Govt of Assam must recognize the tenancy rights of farmers under the Assam (Temporarily Settled Areas) Tenancy Act, 1971, acknowledge the fact of cultivation since decades and refrain from diversion of farm lands for non-agricultural purposes
19th Jan, 2021: National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) is outraged at the ongoing state repression against the villagers of Mikir Bamuni Grant cluster of villages, Assam, including women and children, to silence the protests against land-grabbing of agricultural land by Azure Power Forty Pvt Ltd, with disregard of due process. We condemn the complicity of the police and the state in enabling the ‘land purchase’ by the company, by withholding documents and using intimidation tactics to ensure people’s compliance.
NAPM joins the villagers of Mikir Bamuni Grant in demanding an end to detentions and violence and the immediate release of the four farmers who have been in jail since 20 days. We demand that construction should stop immediately until all the outstanding issues raised by the villagers, including legal matters, are resolved.
Arrests, Violence and Intimidation:
As per reports, on the morning of the 29th December, 2020, a huge convoy of armed forces arrived at the Amdanga village of Mikir Bamuni Grant cluster (Nagaon district) to fence off an area of land they maintained belongs to Azure Power, a private company headquartered in New Delhi. They invoked Govt. orders to restrict villagers’ entry into the land. Male police officers brutally beat and kicked women, including pregnant women and children and dragged them out of their farms.
The same day, a farmer Buku Mardi was arrested and later at around 1 am that night, police forces with masked faces arrived at the village and picked up three other farmers, Lakhiram Mardi, Sikari Rongpi and Bhaity Timung, who had been opposing alienation of their land to the company, for months, on false charges of ‘abusing policemen’. Villagers have testified that police forcibly broke into their homes without prior notification and attacked and dragged male family members out of their homes (Survivor’s Testimony, Assam Jatiya Parishad, 2021). Since that night, army trucks and police vans have become a regular occurrence in the village and its surrounding areas. The four farmers remain in imprisonment and have not been granted bail yet. The continued arrests and threats of violence are an attempt to create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation among the villagers, especially the women left alone at home to avoid more arrests of the men of the families.
The recent incidents of police atrocities on Karbi and Adivasi farmers, villagers of Mikir Bamuni Grant and the subsequent arrests are not new. They are part of a larger attempt by the anti-people state-corporate nexus to suppress the struggle and fight of the villagers to uphold their rights and protect their farmland from being robbed by a multinational corporation in the name of ‘green’ energy.
Context and History of the Protests/ Resistance & Land Ownership Concerns:
On 12th March, 2020, just before lockdown, some of the villagers of the Mikir Bamuni cluster received notice that ‘their lands had been identified for the setting up of a solar power plant by Assam Power Development Corporation Limited (APDCL) and that Azure Power Forty Pvt Ltd would mark boundaries.’ They were told that they could register grievances, if any. It must be mentioned here that the said notice was given only to 6 persons to appear at the Circle office, randomly and not clarifying in what capacity the notices were issued i.e. as land occupants / land owners or tenancy occupants. However, when these 6 persons showed up at the Circle office they were told that the ‘land did not belong to them’ and hence they had ‘no stake in it to file objections’.
The bidding for the plant was won by Azure Power Pvt. Ltd. in 2019. The local people cultivating the land on which Azure intended to begin construction protested their claim, invoking occupancy rights won in 1981 through a mass land rights movement. Azure Power Pvt Ltd, however, is not claiming these lands under the Land Acquisition Act, 2013. Instead, it claims that it ‘bought’ these lands from the descendants of the erstwhile ‘zamindars’. They, in turn, claim ownership in disregard of the Assam (Temporarily Settled Areas) Act, 1971, through which the farmers gained occupancy rights of the land. When the villagers from Mikir Bamuni Grant were informed that their land was to be handed over to a private company for power generation, they challenged the decision taken by the zamindar family.
The Karbi and Adivasi farmers have been farming for generations on these lands which are part of the Mikir Bamuni Land Grant – a large holding, formerly part of a caste-based feudal land system. They received occupancy rights of these lands in 1981 under the Assam (Temporarily Settled Areas) Tenancy Act, 1971 as the result of the mass land rights movement that was waged against zamindars across Assam during the 60s and 70s. Such a right is inheritable and can only be transferred to another agriculturalist. While the protesting farmers have a claim over the lands and have the necessary documents to prove it, the ‘land puchase’ process attempted to circumvent and deny this.
The Corporate-State Nexus:
The tenure system of the Mikir Bamuni cluster was converted by the state, through a cabinet decision, to further facilitate the transfer of lands to the company. ‘Procedural roadblocks’ like needing to issue prior notice, public hearing and conducting social impact assessment etc, were avoided by making the transaction a ‘private’ one, with the zamindari family claiming ‘ownership’. The karbi and adivasi farmers of the land had not been consulted, nor were any negotiations held regarding compensation before their land was officially handed over to the private company. In spite of claims to the contrary by the authorities, the villagers’ legal tenancy rights have not been cancelled. (Jairath, 2021).
Construction Despite Pending Court Matters:
The farmers have challenged the taking over of the land in the lower courts in Nagaon, where the company has denied their legal claims by declaring that the lands have not been cultivated for the past 10 years. The local authorities for their part have even claimed that the documents held by the farmers are ‘fake’!
Meanwhile, facing resistance from the villagers, the company and their facilitators seem to have gone on record to state that the said land was ‘not suitable for agriculture’ and hence was to be used for power generation purposes. However, the land was used for cultivation until the moment the company bulldozed the 276 bighas covered with lush green crops, dealing a severe blow to the villagers who are already reeling under the economic distress caused by the pandemic and the lockdown.
On 6th October, 2020, the Nagaon Court issued directions that the Karbi and Adivasi farmers’ claims over the land, now a civil dispute yet to be resolved, needs to be settled before construction continues (Chakravartty, 2021). The construction and storage activities of the company had already been initiated in the grabbed land during lockdown and for lack of proper attention and access to the incidents, there was little the locals could do to resist such moves by the Assam Government along with the public venture APDCL acting as collaborators in the entire process.
The company has continued to comfortably carry out its on-site activity and construction work started on 28th May, 2020, under the protective gaze of the state, through the entire court process. Deploying Assam Police and CRPF, the Govt. of Assam ensured that the entire area was fenced off and heavy security present to guard the area, which the company has claimed as ‘theirs’. The Karbi and adivasi farmers continue to be unwilling to accept anything but their cultivable land.
The ‘Green Energy’ Excuse
Additionally, concerns have also been raised about the adverse effects that the project’s implementation will have on the region’s ecology. The forest near the village is a well-known elephant grazing land connected to Burha Pahar, West Kaziranga. The forest department, however, granted the necessary clearances for the project and officials deny that this is an elephant grazing land in spite of the statements of the local people and of actual incidents of damage caused by elephants in the area as recently as December 2020. The image that Azure Power Forty Pvt. Ltd. projects, as a ‘leader in solar power in India’ enables them to be seen as ‘contributors to sustainability and green energy ideals’, while invisibilizing the actual damage they cause. ‘Green Energy’ can’t be justified at the cost of violation of the rights and livelihood loss of the adivasi and indigenous peoples.
The Struggle for Land and Livelihood continues:
In Mikir Bamuni Grant, even after losing their lands to the fences, the farmers continued to grow vegetables on them as their form of protest, in Nov-Dec. However, now they are unable to cultivate vegetables, since the road to the construction site has been barricaded and the farmers do not have access to the land due to the ongoing day & night construction work.
With their paddy fields being bulldozed last year and the start of the solar plant construction on their land, the villagers are staring at a long-term threat to their livelihood and grave consequences for all aspects of their family and community lives. Yet, they continue to be resilient. On 12th January, 2021 the farmers of Mikir Bamuni protested in front of the Nagaon District Commissioner’s office, with support from local student union groups, district branches of national farmer union groups, various opposition political parties and civil society.
In the words of Kaleshwari Mardi, one of the protesters who has experienced severe state repression including two arrests:
“It is our land, our power, our right. […] We don’t know where you [Azure] are from, but this is our ancestral land, our forefathers cleared these lands, preserved these lands and cultivated these lands. And it is our will that will work here. We told them, and chased them away.”
The struggle of the adivasi people of Mikir Bamuni Grant is not isolated. These kinds of assertions are part of the wider land rights struggles waged across the country and the world today, led by the indigenous and working-class communities. The blatant assault on their lives and livelihoods has seen people rising above their differences and standing united in their fight against the anti-people, casteist and classist state. Often, these struggles also address concerns for the environment and environmental sustainability that are ingrained into the communities’ way of living.
NAPM is committed to ensuring that the voices of the people of Mikir Bamuni Grant and other places, who suffer violence and repression by the police and the state, are heard and find solidarity in their struggles.
Along with the Karbi and adivasi farmers, the women cultivators and children who suffered violence and the people who have been intimidated and detained, we demand that:
(i) The four arrested farmers – Buku Mardi, Lakhiram Mardi, Sikari Rongpi and Bhaity Timung must be released immediately and all charges against them and other villagers be dropped.
(ii) All work by the company, Azure Power Forty Pvt Ltd, on the land in question stop with immediate effect, until the matter of land occupancy is settled in court and no further process be undertaken by duress or deceit.
(iii) The company should be made to pay appropriate compensation, at par with current market value for the loss of crops, physical injuries and emotional trauma that the villagers were made to go through for over 9 months.
(iv) The police and administration must end their tactics of intimidation, arrests, threats and comply with the court order regarding work on the land; they must also stop enabling the work of the company on the land. Assam Govt must withdraw police and para-military from the area immediately.
(v) Impartial and Immediate Investigation into the procedural discrepancies and violations be conducted to establish responsibility for, and ensure action against:
· the local authorities for the denial of documents that the karbi and adivasi farmers have a right to.
· the false claim of the Circle Officer of the Revenue Dept that ‘no land has been cultivated in the last 10 years’!
· the Forest Department for their assertion that the land does not form part of the elephant grazing land.