Their winter crop was bulldozed to pave the way for two Central institutes. Soumik Mukherjee reports on the plight of 500 tribal families caught in the crossfire
LOOKING AT the dark sky, Shivnarayan Toppo’s face glows with a shimmering smile. A dark sky on a May afternoon means an early spell of rain that will kick-start the process of kharif cropping. “If there is good rain for two days, we’ll start tilling the land this month,”says Shivnarayan. Heavy clouds — otherwise a reason to cheer — this year bear an ominous message for Shivnarayan and his tribesmen in the village of Nargi, on the northern periphery of Jharkhand’s capital Ranchi, along the Ranchi-Patratu road.
Shivnarayan has been sitting on a peaceful protest for six months now. It’s a fight to save his land, the only means of livelihood in Nargi. The village and its surrounding farmlands have been given free of cost to the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) and National University for study and research in Law (NUSRL). The two institutions are proposed to be built on nearly 227 acres of fertile land that has sustained the tribals in the region for generations.
The villagers are not allowed within one kilometre of the project land as the state has imposed section 144 on the tract. Three companies of Rapid Action Force (RAF) of Jharkhand police man the boundary walls of the two campuses being constructed. When the IG of Ranchi MS Bhatia was asked about the heavy presence of armed personnel and the imposition of section 144 confronting a peaceful gathering of people, he says the police is only following the court order. “The high court has ordered that the construction work should go on peacefully and we are maintaining peace to facilitate enforcement of the court’s order,” says Bhatia. He however admits that the villagers, since the agitation started, had done nothing that could have possibly breached peace.
The village leaders term this state action atrocious and a violation of human rights. “The government has made a mockery of democracy by trying to suppress a people’s movement that is trying to save their land,”says tribal rights activist Dayamani Barla. “Is the situation so grave that police has to post three companies of RAF here, while they have only four companies for the entire state?”
Barla’s reaction begs a bigger question: in a state like Jharkhand where tribals constitute 25 percent of the population, that otherwise lacks basic healthcare and primary education, what is the need to build a management and a law university on farmlands using brute force?
In January, the state bulldozed farms just when the winter crops, mostly potatoes and pulses, were to be harvested. Following that, the police filed FIRs against 12 villagers. “They wanted to scare us by charging us with false cases,” said Dhuchu Toppo, one of those against whom the FIRs were filed, for preventing government officials from performing their duty and breach of peace. But Dhuchu, 85, ironically, is not even capable of walking out of his house. Sitting on the small patch of green grass Dhuchu now talks about freedom fighter Birsa Munda’s fight against the British; his legends now lend hope to the villagers that it’s still possible to fight with limited resources. A century after Munda’s death not much has changed for the tribal population of the state: they are still fighting against the state for their right to till their land.
Their troubles are compounded by the fact that even the judiciary is indifferent to their plight. On 30 April, the Ranchi high Court favouring a PIL filed by the Bar Association of Ranchi, allowed construction work to commence at the proposed site within 48 hours of passing its order.
“The court gave its verdict in favour of the state, while claiming that our farmlands are illegal and accused us of misleading it by providing false information,” claims Arabind Toppo, who besides owning a six-acre plot on the disputed land is also a member of the Gram Panchayat.
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Meanwhile, Jony Beck, 36, is concerned about sending her daughter to college. Sitting on the front porch of her house, Beck breaks down. “This land has been with us for generations. It feeds us. When the court gave its order it should have taken into account that taking away this land from us is like snatching away our food,” rues Beck, whose family owns six acres of land.
The court order came on the same day the state secondary board announced its results. Beck’s eldest daughter passed with a first division. Her family wanted to send her to college. But that plan might have to be abandoned —the state’s development agenda has snatched her daughter’s education.
The economy of villages along the Ranchi-Patratu road is dependent on agriculture, and Nargi is no different. The only source of livelihood for the villagers is the land where they cultivate paddy as a kharif crop, and potato and pulses in winter. “These crops are the only source of food and income for us,” says Birsa Toppo, one of the farmers whose land was bulldozed in January before the construction work started. “I was looking forward to the potato harvest. It would have helped me survive till the monsoon,” Birsa laments.
According to the government, the land was acquired in 1957-58 for building a seed farm for the Birsa Agricultural university (BAU). The seed farm was never built. The land was later allotted as a goodwill gesture to the IIM and NUSRL for free by the Jharkhand Government.
The villagers say the acquisition never took place and they did not receive any compensation. A Right to information (RTI) application filed by the villagers has revealed that in 1957 the then unified Bihar government had acquired land and given a total compensation of Rs 1,55,147.88 to 153 families. Of these 153 families 25 took the compensation at a rate of Rs 2,700 per acre. The remaining families refused to let go of their land and declined the compensation offered. The money went back to the government treasury the same year. After almost 60 years, the same land is priced at Rs 1.5 crore per acre, which means, the entire land is priced at almost Rs 350 crore.
What is even more astounding is that villagers of Nargi kept paying land revenue to the government till the month of February 2012. On being asked how revenue was being collected on acquired land, Deputy Commissioner KK Soan said that the land revenue department did not receive any revenue money after 2007 and did not issue any receipt. “I checked with the land revenue office and they haven’t issued any such receipts recently,” says Soan. He claims that the land had legally been acquired in 1957. “Just because 128 families refused to give away their land and did not take the compensation does not imply that the land was not acquired by the government,” he insists.
According to the Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act, agricultural land cannot be acquired for non-agricultural purposes. “In this case the land is being used for public purpose,” says Soan. But in the case of the villagers of Nargi vs the State it is still unclear whose purpose, and what public purpose is being served.
A pertinent question that arises is, why possession wasn’t taken since the land was acquired 55 years ago. Soan has an answer to that too. “There are hundreds of acres of acquired land in the state, where possession is yet to be taken,” he says. One is then forced to wonder what is the purpose of acquiring land if there is no use for it?
The two institutions that are going to have their new campuses built on the disputed land have their own take on it. Avtar Kishan Kaul, Director of NUSRL, says it’s not the university’s headache to check whether the land is disputed. “The land has been mutated in our name by the government,” asserts Kaul. “Whatever we are doing is legal and the construction work will go on.”
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The IIM administration though admits to the oddity of the situation. “It’s a complex issue, but a bigger campus is necessary as we function out of a small building now,” says JM Xavier, Director, IIM Ranchi. Xavier says that IIMs have a mandate to play a major role in the local economy. He mentions how locals have benefited from IIM Shillong. “We want to follow the same model here,”says Xavier, adding that apart from producing management graduates, the IIM wants to focus on the development of the local tribal population by “providing them entrepreneurship training through video lessons and games”. Though the initiative is definitely noble, yet it’s a farmland that provides food round the year, which is being talked about. Therefore, the question remains whether entrepreneurial training is more important than food for tribal farmers most of whom are illiterate.
WHATEVER BE the arguments, it is difficult to justify construction on fertile land when a stretch of barren land lies empty just across the road from where the villagers are protesting. Sources confirm that the barren land is where the government is planning to build a new secretariat and accommodation for bureaucrats. The present government functions out of a building of the Heavy Engineering Corporation Ltd.
Besides, the protest that has so far been peaceful, is in danger of turning ugly soon. There have been incidents pointing towards it. A few days ago, in a neighbouring village, Chama, villagers beat up government workers who entered the village to measure land. Chama is one of the villages that the government proposes to acquire for the Greater Ranchi Development Plan.
As monsoon nears, the possibility of a clash looks imminent. Shivnarayan says villagers know that the ‘peace keepers’ will intervene if cultivation starts this year. But he insists that the state will not stop them from claiming the land that is ‘rightfully’ theirs. Villagers of Nargi have the support of surrounding villages in their protest. There is a possibility that if the construction work goes on to evict the owners of this land, it might turn into another Singurlike situation; history has a way of repeating itself.
If nothing is done to address the situation soon, chances are that development could push the people of Nargi beyond the fringe of the urban new.
Soumik Mukherjee is a Photo Correspondent with Tehelka.