowed to meet. Once, villagers and police clashed and the latter used teargas and lathis. I was hit,” Ram said.
Many said they voted for the Congress after Rahul’s speeches promised return of land. But they also pointed out that none of the two major parties stood up for them during their protest. “We are grateful the Congress have done this. But the Congress didn’t always stand up for us during these 13 years. When things got difficult, their leaders didn’t meet us. CPI leader Manish Kunjam did. He was always there,” said Munda Ram of Badanji village.
For the farmers, the next concern is modalities of the land transfer back to them. With Tata never physically taking possession, nearly all of them have continued farming on their land. But the concern is what happens next to those who accepted compensation and those who didn’t. “We will hold a meeting soon and call government representatives. It needs to be understood that most did not “accept” compensation, but were forced to do so. Everyone faced losses. We could not avail of government schemes because the land was not in our name. Not to forget innumerable trips to court. There should be some remuneration for that,” said Pattilal Kashyap of Durra village.
At the Mantralaya in Naya Raipur, these modalities are being worked out. At the cabinet meeting, the ministers announced that the Chief Secretary had been asked to devise a plan in one month. A senior official said, “At the moment, the government is not in favour of asking for the compensation back; then the question becomes what happens to those who didn’t. The government wants these to be ironed out in a month so that farmers can get the land back as quickly as possible.”