• Hindustan Times (Mumbai)

Unlike acquisition, land pooling implies that farmers have a share in its development. So why are the farmers of Dholera in Gujarat unconvinced?

Alittle over 100 km south of Ahmedabad city, in the lush green cotton fields, speckled with creamy white cotton buds, locals will regale you with stories of farmers who sold their land and got rich. There is one about a few farmers in the region, who sold their land to a corporate and bought the “chaar bangle waali car” (referring to the Audi logo). There are stories about others who sold their land for a “good price”, refurbished their houses, bought bikes and hired chauffeurs for them.

HT PHOTOS: SAUMYA KHANDELWAL Farmers such as Faljibhai Nagjibhai right) and his brother Laxmanbhai of Haibatpur village fear being dispossessed of their land because of the discrepancy in records. Here, they are pictured holding up documents that prove this land belonged to their father. (Bottom) Farmers stand in fields earmarked for the Dholera international airport.So why wouldn’t farmers in the town of Dholera do so too? “Because those who sold their land to the companies are now doing

majoori (labour) on other people’s farms, or working in factories,” says Roop Sang Bhai of Sarasla village in Dholera.

Money cannot be eaten, Sarasla residents insist. The cars are standing stationary, the bike chauffeurs had to be sacked, and the promised jobs either didn’t come, or don’t pay well, they lament. “Farmers in this area have been ruined after selling their land. The khet (farm) has always given us enough to eat. So why should we give it away?” asks Roop Sang, echoing the sentiment of the group in the Sarasla cotton field.

In the 22 villages of Dholera, the site for the Dholera Special Investment Region (DSIR), it’s a question that farmers want to pose to the state government. Much like the rest of the country, in Dholera too, land has become the flash point of conflict between its owners and the government. But what makes Dholera different — and a test case for alternative models of acquiring land for industry — is the state government’s land pooling policy, as opposed to a contentious one on acquisition.

Announced in 2007, the DSIR was pitched as a “global manufacturing and trading” hub, with a smart city and an international airport. It is the first industrial node — there are 24 planned along the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor — that was taken up for development. Touted to be PM Narendra Modi’s pet project (the state CM when the project was announced) the DSIR didn’t see much activity until last year, when the project received a sanction of 2,784 crore from the central government.

The funds, or the lack thereof, however, seem to be not the only hurdle here. In December 2015, the state High Court ordered a status quo on land acquisition in the DSIR, in response to a petition by a group of farmers under the aegis of the NGO Gujarat Khedut Samaj (GKS) and a local organisation, Bhal Bachao Samiti.

It’s a conflict that DSIR Development Authority (DSIRDA) planners were hoping to avoid. With the Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation and Resettlement (LARR) Act, 2013, turning into the proverbial political hot potato and the messy processes of acquisition leading to a face-off between the owners and the government (or, the corporate), policy experts and planners have been banking on alternatives such as pooling.

Land pooling — at least on paper — offers the new module of a partnership between the owner and the developer. Here, the owner retains his property, as opposed to cases of acquisition, where the sale of land implies loss of all rights for the original owner. In many cases, such as areas in the NCR, post acquisition, a change of land use (from agricultural to commercial) leads to a rise in the price of the land, creating ground for discontent and resentment amongst the original owners. The compensation, given in lieu of the land, is also not commensurate with the market price of the property, owners argue.

In pooling, however, the premise is that the owners are ‘willing’ partners, who receive a portion of their land after the area is developed — industries come in; roads, schools and hospitals are built up — and the price of the plot has gone up. “Gujarat has always had a progressive policy of acquisition, where farmers get a share in the benefits of industrial development,” says noted economist Yoginder K Alagh.

So what went wrong in Dholera? The answer lies in the Gujarat SIR Act, 2009, under which the state government can take 50% of the farmers’ land without offering compensation. The other half would be given at a different site after “rezoning” of the entire area. “We are taking barren land anyway, and also plan to offer compensation for the 50% deduction,” says a senior official from the DSIRDA.

But farmers in Dholera are not convinced. “The best quality of wheat in the country grows here; if it rains moderately, we grow organic cotton. We also grow gram and cumin here,” says Bhagwan Bhai, 65, of Sarasla village. Activists such as Sagar Rabari of GKS claim that more than 60% of land in Dholera is fertile. Agricultural yield in the region amounts to 600 kg to 700 kg of wheat per acre, and 400 kg to 500 kg of cotton of per acre, he says. Farmers in the region add that if only the government resolved the issue of water scarcity, they could plan multiple crops and even enhance their yield by two-fold. The fact that there has been a delay in making it possible — the delay in the completion of the canal network that will bring the Narmada waters to them — is also being perceived as a “ploy” to ensure that they let go off their land.

Resistance to the project is further complicated by the messy land records, an issue that plagues land acquisition across the country. Take the case of Faljibhai Nagjibhai, 38, of Haibatpur village, who claims that out of the 96 acres of his fields, not even one half is listed in the village’s computerised land records, owing to the corrupt village talathi (revenue secretary).

The mess of records can be traced to land reforms in the state, where the landless received land under several schemes such as the Land Ceiling Act, the state tenancy law and the central government’s Santhani scheme (where government wastelands were redistributed to the landless), explains Sagar. However, their didn’t make it to the records because of illiteracy, fragmentation of landholdings through the years and corrupt officials. Now, those such as Faljibhai are wondering how the planners would allot them their rightful share of land after deduction. There are other problems too: shifting to a new plot would imply fresh investments on farm infrastructure such as tubewells, as well as the question of viability of agriculture after the industrial come in. “We have heard that the new plots for us are being carved out of the saline area near the sea. If there’s no agriculture, what are we going to do?” asks Faljibhai. The fear of being given fallow and saline plots is predominant among the farmers of Dholera, who trace it to the emergence of real estate brokers in the area. They deal in the sale and purchase of lands, often a murky process involving the rich and powerful in the region, and beyond. Owing to the skewed power equations in this trade, farmers such as Faljibhai feel they might lose out eventually. They also point to the provision of development charges on the new plots, and the requisite permission from the authority clause, if they wanted to build something on the new land. The DSIRDA official told HT that the authority is willing to negotiate with the farmers and insisted that development in the region would benefit the farmer.

But in the cotton fields of Sarasla, farmers say that “development” could only mean better irrigation facilities. “We don’t need the industries. Jaan de

denge par zameen nahi (we will give up our lives, but not our land),” says Roop Sang, as the group in the cotton field nods in agreement. But Bhagwanbhai, whose family is now landless and depends on the trade in cattle feed procured from the fields, stops to correct them: “Jaan bhi mat do, aur zameen bhi mat do (Don’t give

your lives, or your land).”