It was a memorandum of understanding (MoU) for ‘development’ under which the Punjab government had in 1994 acquired 1,100 acres from reluctant farmers of Sardargarh and half-a-dozen other villages in Patiala district for setting up an industrial estate. Twenty years on, the rich agricultural fields have turned into a wasteland, with the uprooted cultivators reduced to labourers.
The state government had acquired the land under the Land Acquisition Act for Sriram Industries Enterprises Limited (SIEL) in 1994-95 — amid protests by farmers — under the MoU that assured employment to a member of each family whose dwelling was to be shifted due to the land acquisition.
“If the project (industrial estate) is not established in 10 years, or if it is found that SIEL has taken no/negligible steps to implement the same, the state government would be within its rights to resume the land along with structures thereon, without paying any compensation to SIEL,” stated the MoU dated October 4, 1993, signed by then Punjab secretary, industries, IS Bindra and then director, industries, KR Lakhanpal.
In 2011, about 480 acres were de-notified after a long legal and political battle, while the rest (550 acres) are presently in the SIEL’s possession.
A chemical factory stands in the middle of the deserted landscape, a tell-tale sign of the ruined Sardargarh village, which elderly locals still visit to pay obeisance at the ‘khera’, a traditional spot which was the village’s epicentre.
It’s a long walk that leads to the common panchayat land of the adjacent Khadoli village as the SIEL chemical unit has blocked the road leading to that village land. “They axed and sold eucalyptus and other trees on this land. This wood has become their (SIEL’s) permanent source of revenue in the past 15 years,” said Khadoli sarpanch Naib Singh.
Tarsem Lal of Khadoli, who lost his agricultural land during the acquisition process in 1994-95, now leaves home daily for doing labour to earn a living. “Being landlords, we never dreamt that we would be left with no land due to this acquisition in the name of development and employment that never happened,” said Tarsem Lal, who also took Rs 5 lakh as a private loan for the marriage of his daughter two years ago.
Tarsem and other such landlords-turned-labourers said the ‘meagre’ compensation of Rs 1.45 lakh per acre that they had got for their acquired land was spent on returning loans in the 1990s. Ram Kaur (60) lost her son to cancer three years ago due to lack of money for the treatment.