By Steffi Elizabeth Thomas
On the cool, cloudy afternoon of July 15, 2012, hundreds of Adivasis of Nagri (a village in the eastern state of Jharkhand in India) gathered at a meeting in the central hall of the Birsa Agriculture University, Ranchi, to protest against the forcible acquisition of their land by the state government. The meeting place of the people lent a sense of irony to the protest, as the state government had snatched away lands from the ancestors of the Adivasis to build this same university. As per the orders of the Jharkhand High Court, the meeting was organized by the ‘High Power Committee’, which constituted the Chief Minister of Jharkhand, Arjun Munda. The court had directed the state government to resolve the land row within a week’s time.
The villagers, throughout the meeting, stayed firm against surrendering any part of their land, and demanded the return of the land already captured by the government. The Chairperson of the Committee, Mathura Mahto, who is also the State Revenue Minister, assured the people that the committee would come up with a solution favoring the villagers. But the villagers, having tasted false hopes at the hands of the High Court and the Supreme Court in earlier cases, protested in dissatisfaction and demanded a concrete solution to the issue.
Now, the government is seeking more land in the name of growth and development, leaving the Adivasis landless, homeless and helpless.
The Nagri Case
To understand the Nagri case, one needs to travel back to its history. ‘Nagri’ is an Adivasi dominated area, situated 15 km from Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand. On November 23, 2011 the Jharkhand government captured 227.72 acres  of fertile land from the villagers, and entitled major portion of it to the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), the Indian Institute of Information Technology (IIIT), and the National University for Research and Study of Law (NURSL). The state government claims that this land had been acquired to expand the Birsa Agriculture University and Seed Bank in 1957-58 under section 17 (4) of the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, i.e., the land had been acquired for urgent purposes like infrastructure, electricity projects, etc. Accordingly, the government allocated Rs. 1.58 lakh  (US $2626) as compensation. However, of the 153 tenants involved, only 25 accepted the compensation, and the government returned the remaining compensation to its treasury. The tenants gave their final call not to surrender their land because it was their only means of livelihood. Today, the same land costs over Rs. 370 crore  (US $62.6 million). The compensation received by the tenants is insufficient for their present needs, and when it is exhausted, the villagers will have no other means to survive.
In January, 2012 the government deployed its Rapid Action Force (RAF) and bulldozed the land, wherein several winter crops like potatoes, pulses, and even grains like wheat and rice were ready to be harvested. When the villagers resisted, the government imposed section 144 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) that considers anyone who is found armed with any deadly weapon or any weapon of offence as a member of unlawful assembly, and s/he is liable to be imprisoned. Further, resistance from the villagers led to the filing of FIRs against many; some being falsely accused.
Once the construction of the boundary wall of the institutions began, the villagers approached the Jharkhand High Court, and pleaded the court to stop the constructions. But, their efforts were in vain, for the court rejected their plea. Stranded and helpless, the villagers embarked upon an indefinite protest which continued for 125 days and forced builders to halt the construction work. However, on April 30, 2012 work resumed at the orders of the High Court.
Fifth Schedule Area
According to the Indian Constitution, Nagri village comes under the Fifth Schedule Area  in the state of Jharkhand. As per this provision, the Governor is the Constitutional head and is empowered by the President of India to issue Public Notification and Regulation to protect the rights of the Adivasis of such scheduled areas. However, the Governor is believed to have turned a deaf ear to the multiple pleas of the villagers to intervene in the matter.
As the last hope for justice, the villagers approached the Supreme Court on June 28, 2012 through a Special Leave Petition (SLP). However, they were faced with humiliation, as the vacation bench of Justice H.S. Gokhle and Justice Ranjna Prakash Desai dismissed the petition without any regard for the plight of the people. This dismissal was on the grounds that the acquisition of the land under question had taken place in 1957-58 and now, there was no reason to interfere into an impugned judgment.
What Lies Beneath the Veil of Development
The Nagri land dispute raises several hard-hitting questions. The state government claims that the land had been acquired in 1957-58 under section 17 (4) of the Land Acquisition Act, 1894; which attaches a high degree of urgency with regard to the work on the land. This implies that the land has to be acquired within 15 days of acquisition and should be free from all encumbrances. But, in this case, the government did not take possession of the land till December, 2011; nearly 60 years after the supposed acquisition of the land. Clearly, the extension of the Birsa University gets deleted from the purview of section 17(4) of the Act. The High Court on the other hand, while calling the villagers poor and illiterate, claims that section 17(4) cannot be challenged now, as the villagers had not challenged the decision when the land had initially been acquired in 1957-58.
What lies on the other side of the story is the fact that the tenants had challenged the land acquisition 60 years ago, but the government had resorted to questionable tactics to acquire the land. At the time of acquisition only one sixth of the villagers had accepted the compensation, while the rest rejected it. The government returned the rejected compensations to its treasury and the land was presumed to be acquired. The villagers were neither informed about this progress, nor were their land entitlements dismissed in the revenue records. This meant that even though the land belonged to the government, the villagers continued to pay their land revenue till 2011. Even more interesting is the fact that in the span of 60 years, many villagers sold their land, which were then registered in the buyers’ name by the circle officer in Kanke, implying that the government had acquired the land illegally.
As per the Land Acquisition (Amendment and Validation) Ordinance, 1967 an acquired land cannot be used for any other purpose, but the one given at the time of acquisition. It is not hard to spot out deception that the villagers faced at the hands of the government, which claims to have acquired the land for the expansion of the Birsa Agriculture University and Seed Bank. But, 60 years later the land is being used for the construction of various other academic institutions. At the time of acquisition, Jharkhand was not a separate state, but belonged to the state of Bihar. Therefore, the Bihar Land Reforms Act, 1950, also becomes applicable in this dispute. The act states that any land acquired before 1972, but not used for the purpose for which it was acquired, has to be returned back to the tenants.
The government has been rampantly flouting its own laws for the purpose of this forceful acquisition. Since the state government did not take possession of the land for six decades, then according to section 48 of the Land Acquisition Act, the acquisition is withdrawn and the land remains with the villagers. The land in Nagri village is highly fertile, and as per the Chota Nagpur Land Tenancy Act, 1908, an agricultural land cannot be acquired for non-agricultural purposes. The act further states that tribal land cannot be taken by non-tribals or the government without prior permission of the Gram Sabha (Village Council). However, in this case the government acquired the land without taking the permission of the Gram Sabha. Thus, it would be wrong to term the land under dispute as ‘acquired.’
Despite the legal entitlement papers produced by the villagers as evidence of their ownership of the land and the deceptive tactics used by the government to acquire the land, the Supreme Court in its June, 2012 judgment stood firm on the fact that the land had been acquired 60 years back under the Land Acquisition Act of 1894.
Protests in Nagri
The land acquisition in Nagri has become an example of the way administrative ineptitude and politics can escalate a major controversy; a case that showed severe violation of human rights and forceful land acquisitions at the hands of a body meant to be ‘for the people, by the people and of the people.’ The protests against the construction of the prestigious institutes started on a peaceful note, but soon turned ugly when the people realized that even the Supreme Court, the highest beacon of justice, would not support them in their endeavor.
March 2012: 125 days of protest
In March 2012, the villagers sat on a 125 days protest to protect their land. They ate, drank and slept in their fields even in the sweltering heat. Consequently, three women: Mangi Oraon, Dashmi Oraon and Tebo Oraon died of heat stroke.
July 4, 2012: Villagers demolish the boundary wall
Men and women of all ages gathered in Nagri to demolish the newly constructed boundary wall of the institutions. Soon, the villagers had to brave through police lathi charges. Consequently, four villagers, Dubhan Toppo, Dukhni Toppo, Jammi Toppo and Bandhni Toppo were severely injured and were admitted to the Ranjendra Institute of Medical Sciences, Ranchi. The police also arrested Jammi and Bandhni along with Rama Tirkey and Chhoto Toppo under charges of attempt to murder the police personnel.
July 5, 2012: Indefinite road block
The villagers declared an indefinite road block of the Ranchi-Patratu Highway, to demand the release of those arrested in the protest the previous day, and the withdrawal of the charges against them. Several people’s organizations, rights’ groups, political parties, student unions and intellectuals also joined the protest.
July 10, 2012: The Jharkhand High court intervenes
Due to the continuous protests of the tribals, the Jharkhand High Court, on July 10, 2012 ordered the state government to bring an end to the dispute within the next week. Based on this order, the Jharkhand Chief Minister formed a High Power Committee, chaired by Mathura Mahto - Minister of Revenue and Land Reforms, and four bureaucrats as members, namely; N.N. Pandey - Secretary (Revenue and Land Reform), Sukhdev Singh - Secretary (Finance Department), Surendra Singh - Commissioner (South Chhotanagpur) and Vinay Chaubey - Deputy Commissioner (Ranchi). The villagers declined to participate in the first meeting that was to be held on July 14. They demanded that the representatives should meet them at the spot of their protest and their delegation should have Adivasi officers in the majority.
July 15, 2012: Jan Panchayat, Nagri
The villagers organized a Jan Panchayat at Nagri, which was attended by over 10,000 people. Shibu Soren, who was the head of the then coalition party, was also invited. He championed the Hal Chalao slogan; which asked the villagers to start ploughing their land instead of surrendering it.
July 16, 2012: High Power Committee meets the villagers
Finally, the High Power Committee decided to hold its meeting with the villagers at the Birsa Agriculture University. “Jaan denge par jameen nahin denge” (We will sacrifice our lives, but we will not give up our land), was the common refrain of the meeting. Social activist Gladston Dungdung challenged the High Court judgment because it was benched by the Chief Justice of the High Court who was also the Vice Chancellor of NUSRL. Hence, he would have passed a judgment in his own case. Prabhakar Tirkey, a tribal leader, argued that instead of forcibly acquiring the land belonging to the tribals, the government could use the nearly 300 acres of excess land acquired by the Heavy Engineering Corporation, 400 acres acquired by the Birla Institute of Technology, Mesra and about 4,000 acres acquired by the TATAs. About 10 villagers and activists placed their concerns before the committee and the meeting concluded at 2 pm. The villagers were promised by Mahto that a decision would be taken in favor of the villagers.
September 2, 2012: Protest at Friyalal Chowk
Protesters marched from Nagri to Ranchi’s main junction, Friyalal Chowk, bringing the massive evening traffic to a halt. They joined tribal rights’ activists in protest against the BJP led coalition government and Chief Minister, Arjun Munda for threatening their homes and livelihoods.
September 3, 2012: Protests near the CM’s residence
A crowd of nearly 10,000 gathered to protest the Nagri land acquisition at a half-hour drive north of Munda’s residence. The people were attacked by the police when they crossed a protective barricade outside the state assembly complex. Dozens were injured and one died when a water cannon truck drove over him. Those who led the protest, including Jharkhand’s former Chief Minister Babulal Marandi, were detained and the assembly adjourned amidst chaos.
October, 2012: Nagari Bachao Jan Sangharsh Samiti
Several residents of Nagri, under the banner of Nagri Bachao Jan Sangharsh Samiti (The Save Nagri Public Action Committee), resorted to a fast-unto-death to reclaim their land which the government had forcibly acquired for the development of an academic hub. They decided to protect their lands by all means, even at the cost of their precious lives.
October 12, 2012: Arrest of Dayamani Barla
Dayamani Barla has been spearheading the Nagri protests since 2010. Her emphatic slogan, “We will fight and we will win” has been constantly resounding among the Jharkhand protestors. She grew as an eminent figure after winning an anti-displacement battle against Arcelor Mittal, and was given the Chingari award for the same. Barla was arrested on October 12, 2012 for leading these protests. Although she acquired bail in a few days time, she was slapped with some older cases and was forced to spend over two months in the Birsa Munda jail, Ranchi. Protests broke out in Jharkahnd over her arrest. In jail she was meted with miserable treatment. Being a diabetic and suffering from blood pressure, her pleas to the jail authorities to be served with the appropriate food remained unheeded. Barla continues her fight for the Nagri villagers till date. Even while in jail, she wrote a letter which expressed greater resolve in the fight against displacement.
November 20, 2012: Villagers try to harvest their crops
20 women gathered at the village square claiming that they would go to each of their paddy fields and harvest their crops. The government had stationed about 150 RAF constables to prevent villagers from harvesting the paddy they had planted in August. By 10 am about a dozen women marched into their paddy fields and started cutting and piling the crops. Raju Toppo was the first to carry two bales back to his house. Immediately a sub-inspector tried to dissuade him. Raju’s mother Sheela Toppo ran from the paddy field, sickle in one hand, shouting, “It is my crop, why do I have to ask your officers?” and asked her son to keep walking while she argued with the policeman.
The Misery Continues
Nearly 500 households have been displaced and about 128 families have been affected. Several have been injured, many have died fighting for their land, and some like Dayamani Barla have been ill-treated in jail. Yet, the protests of the tribals have not been fruitful. The protestors have continually stated that they are not averse to development, but they are against development on cultivable land. While compensation seems like a solution the government has offered while acquiring land, it still cannot substitute the villagers’ only means of livelihood. On one hand, poverty alleviation remains a major goal of our leaders in power; however, on the other hand, these same leaders are leaving no stone unturned to push the poor Adivasis of Nagri into a vicious circle of poverty in the name of development.
The protests by the villagers remain unheard. The court that was set up to protect the rights of the people turned a deaf year to their requests. From the High Court to the Supreme Court, each level of judiciary stood by those who tried to rob the villagers off their only means of livelihood. It is evident that the villagers’ petitions have been buried under political manipulation. These tribals form a huge vote bank, and are therefore fooled by the false hopes that the politicians donate in droves. Once these politicians are in power, the concerns of the tribals are ignored. An angry villager, Ratni Toppo said, “Babulal (Marandi) came and said if he wins the election, he will get this land back. Shibu soren came here and said “hal chalao” (plough the fields) last year but did not follow up with any step in the assembly. When we went to meet him at his residence, instead of discussing the issue he said things like village adivasis only want to eat meat and drink hadiya (local rice beer)”.
Recent news reports reveal that the intensity of the frequent protests has forced IIM- Ranchi and IIIT to shift away from Nagri, but the Law University is still proceeding with the development of its permanent campus in Nagri. Strangely, the government has made all efforts to select alternate land in Nagri for IIM-R, but the selection of plots for IIIT is still pending. At the judiciary level, the courts need to be sensitive to the growing needs of the ever increasing population of Jharkhand. The acquisition of large areas of cultivable land for development purposes can cause starvation among the tribals. The courts seem to be concerned about the students who are studying at these institutions but are not concerned about the tribal children; many of whom left schools to join the elders in protests to protect their land. The Law University’s vision paper states that it will try to build ‘a centre of excellence for advocacy of human rights with special focus on tribal rights’. One cannot miss the irony attached to this statement. The institute that is to protect the rights of the tribals sees no infringement of rights when it is acquiring their land forcibly.
The Nagri land acquisition case remains a living example of corrupt politics and judiciary, which have ensured that the rich continue to be richer, even if that results in trampling on the rights of a poor neighbor.
Anumeha Yadav, “Tribal children lead Nagri protest against land acquisition for colleges,” The Hindu, October2, 2012. Online at: http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tribal-children-lead-nagri-protest-against-land-acquisition-for-colleges/article3956654.ece
Suman K. Shrivastava, “Nagri land stand-off hinges on legalities - Tribals adamant, will not give up agriculture plots for three national cradles,” The Telegraph, July 6, 2012. Online at: http://www.telegraphindia.com/1120706/jsp/frontpage/story_15696760.jsp#.U5A8wnK1ZcQ
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