The Foot Soldiers

Ulka Mahajan, the founding member of Sarvahara Jan Andolan, spoke to Sayan Bhattacharya on the Land Acquisition Bill, adivasi rights, political formations and most importantly the very connote of land.


What’s your take on the Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill… its current draft that is…

It’s again being changed. After the Standing Committee’s recommendations, it was changed by the empowered group of ministers and now again it is going to be changed because Sonia Gandhi has asked for 80% consent etc etc. But the entire focus of the bill is on land as a commodity which we do not accept and our major opposition to this bill was— which the Standing Committee has noted in its observations— that land is not a commodity. It’s a major national resource and source of livelihood for so many people and therefore no agricultural land should be acquired. The minimum the Standing Committee had recommended was accepted by us and if the UPA government had accepted that, we would have felt that we had gone ahead. But the recent bill… with Mr. Sharad Pawar heading it, we have absolutely no hopes. The state government of Maharashtra has already given its opinion that acquisition is impossible if 80% consent is required. The original bill talked about 4times market price and that was acceptable to neither Sharad Pawar nor the state government. So the recent bill says that everything is on the states. The states will decide the price, the quantum of land and when we have a state government, like that in Maharashtra, we have absolutely no hopes.

The original draft says that Section 98 which refers to all other acts like mining, SEZs, Industrial Development Corporation, will not fall under the purview of the Land Acquisition Act which is totally unacceptable because the major land acquisition that is happening today is for mining, SEZs, industrial purposes, public-private purposes. So if you leave all that, what remains? Only irrigation remains! Therefore deletion of Section 98 was our demand and it hasn’t been accepted in the current draft.

Thirdly, the role of Panchayats has been minimized in the present draft. They have no say in the land acquisition process though the Standing Committee had said that their voice would be mandatory, especially in Scheduled areas, the powers given by the PESA Act should be respected. Even that hasn’t been accepted in the present draft. So looking at all these, it’s quite hopeless and we fear that it will be further diluted if it goes back to the cabinet.


Since you spoke of the Maharashtra government, what do you make of Mamata Banerjee’s take that there should be no role of the government in land acquisition?

No you cannot say that there should be absolutely no intervention because then the private forces will take over and people especially in remote areas will have no say because tapping individually and looting the land becomes easier if there is no state intervention. So even this is a dangerous position and we do not accept this. The Standing Committee says that if the acquisition is more than 100 acres, the state has to intervene, which is good and we accept it but for private profit motives, the government should not acquire. That is our position.


Tell me about your organisation the Sarvahara Jan Andolan which mainly operates in Raigad district, Maharashtra… its genesis, the projects you take up, and the challenges?

We founded it in 1990 and we started working mainly with the adivasis there called the Katkaris, considered a primitive tribe. They have been exploited for generations and they are worse off than other adivasi communities in the region like the Thakars and the Warlis . The Katkaris have no assets, no titles, no ownership over land. The place they stay in, called the gaonthan or the community place is not owned by them. So their existence is not on record. There are several issues. They are beaten up, given low wages. So we started working with this community first and then expanded to issues of other farmers and since this place is so close to Mumbai, onslaught on land and natural resources has been the major issue. In the first phase of our work, we had to fight a lot with feudal remnants like zamindars, big landlords to release the land for tribals. After 7-8 years, the situation started changing with the onslaught from Mumbai. People started coming for second homes, farmhouses, resorts, hotels and motels. So that became the second fight.

Then we had to fight the Jindals, Suman Motels and these big groups. But after that, especially after 2003-04, these huge concepts like SEZ and then the Delhi-Mumbai corridor have been coming where we cannot even see who is our opponent. These are big forces that are looting our land and therefore fighting them is a long process. It’s becoming more and more difficult. Even issues like the poverty line, access to PDS, reserving our water resources…who is controlling all this is beyond our reach and therefore fighting all this requires working at multiple levels. So we, as a small organization, cannot survive alone and so we have joined hands with other organizations, left political parties and we have formed a large alliance inMaharashtra, called the Jagatikaran Virodhi Kruti Samiti. This is the Committee Against Globalisation, comprising various trade unions, farmer organisations, progressive political parties, people’s unions… all of us are together. Therefore we could fight the Reliance SEZ in Raigad, which was the largest SEZ inMaharashtra. We could organize the farmers there because their relationship with their land was very strong. So Reliance had to withdraw from there. Similarly, we went to other parts of Maharashtra where major SEZs were coming up and some of them had to be cancelled, while in others the battle is still on.

But now looking at this Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor – it’s huge, in 3 tehsils, land from 70 villages is being acquired, which amounts to 27,000 hectares! If you look at the scale, the area that will be affected is 4,36, 486! That is only Delhi-Mumbai corridor. Delhi-Kolkata will influence 3,86,000 and there is the third corridor, called the southern corridor which will be the petrochemical region. So looking at this magnitude, the scale, they will ruin everything. There will be huge land acquisition, water sources will be tapped everywhere and the way they are coming with other legislations and recommendations… if you read the National Manufacturers Policy, the recommendations there, are dangerous! We have the Groundwater Regulation Act under which you have to seek permission to extract ground water but this recommendation states that within stipulated time, if you don’t get permission, it is deemed to be granted! Same is with forests. We fought for 20 years to get the Forest Rights Act passed for the tribals but now they are saying in this policy, within one year, if you don’t get clearance from the forest department, then the land is assumed to be granted. So you are opening forests, water sources…the entire package is dangerous. So we cannot look at land acquisition in isolation. This kind of a bill is coming with many other issues. Earlier we used to call this dacoity but even that word is too small for what is going on. This has to be challenged. Land is a resource. Soil cannot be produced in a laboratory. So you have no right to kill what you cannot produce.


With the Forest Rights Act, there’s a provision which states that tribals can take the minor forests produce, like bamboo, for instance but some environmentalists feel that that the adivasis should be moved away from the core areas and resettled. Your take?

Tribals are the ones who have protected the forests for generations. It’s only the so called civilized people who have extracted everything out of the forests, now they want to throw away the tribals as well, who had a relation with the forests. You look at the tribal practices – they have worshipping forests for so long. Those who have lost their link with water, with soil will not understand this. So environmentalists who come from very urban and elite backgrounds look at environment in isolation wheras preservation of forests have been always traditionally practised by tribal communities but now they are being used as labourers to cut forests. Their entire culture, their traditions are being destroyed. They are being made to believe that everything is a commodity. Everywhere in the world, it has been proved that if you alienate communities from the forests, they become enemies of the forests. So with modern plans of regeneration, afforestation, the tribal practices need to be respected. Their sole source of livelihood is the forest.


Rapid urbanization is a reality and along with it is migrant labour… you work in a region close to the Mumbai Goa highway… so how do you deal with issues of migration?

That issue is becoming more complex and problematic now. You see people from Rajasthan, people from West Bengal, Jharkhand coming to our area and our people going to Tamil Nadu, Karnataka. So there is a chain of contractors that have been working with so many years of experience in dealing with people, local agricultural patterns. Even after NREGS, migration hasn’t stopped. Earlier till harvest, people used to remain in their villages and then plan the work after harvest but now even before the harvest, the contractors come and take them away and one night, you will suddenly find a village empty. They are taken to Karnataka, to the borders of Andhra Pradesh. To track them and bring them back is difficult for organizations like us and you need state machinery to counter migration. But that pattern and norm is being maintained so that people keep migrating and keep losing their strength, so that they cannot unite or get organized.


What are your views on the Aadhar scheme…about how it will be used to dispense ration and so on?

Aadhar as it stands today, has absolutely no relation with PDS because just looking at the cost factor for UID cards, to install that kind of a machine in every PDS shop… that kind of budget is not there in the present plan. Without that, they are claiming that after so many years, EGS wages will be paid through these cards but how are you going to execute it without machines which are not even included in your budget? Nandan Nilekani is making all sorts of claims. We had called him for a public meeting but he did not come. None of the state representatives came. They don’t want to answer our questions, our doubts. They refuse to come on public forums.


Biomentric cards will supposedly replace all other evidentiary documents…

But how can that happen automatically? When you have a corrupt system, how can technology that is replacing another technology solve all problems? Does it have a magic key? People will find ways to manipulate technology as well and especially in villages and remote areas, who is going to take control?


But that is the operational aspect of it. With UID card becoming the sole document of evidence; will it not disenfranchise a large part of the population?

I cannot say anything about that just now but I can surely say that by just giving the cards, the tall claims being made cannot be realised because it’s just not there in your system. When you are given a biometric card, all your movements can be tracked and that becomes a centralized source of information with the government and for whoever is ruling, it becomes a tremendous source of power. Therefore, it is certainly not a democratic tool in a country like India which has to have different ways to give recognition to its citizens. But as an organization or an alliance, we have not yet taken a public position on the UID. We are still exploring and therefore we had organized this seminar but none of the officials came.


Given the kind of issues you take up, how has your engagement with the authority been, considering a Sudhir Dhawale or a Seema Azad who are charged under sedition for speaking against the system?

(Pauses) It has been our experience, atleast in our area that no system is monolithic. So every administration will have bureaucrats with different perspectives and they might help you, like when we had this referendum against the Reliance SEZ, we had a very straightforward, pro people collector and just because he was there, the referendum could be conducted in a transparent manner. There are such people in the police. When people like Arvind Kejriwal started talking about corruption, people from within the system started passing on information to groups like us.


But doesn’t it come across that it is a State policy to repress any kind of dissent?

That will always be there.


So how do you negotiate that?

You have to fight it out. There is no other negotiation. If people are organized properly and it is a long term struggle and it requires consistency and determination. If that is there… I have seen so many organizations that have fought for so long and won. For example this Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor will be a very difficult battle for us because the villages are scattered, it’s a huge project. Mobilising people, strategizing will be difficult


Since you mentioned Arvind Kejriwal, what’s your take on his anti corruption movement?

I don’t want to say anything on him


He has launched his political party…

That cannot become his political activity for a long time… exposing parties like that. In a country like India, where 2 strong parties are fighting, common people withdraw from the scene. They don’t take sides. So when you are only exposing corruption, there will be a lot of discussion but people who will vote will not take positions when it comes to elections. So I am sure Arvind Kejriwal’s party will not get votes if it continues to function in the manner it is functioning now because his kind of politics cannot build strength. You have to organize people, take positions and it’s a continued process. In fact, we were asked to join him before he announced his party and we refused because that’s not our kind of politics. He came to one of our meetings and we had a lot of questions and we were not satisfied with his answers.


What kind of questions?

Questions like how are you going to build up your different constituencies, how are you going to approach them, what is your plan of action… questions to which he had no answers. So just this kind of stunts (allegations) won’t help.

We are definitely looking for ways of alternative politics. Many movements in India came together and formed the People’s Political Front and we are still working on it. Kejriwal had approached us for this front to join his party but we refused.


So why do you think anti-corruption has so much currency with people as opposed to land movements?

Look, when you are talking about corruption and especially the manner in which the issues are being raised, it’s like corruption is somewhere over there. Nobody is looking within. Therefore blaming someone else is always easy whereas if it’s a matter of land, it’s about taking clear sides and there a lot of interests operating. To fight that kind of a multiplicity of interests, you have to be consistent. People don’t want to engage in that sort of a constant fight. Writing a letter to the President or Prime Minister is easier than fighting the landlord in your own village.

Be first to comment