In the morning Charles Wesley of National Dalit Alliance gave us a brief introduction to the land issue in the state. On record, the state carried out it land-reform in 1955, but in reality, large sections of the populations (Dalits and Adivasis) do not own land. The recent laws like the about Special Economic Zones (SEZ) have been alienating people from land.
We began our Yatra in Andhra Pradesh with a visit to Srihari Kota colony, a community affected by SRI City SEZ. Mr. T. Seshaiah, one of the leaders of the community, gave us a brief history of their association with this area. The people residing in this colony were displaced in 1965 because of ISRO’s Srihari Kota centre. The community was split into 3 parts and one group of families had settled in the colony we visited. At that time, this area was a thick forest inhabited by wild animals. The community spent several years in clearing the forest and in making the land cultivatable. These efforts were objected by the forest department but an intervention from the collector and a change in classification of this area from a forest land to revenue land in 1971 helped them in making this land cultivatable.
The community was used to carrying out its farming activities after sunset and before 10am in the morning. In transitioning into a different agricultural context which required them to work during the day, some people had lost their life as they could not adapt to the different working conditions. Yet they managed to adapt to these situations in a few years. They were first given assigned land patta (land-deeds) in individual names as resettlement but were then told that land will be given to a collective. However, some resisted because of the condition of resettlement and settled in the Sriharikota colony. They also resisted the classification of their land as assigned land (assigned land has some restrictions like it cannot be sold or transferred or leased out) because they argued that they had individual full ownership on their land previously and that they wanted the same privileges in the new land where they are settled. They won this case as well. Mr. T. Seshaiah says that they were very happy in this new place. The land was very fertile. They could cultivate 3 crops in a year. They were able to cultivate all kinds of vegetables, fruits, flowers, grains and lentils. The area has about 12 feet of red soil.
The village member who spoke about jobs
In 2006 their lands were taken away by APSIIC (Andhra Pradesh State Industrial Infrastructure Corporations) for an SEZ called SRI City. Land was acquired from 16 villages. They were offered ½-2 laks per acre as compensation for their land. They initially resisted the acquisition as they were unwilling to go through another round of displacement. They also knew that with the compensation that was paid, they would not be unable to acquire land in the open market as the price of land in the area was 10-20 laks. While the collector was sympathetic to their suffering, he says the RDO was pursuing the agenda of land-acquisition. The RDO told that that the land was given to them by the government and that the government had the right to take it back when it wanted. When the families resisted the acquisition, they were threatened by some government officials and brokers of the -SEZ that if they do not sell their lands, they would not even get the ½-2 laks per acre compensation that was offered at that time. Because the SEZ was a public-private-partnership, in places where communities resisted the acquisition, communities were offered an additional 1 Lac per acre by the private partners and the government turned a blind eye to such practices. In some cases, Mr. T. Seshaiah says, the government officials even collaborated in such practices.
Each time the families organized themselves they were attacked by the goons hired by the SEZ. Because of the carrot and stick approach that was adopted, the communities were divided by greed and fear. The SEZ had infiltrated their community to break their unity, create fear and doubt among the people. In the end only 31 families were able to stand united and oppose the acquisition and most of the people in the village had sold their land either out of fear and compulsion or out of greed. Mr. Seshaiah says that they had filed a case in the High Court against the acquisition but their case is pending for 3 years. He asked us “What right does the court have in delaying judgment in such a case where many people’s lives are at stake? If they had passed a judgment and this judgment was against us, we could have at least approached the Supreme Court”.
Recollecting the previous court judgment the court had given them full ownership rights over the land but the RDO was telling them that they had no rights on the land. These contradictory interpretations of the law by different departments make them unsure who to trust. He also questions the morality of government officials who argue against the people’s interest instead of representing their interest.
Another leader said that the SEZ and government officials had promised jobs to all the men and women of all the villages before the acquisition. But after acquisition, the only jobs they are able to get is that of a security guard. Today many of them work for the SEZ as a security guard, guarding their lands from their brothers and sisters. People from outside the village are given preference for jobs as the SEZ fears hiring locals. He said that outsiders get paid in tens of thousands or even in laks but locals get hired for menial jobs like sweepers, security guards for meager sums of money. Even the youth who are educated and have technician skills are not selected for jobs. Mr. Ravi, the state coordinator of the Samwaad Yatra said that anywhere between 3000-4000 families are affected by this SEZ.