As a part of urban development thousands of acres of HMDA lands, assigned to landless farmers in the 1970s as per the Land Reforms Act, is currently being surveyed by revenue authorities for acquisition as part of Telangana’s real estate plans for Hyderabad. Many farmers who spend their money, energy to make this land cultivated and livelihood for them are protesting against this land acquisition. Apart from this most of the political fronts too are in favour of farmers.

The lands surveyed are from suburbs villages under HMDA limits which are quite more in numbers and lakhs of acres will get acquired by government leaving the farmers in distress.

Over the past 40 years, the family of Cherlapalli Baliah — a farmer settled in Islampur village of Telangana’s Medak district — has toiled to transform nearly four acres of land, assigned to them under the Land Reforms Act, 1973, into cultivable form. Now, however, Baliah has reason to suspect that this decades-long endeavour might soon go to waste. It was just days ago that revenue authorities arrived at his land seeking to survey it for a government project, leaving him staring at an uncertain future.

The impact of the much-revered Land Reforms Act implemented in the state in the late 1970s is now quickly coming undone, as the government resorts to taking back the land assigned to Dalits, tribal people and other backward caste agricultural coolis under the Act, all in the name of development projects. As per government estimation, Telangana has up to 1 crore and 50 lakh acres of cultivation land, of which at least 30 lakh acres has reportedly been assigned to the landless poor.

Currently, however, thousands of acres of such assigned land along the Hyderabad Metropolitan Development Authority (HMDA) limits are being surveyed by the Revenue Department, in connection with the state government’s plan to set up a number of real estate ventures as part of its large scale urban development projects.

Revenue officials are surveying the land for Hyderabad’s newly proposed six-lane Regional Ring Road (RRR), a 300-km stretch that will go through over 20 towns and 200 villages around the city of Hyderabad, connecting the districts surrounding the capital. As the first phase of the project, a 158-km road through towns starting from Sangareddy and including Narsapur, Thoopran, Gajwel, Jagdevpur and Bhongir has been approved by the government. 

Islampur, located in Thoopran mandal of Medak, is one of the villages from which over 300 acres of assigned land is earmarked to be pooled for HDMA’s supposed residential ventures. “Before we received this land, both of my parents used to work as jeetagallu (servants who do household and agricultural works for minimal wages) for our village landlord Reddy. Our family had to toil on this land for at least 20 years and dig two wells before we were able to yield crops in proportion to our labour and investment,” says Baliah.

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In fact, the land assigned to almost every beneficiary during the land reforms was mostly just barren sites of rocks and slopes, and it had taken many years of hard labour for these families to make this land fit for farming. And now, after four decades, the government seeks to evict these farmers to make space for real estate ventures. “When we refused to allow the revenue officials to survey our land, they told us that it would be taken at any cost as the plot was assigned to us by the government,” adds Baliah, who belongs to the Madiga caste.

Farmers Unheard Cries

It was in the 1970s that Baliah’s family, like lakhs of others, was assigned plots under the Land Reforms Act in erstwhile Andhra Pradesh. Among the farmers of the region, this period is popularly remembered as “Indira Gandhi’s time”. Of the 200 farmers with assigned land in Islampur, more than 60% hail from the Madiga caste who are formerly untouchables, while the remaining comprise Backward Classes (BC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) groups. Each of the families was assigned anything between one to four acres of land based on availability.

According to Tejavath Jayaram, a tribal farmer whose father had received four acres of land under the Act, government officials had told him that a large-scale residential construction was due to come up on the assigned lands of the village in survey number 14, along the National Highway 44. “We did everything to make our land cultivable. We cleared the rocks and gravel piles, and dug at least 12 borewells. Why are they targeting our lands now? How can we live without farming? They are saying that the government gave us these lands and now it wants to take them back,” says the 45-year-old man. Several farmers #KhabarLive spoke to reiterated how officials suggested to them that they stay prepared for an evacuation from their lands, as the government was ‘liberally’ planning to give them 500 sq yards of land as compensation for each acre of assigned land.

It is not just on the outskirts of the Hyderabad city that the government was looking to pool assigned lands in this manner. Even in tier two cities such as Warangal, a similar notification to pool the lands was issued by the Kakatiya Urban Development Authority (KUDA), in order to accommodate a ring road and residential real estate venture in the region. Warangal had also witnessed rising protests, as the authorities of KUDA had proposed to acquire around 21,510 acres of the land across 27 villages, of which a majority is assigned land. However, at the time of writing this report, it was learnt that the government has decided to cancel the land pooling process for 41-km KUDA for Warangal Outer Ring Road with “immediate effect “.

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History of the Land Reforms Act

In the late 1970s, struggles of landless peasants from lower castes amid severe feudal and caste atrocities had forced the former erstwhile state governments to implement the Andhra Pradesh Land Reforms (Ceiling on Agricultural Holdings) Act, 1973 and distribute the lands. However, this distribution of land mostly among the people of lower castes had drawn angst from the traditional landlords of Reddy, Velama and Kapu castes, without whose support the government could not survive. 

In order to pacify the dominant castes, the then Congress government convinced them that the distribution/transfer of land was just a temporary venture, before bringing about a law that prevents any alienation or transfer of lands given to the landless. This Act, presently referred to as the Telangana Assigned Lands (Prohibition of Transfers) Act, 1977, was introduced with the claim that it would prevent the chances of socially and economically powerful people grabbing the lands by hook or crook (either by threatening or as exchange for loans given to the beneficiaries).

However, observers feel that the Act has only served to turn these beneficiaries into mere ‘cultivators’, leaving them without any real rights over the land assigned to them. Besides, despite the 1977 Act, several thousands of acres of fertile lands along Telangana’s irrigation tanks have already been “alienated” from the actual assignees through such deceitful means.

Eventually, the selling and buying of assigned lands “in good faith” between poor farmers for agriculture purposes were also regularised through Amendments in 2007 and 2017 on humanitarian grounds, as even “landless poor persons who have purchased the assigned lands for valuable consideration and in good faith will lose the lands and become landless”. Any person who owns less than two-and-a-half acres of wetland or five acres of dryland is defined here as a “landless poor person”. 

Take on Assigned Lands Acquisitions

Though this loophole is also not very hard to take advantage of, thousands of genuine applications in connection with such transfers also remain pending at Telangana’s revenue offices, even as the government tries to take back the same lands in the name of development. And now, besides the fear of losing their assigned lands, the farmers are also concerned whether they would at least be given compensation on par with that of regular title deed owning (pattadar) farmers.

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Senior advocate and land rights activist Palla Trinadh Rao opines that due to the respective administrations’ apathy, many farmers whose assigned lands have been acquired by the government before have lost out on their rightful compensation. “Farmers of assigned lands too have just as many rights as the pattadar land farmers. This has been clarified multiple times by the Honourable High Court. If the poor landless farmers are not compensated as per the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act (LARR), 2013, it is definitely the government’s mistake,” Trinadh Rao says.

Siliveru Harinath, senior research associate at the Centre for Economic and Social Studies (CESS), points out that using the assigned lands meant for the weaker section of farmers for real estate ventures will defeat the purpose of the land reforms. “If it is a mega multipurpose project, the government can acquire land for the integrated development of an area. But if the assigned lands are being pooled merely for generation of wealth, that cannot be accepted. The government should not push for such a move, as these are not even barren lands,“ Harinath says.

From the developments so far, however, the government seems to lean towards the feudal policy that it can acquire the assigned lands whenever it wants, just because it was allotted by the government in the first place. In fact, several such government acquisitions that came before have left farmers with assigned lands struggling to receive compensation.

It is learnt that the massive land pooling drive is taking place in accordance with the state government’s plan to set up satellite cities around Hyderabad. The irony here is that the Telangana government, led by Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR), had promised to distribute three acres of land each to the Dalit landless families in the state. While this promise is yet to be acted upon, the lands allotted about five decades ago have instead come under the claws of the real estate development proposal brought in by the same government. #KhabarLive #hydnews