Farmers in the Firing Line
Farmers' suicides continue unabated in Vidarbha, even as the PM makes a visit to the region, and Kamal Nath claims to defend interests of distressed farmers at WTO. And after workers at Gurgaon and tribals at Kalinganagar, this time it is farmers in Bajhera Khurd western UP who face police brutality as they seek to defend their land against rapacious corporates. We examine this script of displacement and despair, and the stirrings of protest that strive to challenge it.
Brutality at Bajhera Khurd:
Cost of Proving Rulers' Reliability to Reliance
(On 7 and 8 July, forces of the Uttar Pradesh Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) brutally attacked residents of Bajhera Khurd, Dhaulana Block in Ghaziabad District of Uttar Pradesh. The apparent crime of the villagers, mostly farmers, was to continue demanding better compensation for their land being acquired by the Mulayam Singh government to hand over to the Anil Ambani group's Reliance Energy Generation Ltd, which plans to build a 3500 MW power plant to supply electricity to Delhi and adjoining parts of Uttar Pradesh.
A five-member team (Satya Sivaraman, Ravindra Garia, Kapil Sharma, Radhika Menon and Azim Sherwani) convened by the Forum for Democratic Initiatives (FDI) visited Bajhera Khurd on 9th July 2006 . The visit was provoked by mixed messages in the national media regarding the incident and coverage based predominantly on the police statements. The PAC surrounded the area, and when journalists and concerned citizens tried to visit the area, they were prevented. The FDI team visited the village with assistance from local contacts. We carry excerpts from the FDI fact-finding report.)
Reliance Energy Generation Ltd has acquired 2100.588 acres of land and is aggressively pursuing the acquisition of 400 more acres of land in seven villages in Dhaulana block of Ghaziabad District in UP to build what is being claimed to be the world's biggest gas-based power plant. The 3,500 MW (5600-MW Combined Cycle Power Plant) gas-based power generation project is to be set up using natural gas discovered by the company in the Krishna-Godavari basin in Andhra Pradesh and is estimated to cost over Rs.10, 000 crores. According to a company press release, the power plant is expected to “benefit hundreds of millions of consumers in the power starved regions of Northern India and particularly the states of Uttar Pradesh and Delhi ”. On the other hand, the UP government announced in 2004, that the power was for 40,000 new villages.
While the state owned land was to be given to Reliance on a renewable lease for a period of 99 years at, reportedly, Rs1.20 per bigha (equal to 27,000 sq ft), the cost of private land was to be borne by the company. Initially, as per the state support agreement (MoU) signed between the two parties, the government land was supposed to be 275 acres but after survey, it was found to be 193 acres and the rest was private agricultural land belonging to farmers in the area. The state government went about acquiring land under the Land Acquisition Act. Significantly, the state government discounted nearly 40 per cent of the land cost to Reliance as part of its industrial policy to attract greater investments. There have also been reports that the stamp duty was waived.
The farmers whose land was being acquired by the state government were told that they would be paid Rs 150 per square yard (1 acre = 4840 square yards). The farmers had no objections to the power project per se but they were agitated about the low compensation package as, according to them, the market rate in the area is reportedly Rs 500 per square yard. As the farmers started getting vociferous, the Chief Minister of UP, Mulayam Singh Yadav came along with the Reliance CEO Anil Ambani in February 2004 to lay the foundation stone for the power plant and on the occasion announced that the compensation rate would be Rs 310 per square yard. The farmers were further assured that the power project would be built by March 2006.
The villagers' mistrust increased over time as they saw the scale of land acquisition planned—nearly 3000 acres, which was way above the approximately 300 acres that was required for the power project. The people began to suspect that their land was being taken away dirt cheap for some speculative real estate project, confirmed further by the plans floated for a Dhirubhai Ambani Energy City .
Contrary to the promise of building the power project by March 2006, no progress was made after the foundation stone was laid in February 2004. In the meanwhile, the government went about acquiring land and passing it on to Reliance through force on the people. The farmers were stopped from cultivating their lands, resulting in the loss of three consecutive crops till date.
Accepting compensation was not a voluntary matter since farmers were arm-twisted by goons, local administration and police. According to the farmers, police inspectors from the local station, Ravishankar Pandey, NK Singh, and Zaidi from Pulkhawa police station regularly visited the village and took away farmers to make them sign papers confirming acceptance of compensation. Those who did not comply were beaten up and hauled off and forced to put thumb impressions on blank papers.
Agitations became common and compensation was heavily disputed as people were paid Rs 150 per square yard instead of the Rs 310 promised and the Rs 500 demanded. The local administration took their cuts and officials extracted commissions and huge sums as bribes from the farmers.
The agitation of the farmers grew and after protesting at the office of district officials in vain for long, the farmers from Bajhera Khurd, Nandlal Pur, Jadepur, Dehrai, Kakrana, Dhaulana and Mehmendpur (villages where land was being acquired) began their dharna on the outskirts of Bajhera Kurd on 25 November 2005 . Four elderly men sat on a hunger strike. The farmers demanded that they be given a just compensation package equivalent to the market rate, shares be given in the project, and that family members be given jobs in the proposed Reliance power plant.
In July 2006, eight months into the dharna, the villagers decided enough was enough and pulled off the boundary fencing (set up by Reliance Ltd.) from their lands and decided to plough it. They sought support and found it from a few social and political formations like the Jan Morcha, CPI (ML) Liberation, Indian Justice Party and few other social organisations. On 8 th July, a panchayat of several villages ( sath-chaurasi ) was going to be held and land was to be ploughed since they were losing out on livelihood from land as well as compensation. Massive preparations were made to mark this day and villagers contributed funds and food for the programme.
A night and morning of terror
Despite not having paid the full compensation, or having laid a single brick for construction of the power plant, Reliance Ltd. filed a writ petition before the Allahabad High Court for protection of “their” project site on the evening of 7 July. This, even as the villagers were sitting on dharna, not at the marked project site but outside it, close to their homes.
The High Court swung into action and issued directions for taking appropriate measures for the project site's security. The High Court order was handed over to the Dadri District Magistrate late into the night of 7 July. The police however led by Director General of Police (UP), was already camping in the district to oversee the security operations.
The PAC (nearly 150 trucks arrived as reported by the villagers of Dehrai, Kakrana and Bajhera Khurd) and began to force themselves into the village with several local goons, who were identified by the village people. The goons were also in khaki uniform but without badges along with other PAC men. This was even while the High Court was still issuing orders. However due to the large number of protestors who had gathered the policemen were unable to push themselves towards the dharna site and began firing. Two persons were injured, including Prem Pal Singh. Three persons were taken away by the police when they finally retreated.
On 8 th July, at 6.00 a.m. , the villagers noticed that the PAC had crept through the fields, and there were fresh reinforcements. The police said they had come to hold talks and gathered the village men at the Dharna site and started speaking to them even as the PAC moved forward and started a brutal lathi-charge on the people without any provocation. A number of vehicles at the Dharna spot were badly damaged, the provisions and foodstuff including 70 tins of ghee/oil and several quintals of sugar, mobile phones, money (Rs 1 lakh of the collections for the programme) was looted and the tents uprooted. Thereafter the PAC entered the Bajhera Khurd village and moved from house to house beating up everyone on sight. Shops were looted; including that of Ramkumar Giri (Rs 2000 worth of provisions and Rs 1000 in cash, and his wife's jewellery was looted).
CPI(ML) Visit to Bajhera Khurd
A Fact-finding Team consisting of CPI(ML) UP State Secretary Akhilendra Pratap Singh, Nihaluddin, General Secretary of the People's Democratic Front, and Salauddin, UP State President of the Muslim Forum, visited Bajhera Khurd on 8 July, immediately after the police assault. Meeting the terror-struck villagers, and seeing the whole of village turned into a police camp, these leaders immediately registered their protest to the higher police and administrative officials present at the spot.
The Team demanded that the Mulayam Singh Govt. (1) release a white paper describing in detail the basis of the agreement with the Reliance Group, status of the payment of the acquired lands, Govt.'s policy for the production of energy, and why such a large size of land with 2500 acres is needed for a power plant; (2) stop attacks on democratic movements and punish all police and administrative officials responsible for the atrocities in Bajhera Khurd; and (3) return back the looted belongings of the citizens, arrange for the free medical treatment of the injured, and compensation for the losses incurred due to belongings broken or ransacked by the police.
Brutal Assault on Women
The PAC randomly picked houses and broke doors and walls of the houses, women were dragged out by their hair and legs, abused and severely beaten. Women across the village and from various age groups were attacked along with their children. A few of the people the team met included:
· Mahima Rana, a deaf and dumb widow with several disabilities, with injuries on her hips and back;
· Mahima Rana's 80 year deaf mother-in-law, hit on the forehead with a rifle butt; Meena Devi, a 42 year old women cooking in her house, beaten inside a room, has severe blunt injuries because of prodding with rifle butts in the chest, legs, arms and back.
· Reena, who had delivered a child ten days back, was beaten till she bled, while she was still holding her baby;
· Kamlesh Sharma, 60 years, had her ear lobe ripped when the PAC men pulled off her earrings.
When the team visited the village, the broken doors hung on their hinges and parts of the brick walls were lying on the pavements. Each house had someone injured, no house appeared to be spared. The team visited at least 50 houses. Money had been taken away from scores of households. Almirah's were broken open and cash and jewellery boxes lay emptied and strewn. Household provisions were destroyed in some of the houses. Vehicles: tractors, cars, motor cycles belonging to the villagers have been smashed including motor cycles and cycles kept inside rooms within the house.
While the men had been beaten at the dharna site, those who remained at their houses because of work or illness were also assaulted. Mahender Giri, a physically challenged person with difficulty in walking, had a broken arm and blunt injuries across his body. Shivdayal Singh, 85 years of age, with difficulty in moving from the cot on his own and who recently had an operation for stones and is hard of hearing, was brutally beaten on his hips and left with blunt injuries and swelling on his hips, legs and lower back and abdomen. Several others had tear gas and bullet injuries.
What does the incident in Bajhera Khurd mean?
Reliance and other corporate houses are acquiring land across Uttar Pradesh, supposedly for building townships, special economic and manufacturing zones, projects and industries. The land and resources are being leased out to corporate houses dirt cheap, as in this case, while the people who have been making their livelihood from the land and the resources are being dislocated, cheated and offered pitiable compensation. When the people, who are pushed out from the village but not offered the compensation to rebuild their lives, protest; the government acts as the agent of the corporate house to safeguard its interests. People are treated as gangsters and ordinary women, children, the old and disabled are subjected to treatment worse than criminals.
Corporations are dictating to people that they should take what is being offered and when they refuse, state machinery, instead of being accountable to the people, acts as the private army of the corporate houses and swings into action to unleash looting, molestation, assaults and terror.
If this is the model for the setting up of special economic and manufacturing zones, 40 kilometres from the capital of the country, it has ominous implications for the other 150 special economic and manufacturing zones planned around the country, and should be matter of concern to all Indian citizens interested in preserving their democratic rights.
The Forum for Democratic Initiatives hence demands :
1. A CBI investigation be directed against the government officials and politicians responsible for the acquisition of land for the Reliance power project, a process that smacks of corruption at the cost of the peasantry, and has led to the recent police atrocities in Bajhera Khurd.
2. The immediate suspension of the District Magistrate, Ghaziabad and the DGP police and the setting up of a judicial inquiry into the police atrocities in Bajhera Khurd on 7 and 8 July 2006.
3. Filing of charge sheets for assault and attempt to murder against PAC personnel and their higher officers involved in the looting and beatings of residents of Bajhera Khurd.
4. Free medical treatment for injured villagers and compensation for the injuries and for any loss of physical functions that may result from the injury.
5. Full compensation to villagers for the loss of assets and property in the assault by the PAC.
6. The land deal with Reliance be revoked with immediate effect and land returned to the farmers so that they can carry on with their livelihood