Last week,the Chhattisgarh cabinet decided to enact a law that would prohibit the sale of agricultural land to non-farmers. The law,the bill for which will be introduced in the monsoon session,will make it mandatory for industries to approach the government for land,which it would buy from farmers.
The government is bringing this legislation to prevent circumvention of the relief and rehabilitation policy,with agriculture land being bought by intermediaries but later being sold for industrial purposes, Chief Minister Raman Singh told The Indian Express on Sunday. Last month,he had said,They (companies) set up a project of Rs 5,000 crore,but complain about compensation that is just a fraction of the cost.
There have been at least two recent instances of land being routed to companies in a manner that government probes later found illegal.
In March,two government officers and a land agent were arrested in Bilaspur district for fraudulently registering 53 acres in Bhadora village in favour of two real estate companies. The Indian Express reported on March 18 that these companies had bought the land for a proposed power plant of a company owned by Health Minister Amar Agarwal.
And on April 6,agitating farmers set on fire an under-construction plant of JK Lakshmi Cement in Malpuri village,Durg. They have been alleging that the company bought the land from middlemen whom they had sold their land to,unaware that a cement plant would be coming up there. A probe by the then district collector found that agricultural land had been diverted illegally.
Signs of concern about the routes through which land is being acquired go back much longer. On August 3,2011,the then AIG (Intel) wrote to SPs of all districts expressing concern over farmland illegally bought by industrialists to establish their factories and seeking details of all such purchases.
The concern also shows in the police asking additional director general Sanjay Pillai to probe the Durg arson,the first time any probe has been assigned to such a top-ranking officer in Chhattisgarh. Among its terms of references was to find out the root cause of the problem,an acknowledgment of growing agrarian unrest. Since then,Maoists have extended support to the agitation.
The Durg plant
JK Lakshmi signed an MoU with the state on July,28,2010,for a 1.5 million-tonnes-per-annum cement plant,a 1.5 m-TPA clinker and a 40 MW captive power plant. Its initial applications for environmental clearance,land and water requirement show the planned site was the villages of Nandini Khundini,Semeriya and Dhikuria,where they have limestone mines. The agitation began when the company set up the plant in another location,Malpuri and Kasadih villages.
Villagers say that a few years earlier,they had sold their land cheap to some middlemen,only to realise later that the middlemen had resold this land. JK Lakshmi began constructing there and,according to Malpuri villagers,also blocked a road,acquired some land meant for grazing cattle and the land of a village temple.
On November 11 and December 2,2011,then Durg collector Reena Kangale recommended strict action against subdivisional magistrate Q A Khan who,she had found in a probe,had illegally diverted 162 hectares agricultural land in favour of the company. Kangale wrote to then principal secretary (revenue) M K Rout,describing how Kangale had flouted laws no public hearing had been held for the sale. Khan is now facing a departmental inquiry.
We sold our land in good faith,and when we found it had been given to the company for a cement plant,we felt cheated, said arrested farmer Dhannu Sahu,whom this correspondent met in Durg Jail.
The Indian Express sent Amit Mukherjee,a senior executive with JK Lakshmi,a questionnaire on June 20 for the companys version on the allegations. Mukherjee said they would reply and this correspondent sent reminders on June 21 and July 1,but the company has not responded yet.
On December 7,2012,the Durg administration had brought the farmers and the company on the negotiating table. They struck an agreement in the presence of police,with the farmers agreeing to end a dharna they had sustained for a year,and the company promising to form a committee comprising villagers,district administration and company officials to provide them jobs.
The committee was never formed. Not more than 30 farmers would have qualified for jobs; the plants MoU proposed to employ 285 persons,of whom only 35 were to be unskilled labourers,and five of these were to be from other states.
In January 2013,villagers filed a petition in the Supreme Court calling the construction unauthorised. They pointed out that the MoU had been signed for three other villages but the factory is coming up over 360 acres of fertile,irrigated agricultural land for which the company had neither signed any MoU with the government nor conducted any public hearing or obtained the consent of or even informed the farmers.
As the company did not take any step to implement the agreement,we resumed the dharna at the site in February, Dhannu Sahu said.
On April 6,the protesters turned violent and burnt down a few vehicles,machines and some rooms. Police have arrested 37 protesters and booked over 100 others. Their leader,Virender Kurre,has been dubbed a Maoist and booked under the stringent Chhattisgarh Public Safety Act. Kurre,incidentally,had signed the 2012 agreement with the company and been photographed with its vice president D K Mehta.
The agrarian crisis
A fortnight after the Durg incident,the Chhattisgarh census office released figures that showed farmers constituted only 32.88 per cent of the workforce in 2011,down from 44.54 per cent in 2001,while landless labourers,who work on others farmland,constituted 41.80 per cent,up from 31.94 per cent. The number of farmers had gone down from 43 lakh to 30 lakh,and that of landless labourers gone up from under 31 lakh to 50 lakh,nearly a quarter of the states population.
Chief Minister Singh sought to explain the huge increase in landless labourers: These figures should be analysed for whether they are correct. People earlier migrated from here to work as labourers in other states; they are now staying back.
Farmers landholdings today have become marginal or small. Their land is being illegally diverted to companies, said Virendra Pandey,former chairperson of the State Finance Commission. Chhattisgarhs farmer is traditionally quiet. Now,his anger is coming to the surface.
State government policy mandates a job for at least one person of a family whose land has been purchased by a company not in purchases that are made through middlemen,which the new law will seek to address.
Even the draft Land Acquisition Bill currently debated in Parliament,which seeks to enact a law to address such issues and which believes that land acquisition and resettlement and rehabilitation are two sides of the same coin and R&R must always follow upon land acquisition,has nothing on this count. Under this bill,rehabilitation and resettlement will apply only when a private company purchases or acquires land through private negotiations with the owner of the land or requests the government for acquisition.
Here again,the middlemen route is left untouched.