Land pooling looks fertile, but Dholera farmers not reaping benefits

  • Namita Kohli, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Jan 21, 2016 18:50 IST
Farmers such as Faljibhai Nagjibhai Bauliya (right) and his brother Laxmanbhai of Haibatpur village fear being dispossessed of their land because of the discrepancy in the records. Here, they are pictured holding up documents that prove the land belonged to their father; (below) Farmers whose fields are the site for the Dholera international airport. (Saumya Khandelwal/ HT Photo)

A little over a 100 kms south from the city of Ahmedabad, in the lush green cotton fields, speckled with creamy white cotton buds, locals will regale you with stories of farmers who sold their land and got rich. There is one about a few farmers in a nearby village, who sold their land to a corporate and bought the “chaar bangle waali car” (referring to the Audi logo). Another one concerns a farmer near the Jamnagar district, who sold his land, bought a bike, and even hired a driver to take him around town.

If you were willing to listen, farmers in Dholera will tell you more: of those who sold their land for a “good price”, refurbished their houses and bought shiny new Altos and Scorpios.

So why wouldn’t they do so too? “Because if you lost your land, you would only end up as someone’s slave. Those who sold their land to the companies are now doing majoori (manual labour) on other people’s farms, or working in factories. The farmer who was once a malik (owner), is now taking a dabba (lunch box) and going to work every day,” says Roop Sang Bhai of Sarasla village in Dholera.

Labourers work on Togubha Dilubha Chudasma's land holding where they earn Rs 200 per day. (Saumya Khandelwal/ HT Photo)

Money cannot be eaten, residents of Sarasla insist. The cars are standing stationary, the bike chauffeurs have turned unaffordable, and the promised jobs either didn’t come, or didn’t pay well, they lament. “Villages nearby are full of those who have been ruined after selling their land to industries. The khet (fields) has always given us enough to eat. So why should we give it away?” asks Roop Sang, echoing the sentiment of the group in the Sarasla cotton field.

In the 22 villages of Dholera, the site for the Dholera Special Investment Region (DSIR), it’s a question that farmers want to pose to the authority in charge of acquiring land for this project.

Like the rest of the country, in the town of Dholera too, land has become the flash point of conflict between its owners and the government. But what makes Dholera different — and a test case for alternative models of acquiring land for industry — is the state government’s land pooling policy, as opposed to the contentious one on acquisition.

Announced in 2007, the ambitious DSIR project was pitched as a “global manufacturing and trading” hub, with a smart city and an international airport to boot. It is the first industrial node — there are 24 planned along the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor — that was taken up for development. Touted to be PM Narendra Modi’s pet project (the CM of Gujarat when it was announced) the DSIR didn’t see much activity until last year, when the project received a sanction of Rs 2,784 crore from the central government.

Watch | Farmers explain the problem in Dholera

The funds, or the lack thereof, however, seem to be not the only hurdle that the project is up against. In December 2015, the state High Court ordered a status quo on land acquisition in the DSIR, in response to a petition by a group of farmers under the aegis of the NGO Gujarat Khedut Samaj (GKS) and a local organization, Bhal Bachao Samiti, who are contesting the government’s land pooling policy on grounds that it limits the powers of the Panchayat.

It’s a conflict that DSIR Development Authority (DSIRDA) planners were only hoping to avoid. With the Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation and Resettlement (LARR) Act, 2013, turning into the proverbial political hot potato and the messy processes of acquisition leading to a face-off between the owners and the government (or, the corporate) in several projects across the country, the alternative of pooling held much promise, policy experts and planners argued.

A Smart City hoarding in Dholera. (Saumya Khandelwal/ HT Photo)

Land pooling -- at least on paper -- offers the new module of partnership between the owner and the developer. Here, the owner does not lose his property, as opposed to land acquisition, where the sale of land implies loss of all rights for the original owner.

Typically, after acquisition, a change in land use (from agricultural to commercial) leads to a rise in the price of the land, often creating enough ground for discontent and resentment among the original owners. For instance, in places such as Gurgaon and Faridabad, where the state government acquired land and transferred it to private developers, there’s widespread discontent among land owners who lament that while the developers made huge gains off the land, the farmers were left with a compensation that was incommensurate with the market price of the property anyway.

In pooling, however, the premise is that the owners are ‘willing’ partners who give up their land, and accrue the benefits of development. After the industries come in, roads, schools and hospitals are built up, the owner gets a portion of their land, the price of which has gone up now. The owner can either sell it, or build something of his own on it. “Gujarat has always had a progressive policy of acquisition, where farmers get a share in the benefits of industrial development,” says noted economist Yoginder K Alagh.

So what went wrong in Dholera? The answer lies in the Gujarat SIR Act, 2009, under which the state government can take 50% of the farmers’ land without compensation, and return the other half at a different site after “readjustment”. The logic here is that after development of the site, the price of the farmer’s land would increase, and he would be a direct beneficiary of it. “We are only taking barren land anyway, and also planning to give compensation for the 50% land that we are deducting,” a senior official from the DSIRDA says.

Bhagwanbhai has sold his land holdings and distributed the proceeds from the sale among his children. (Saumya Khandelwal/ HT Photo)

But farmers in Dholera are far from convinced. “The best quality of wheat in the country, the Bhaliya, grows here; if it rains moderately, there’s good cotton too. We also grow gram and cumin here. How can they say it’s barren?” says Bhagwanbhai, 65, a resident of Sarasla village.

The draft Environmental Impact Assessment report for the DSIR maintains the authority’s position on the fertility of the land in the region -- about 40% of land in Dholera is classified as“agricultural fallow land”, and only 7% is crop land, the report states.

However, activists such as Sagar Rabari of GKS refute this claim: “More than 60% of land in Dholera is fertile. Agricultural yield in the region amounts to 600-700 kg wheat per acre, and 400-500 per acre in cotton. Here, agriculture is still a profitable enterprise,” he insists.

Sagar Rabari of Khedut Samaj – Gujarat talks about farmer issues in Ahmedabad. (Saumya Khandelwal/ HT Photo)

Farmers in the region second his opinion, and add that if the state government resolved the water scarcity issue, they could plan multiple crops on the same land and enhance their yield by two-fold. The fact that there has been a delay in making that a possibility –the delay in the completion of the canal network that will deliver the waters of the Narmada to their fields — is also being perceived by the farmers as a “ploy” by the government to ensure that they would not hold on to their land.

Resistance to the project is further complicated by the mess of land records in the region, an issue that plagues several regions in the country. Take the case of Faljibhai Nagjibhai Bauliya , 38, of Haibatpur village, who claims to have 96 acres of land, of which not even one half is finds mention in the computerised land records of the area.

On a crisp cotton sheet spread on a wooden cot in his home in the village of Haibatpur, Faljibhai spreads out a stack of sepia-toned documents to substantiate his claim: land that his father received from the state in 1968 is still not in the computerised land records of the village.”The talathi (village revenue secretary) wouldn’t do it until we paid up,” says Faljibhai.

The mess of records can be traced to land reforms in the state, where landless families such as those of Faljibhai’s father received land under several schemes such as the Land Ceiling Act, the state tenancy law and the central government’s Santhani scheme (where government wastelands were redistributed to the landless), explains GKS’ Sagar.

However, he explains that the names of the new owners never made it to the records because of illiteracy, fragmentation of landholdings through the years and corrupt officials.

Now, with the DSIRDA planning to take their land for the project, farmers such as Faljibhai are only left wondering how the planners would allot them their rightful share of land after deduction.

Armed with information on the SIR Act by NGOs such as GKS, those such as Faljibhai argue that the policy doesn’t seem to be working in their favour.

For instance, Dholera’s farmers argue that shifting to a new plot would imply fresh investments be made on farm infrastructure such as tubewells, and brings with it the question of viability of agriculture in a new place. “Some villagers from nearby areas have told us that the new plots for us are being craved out of the saline area near the sea. We are not even educated enough to do much else; if agriculture fails, what are we going to do?” asks Faljibhai.

The fear of being given fallow and saline plots is predominant among the farmers of Dholera, who trace it to the emergence of real estate brokers in the area. These brokers deal in the sale and purchase of land, often a murky process involving the rich and powerful in the region, and beyond.

Faljibhai shows documents of his land which are not acknowledged in the computer records of the authorities. (Saumya Khandelwal/ HT Photo)

It is in this trade and its underlying skewed power equations that farmers such as Faljibhai feel they might lose out. “Playing in real estate is not for farmers like us; it’s for the dalaals (middlemen),” he says.

Land pooling as a scheme rests on the logic that owners can become entrepreneurs in their own right, but residents of Dholera point to the clause in the SIR Act stating that aside of the development charge that they would have to pay on the new plot, they would need permission from the authority to build something. The new plots that would be given to the farmers would be in specific zones such as IT, entertainment, recreation sports, and if the farmer wanted to build a structure that didn’t fall in the zone of his new plot, he would need permission from the development authority.

The official from the DSIRDA told HT that in light of the resistance to the project, the authority is willing to negotiate with the farmers and even pay compensation in the lieu of the land deducted to address their concerns: “This project will increase job opportunities for the locals, and ensure that they benefit from the development of the region.”

But in the cotton fields of Sarasla, farmers say that for them, “development” implied better irrigation facilities for a robust yield. “ We don’t want the industries at the cost of our livelihood. We will resist this acquisition of our land. Jaan de denge par zameen nahi (we will give up our lives, but not the land),” says Roop Sang, as the group standing in his cotton field nods in agreement.

But Bhagwanbhai, who is landless now and depends on the trade in cattle feed procured from the fields, stops to correct them: “Jaan bhi mat do, aur zameen bhi mat do (Don’t give your lives, or your land)”, he tells them.

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