Eighty-three-year-old Jai Narayan is a very angry man. He also has a lot to say. “But no one wants to listen to me,” complains the retired school teacher from Faridabad. Not the bureaucrats of Haryana, not the judges of the state High Court, not the journalists, at times, not even fellow villagers.
We are in Sector 75, Faridabad, standing on what used to be Jai Narayan’s ten acre farm before the state government acquired it in 2006. Today, it lies barren, surrounded by the menacing multi-storeyed apartment complexes, a sight typical of the National Capital Region’s skyline. The sweltering mid-September heat, and the dust raked up by the ongoing constructions in the vicinity, is only making Jai Narayan impatient, and angrier. “Just look around, what does the sarkar need my land for? What can they develop on this patch now? They just want to give it away to big builders, just like all these other plots here,” he says.
A five-minute drive from Jai Narayan’s patch is the house of Manoj Yadav, 41, who has a similar story. In 2006, about 5,000 farmers from five villages in the region received a notice that HUDA (Haryana Urban Development Authority) would be acquiring 638 acres of their land for “residential and commercial” purposes. The compensation offered for 342 acres in 2009 (some land was released in the interim) at the time was Rs 16 lakhs per acre, an amount that landowners such as Jai Narayan, Manoj and several others in the area felt was much below the market price for their properties. This, they claim, was ascertained by private sale deeds in the area. “There have been sales of land in the area that have fetched owners up to Rs 22 crore per acre. Why is the government then paying us a fraction for the same kind of land?” asks Jai Narayan.
He says that while, initially, most owners such as him and Manoj refused compensation - over the differential pricing of land in their area - and resisted giving possession of their land, some did give up along the way. “People thought, ‘let us just take whatever is being offered; who knows, one might not even get this later’,” says Manoj, adding that only 108 out of the 1,387 farmers in a certain area of the region took compensation. The rest, like him, are still resisting.
Their resistance has not been passive. Since 2008, the group has been going to court several times, to contest the acquisition and demand fair compensation, and has also managed to get stay orders for their land. And last year, when the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, came into force, things started to look better. Like several farmers across the country, especially those in the NCR, Manoj and Jai Narayan figured they could benefit from the contentious Section 24 (2) of the land law.
Under this section, in cases where the state had made an award (compensation offer) five years ago, but compensation has not been paid, and/or the physical possession of land has not been taken, the acquisition stands cancelled. Manoj says that for those such as him, where the time lapse between the award and the new Act is 4 years and 9 months - that is, three months short of the requisite time period - there’s a provision of enhanced compensation if the amount for a majority of landholdings has not reached the “accounts of beneficiaries”.
This is where those such as Manoj believe they have a shot. “Now the authorities have deposited the compensation amount in the court to avoid giving us our due! Also, our matter has been transferred to a committee which includes the same people who were involved in the acquisition. There’s need for a neutral body to decide; let them get the CBI to do this,” insists Manoj.
The mess around land acquisition in Faridabad’s Sector 75 is only indicative of the complexity of the system of acquisition in the country, one that is rife with corruption, misinformation and consequently, widespread discontent.
At the policy level, the issue has turned into a perpetual tug-of-war between the present government and the one before it - the new law was followed by three Ordinances and a new Bill, with a set of fresh amendments (including that in Section 24), and consequently, intense opposition. In the latest twist, the government has retracted from its aggressive position - albeit only temporarily - and the 2013 law prevails after the lapse of the Ordinance.
Outside policy circles, the discontent over compensation and rehabilitation of displaced populations remains widespread. It is another matter though, that considering the disparities in the value of land and the position of the landowner in the class-caste hierarchy across different states, for some, it is a matter of sheer survival, and for others, it is about maximising gains from one’s property.
So, if land acquisition for the Sardar Sarovar Dam has robbed many of their livelihood in Madhya Pradesh, in Haryana, it has given rise to a lot of “heartburn” amongst farmers, who have realised their position in the urban land market.
Considering the vast tracts of land lying idle after acquisition, and the varying degrees of discontent amongst farmers, it’s not hard to see why Section 24 (2) has become a contentious issue - in the latest Bill, cases where the time lapse is due to a stay order, or where compensation has been deposited in the court, have been excluded. For now, the return to the 2013 law seems to have given a shot in the arm to those who had either filed cases under that section, or are gearing up to do so.
“The trend of filing cases under this section is certainly on the rise, at least in the National Capital Region, where land prices are high, owners are more informed of the law and aware of their prospects in negotiating a better deal through litigation,” says Deepa Panwar, member of faculty at Symbiosis Law School, Noida, who has done extensive work on the subject.
In areas such as Sonepat, farmers say that compensation offers have indeed increased after owners have agitated, but clearly, it is nowhere close to the market price. Rajvir Singh of Sonepat, who has also filed a case under Section 24 (2) - the acquisition of his land falls in the time period in the clause - concedes that he did take the compensation of 16 lakh, but insists that he did so “under duress”. “We are willing to return that amount, in exchange for the market price, which runs into crores,” he says.
The “heartburn” of those such as Jai Narayan and Rajvir, and their clamour for enhanced compensation or getting their land back, stems from the fact that acquisitions in their region have been rife with corruption and deceit, orchestrated by a builder-state nexus. “This is how it works: the builder buys whatever he can from some of the owners directly. In areas where the sellers refuse the builder price, the state steps in. The state offers a much lesser price, and others whose land is not being acquired in the area get scared. They then sell it to the builder at whatever price he is offering,” explains Jai Narayan. The state also transfers land to private entities, who make huge profits from it.
Rajpal Sewli of Sonepat, who received the compensation offer for his land (acquired for the Rajiv Gandhi Educational City in Sonepat) in 2006, narrates another instance of corruption in the process: in many cases, even after the initial notification on acquisition, those who are influential manage to get it released and change the land use [agricultural to non-agricultural]. For those such as Rajpal, who are unable to do so, litigation, - especially under Section 24 - remains one way of exercising their negotiating power with the state. “This is all for private developers, and we have been rendered jobless,” he says.
Litigation, however, comes with its own challenges. “A sale deed in the area needs to be produced as evidence for enhanced compensation. Mostly farmers who are closer to urban areas have access to such information, and resources to pursue litigation. While there have been cases where courts have awarded higher compensation, there are hardly any instances where farmers have been able to able to save their land from acquisition and get it back,” says Ram Singh, Professor, Delhi School of Economics, author of a comprehensive study on the subject.
Interpretation of a clause such as Section 24 (2) is another challenge, feels Sanjoy Chakravorty, author of The Price of Land:Acquisition, Conflict,Consequence (OUP, 2013). “What the courts decide is an open question, and will depend on each case. In Singur, for instance, when the Nano project was abandoned, the then Chief Minister asked Tata Motors to return the land leased to the company for 99 years. When Tata Motors refused, the matter went to court. There it was decided that since it was contract, the company had the right to retain the land, even though it was not using it,” says Chakravorty, Professor, Temple University, USA.
While Tata Motors may not be able to stop the farmers from working on the land, in such cases, a lot depends on the terms of contract between the state and the private entity, which the original landowner may not be aware of, he adds.
But for those doing the rounds of courts, it is a process in which they have invested substantial money, time, and hope. The fight is not just for money some insist. “We are farmers, and we wouldn’t be able to handle the money. We need the land to keep doing what we know best, and we will keep fighting to get it back,” says Rajpal.
With a rise in the negotiating power of the farmer, Chakravorty feels that alternative formulas for acquisition such as transfer of development rights will need to be explored
Until then, Jai Narayan will keep going to the courts, and will stay enraged.