A public rally that was organized in Gadag could not take place because the villagers who were supposed to participate were threatened with dire consequences if they participated in the rally. Those who managed to come to the rally were reluctant to speak openly.
Later in the day there was a meeting with the representatives of Karnataka Rajya Raitri Sangh (KRRS), the farmers’ union in the state. Mr. Sankanna, the president of the taluk level told us that POSCO has been trying to acquire land in the district. The Farmers union, NGOs and the head of a religious matt, Thonta Siddhilinga Mahaswami protested against these efforts and got the ex-Chief Minister Mr. B.S. Yeddyurappa to give them a promise in writing that land will not be acquired for the POSCO project. But several members present at the meeting said that something is happening behind the scenes. Now some farmers who own dry land want to sell their land. This is because the KIDB and factories have been working on breaking the unity of the union through some middlemen and agents.
The government of Karnataka has been working on developing a land-bank by acquiring land from farmers. This has been happening since 1991 but has got public attention in the last 1-2 years due to the increased rate at which land is being acquired. KIDB the government agency with the mandate to acquire land uses all kinds of approaches like making false promises, tempting farmers with large sums of money for the sale of their land, threatening them that if they do not sell their land immediately, they will not even get the compensation they are getting etc. Highly fertile land is being acquired by the agency and factories. Besides losing land to KIDB and factories, land is also being acquired for setting up winding mills for power generation. He said 15% of the land is now under control of the Wind-power generation companies. Farmers have been cultivating on land that is on top of hills and on lands that are outside the villages but they do not have pattas for these lands. The farmers union has been carrying out organizing and advocacy activities to help farmers get pattas for these lands and 20% of this land has now been distributed. They have had higher success in the taluks of Sitatti, Rond and Mundargi. He added “if the government takes away our land we will be left with no other source of livelihood. If all the lands are used for factories, how will we grow food ?” 15% of the agricultural land in Gadag is irrigated land and the rest is dry-land. They are able to cultivate 1 crop in a year on their dry lands. He said that they had good rains last year but this year they only received 25% of the expected rainfall. Many farmers are already living under fear regarding how they will get through this year and on top of it, they have to now struggle to protect their lands from acquisition.
Mr Puttaannaiya, the state president of KRRS said that while POSCO wanted only 400 acres in Orissa, they are trying to acquire 3700 acres in the state. He questions this disparity in the land needed for the project. We were told that POSCO had deposited 700 crores in the bank accounts of the ex-Chief Minister Mr. B.S Yeddyurappa and Ms. Nirani an MLA. Activists who are trying to spread awareness about this behind the scene transaction are being threatened with severe consequences. A film producer by the name of Anil has been working on getting farmers to sign an undertaking using force that their lands have not been acquired. Many of those who sign the undertaking are illiterate and are not aware what are they undertaking through signing the documents. The farmers are willing to give some land to POSCO under the condition that the manganese under Kappadgutta hills will not be mined. A number of herbs and medicinal plants grow in the hills and these will be lost to us if mining is allowed to be carried on.
During the efforts to acquire the land for POSCO the farmers were first offered 5 lacs per acre which then went up to 8 lacs per acre. When the 8 lacs/acre was rejected they were offered first 10 lacs/acre and then even 30 lacs/acre but people have been rejecting all efforts to acquire the land. The government then decided on the compensation rate of 8 lacs/acre before cancelling the acquisition because of people’s pressure. Those present in the meeting said that all political leaders and higher officials in the administration are involved in transferring land from farmers to factories. Two villages in Rond taluk lost 123.3 and 51.5 acres of land respectively for a HUDCO project. In several places, highly fertile land is being declared as barren for several years to facilitate acquisition. The farmers are not against giving up their land and are not against development but are demanding development projects that help them. They gave the example of how farmers initially rejected a request for 700 acres of land for an oil-extraction unit but, after studying the project agreed, to give 450 acres of land. This project helped them by creating a market for their produce. 12% of dalits have lost land in the district and out of those who lost land, 50% were allotted land in the recent past as part of land-reform.
In Koppal district, the Kirloskar company has set a steel plant and Rudrapura and Babinahalli, two neighbouring villages are severely affected. The ground water has become un-potable and air pollution has reached alarming levels. 80% of the people have cancer, 30% of the people in these two villages have TB and many women have uterine cancer. Farmers who are supporting the acquisition of land in Gadag were taken to Koppal for a field visit to help them understand the impact of industrialization. Even though Koppal does not have iron and manganese ores, the district has one of the highest production of steel in the state. The district has been declared backward and hence companies get subsidies to set up their industries in this district. Also the iron and manganese from Chitradurga, Bellary and Gadag are being transported to Koppal for these industries. A village called Ginageri has 10 steep plants even though its population is less that 10,000. Companies that are active in acquiring land in Gadag are Essar Metallics, Adhunik Metallics, POSCO and the Essar Group.
Many elected representatives have business interests either in mining or transportation or other related businesses. Due to these business interests, the MLAs and MPs are not willing to raise objections to the land acquisition in these districts. In the recent by-elections in Koppal and Bellary, each candidate paid people to the tune of Rs 5000 for their vote. When politics, business and administration are all involved in the exploiting of natural resources and transfer of land, the civil society space is highly fractured. Organizations do not know who to trust as there is a lot of backstabbing. The people are deeply concerned with the current scenario but do now know which way to go and who to turn to for help.