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#India – A Tamil Nadu village’s nightmare

Two hours was all it took to destroy 80 hectares of fertile land with standing crop in Kannankottai, as the Tamil Nadu government went about “acquiring” the land to implement an “essential” project, invoking a British-era Act. By ILANGOVAN RAJASEKARAN

DAWN had not broken yet on November 7 when rumbling noises jolted the residents out of sleep at Kannankottai village in Gummidipoondi taluk of Tamil Nadu’s Tiruvallur district, some 50 kilometres from Chennai, near the border with Andhra Pradesh. Uncertain about their source, the villagers, mostly farmers and farmworkers, gathered at the village square and started moving towards the fields from where the sounds were coming. They were dumbstruck by what they saw there. A dozen earthmovers, excavators, lorries and tractors were destroying standing paddy and other crops growing in the fertile lands that had given the village the name “Kutti Thanjavur” (Mini Thanjavur: Thanjavur is the rice bowl of the State). A team of government officials was supervising the destruction, with a posse of policemen providing them security.

The “operation annihilation” was completed in less than two hours and it laid waste 200 acres (80 hectares) of land with standing crop and left the villagers’ lives in ruin. Water-carrying ducts, culverts and sluices of the Kannankottai Raja Eri tank which commands an ayacut of 3,000 acres, were destroyed. The men protested angrily, while the women wailed at what they saw as an “impudent act” of the state. The paddy crop needed only two more weeks to be harvested and the groundnut crop was also ready for harvesting.

The residents said that the Public Works Department (PWD), by its mindless act of destruction under the ruse of acquiring land for the Thervoy Kandigai-Kannankottai reservoir project, an ambitious project of the Tamil Nadu government to augment water supply to Chennai city, not only destroyed land and standing crop but also the century-old irrigation system of the Kannankottai Raja Eri tank, which has been the source of livelihood for more than 10 villages, including Kannankottai.

“I nursed them [the crop] like my children. It was a heartless act of murder. I was watching helplessly,” said 70-year-old Murugan, one of many Dalit landholders in the village for whom farming is the only source of livelihood.

The questionable acquisition of large parcels of “live” land from farmers on that “Black Friday”, as they call it, invited widespread condemnation.

The farmers’ fight against the acquisition had suffered a blow two days earlier, when the Madras High Court, in a ruling on November 5, dismissed a batch of public interest petitions challenging the acquisition and agreed with the government that the project was an essential one. The court also said that many farmers had accepted the interim compensation. This emboldened the state to unleash strong-arm tactics against a hapless people who refused to part with the land they had been tilling for generations. Without giving them the mandated 60 days to file an appeal against the High Court order, the government got down to the task of taking possession of the land.

“We do not know how to react. But we are confident that the judiciary will understand our plight and come to our rescue,” said P. Vijayakumar, who owns five acres of land. Refusing to accept the compensation, he and 50 other farmers have approached the judiciary through a series of petitions and appeals.

Interestingly, nearly 60 per cent of the farmers in the village are Dalits who also work as agricultural labourers. Telugu-speaking Naidus form the next major land-holding caste group. “All of us are small and medium farmers owning tracts of wet and dry lands. It was harmonious and peaceful existence for generations until the reservoir project came and brought with it disarray and despair. The village economy hinges on farming alone,” said Raagan, a Dalit farmer whose wife, R. Muniammal, is the village panchayat president.

The villagers smell a conspiracy in the urgency with which the project is being executed. They claim that the reservoir project aims to supply water to the nearby SIPCOT Industrial Estate, which has multinational companies, many of which are water guzzlers. “The current water supply is not adequate for them. They have been pressuring the state for adequate supply,” said K. Balram Naidu, a former village panchayat president. He is now the chairman of the Farmlands Retrieval Committee, which is spearheading the struggle against the land acquisition.

“The Chief Minister might not have been properly informed about it,” he said, adding that farmers in the village raised two paddy crops and a groundnut crop in a year. The village has been a proud leader in terms of agriculture produce in the Gummidipoondi block for several decades.

Vijayakumar endorsed Balram Naidu’s views. He said the farmers usually went for two crops of paddy on 2,000 acres and a third crop if the Kannankottai lake had enough storage. “We produce 80,000 bags of paddy, of 76 kg each, per crop. Two crops ensure a production of around 1.60 lakh bags of paddy. A few farmers go for a third crop, too, every year with the aid of well irrigation. We grow groundnut on about 300 acres, besides sesame and green gram,” he said.

Kannankottai’s nightmare began when the government announced the project to augment the reservoir capacity of Chennai city by 4.20 tmcft (thousand million cubic feet) at a cost of Rs.1,851 crore, on August 4, 2011. It envisaged creating a new storage capacity of 1 tmc ft at Thervoy Kandigai, Thirukandalam and Kannankottai Raja Eri. Six tanks —Nemam, Porur, Iyambakkam, Ambattur, Korattur and Madhavaram—were to be desilted to augment their capacities by 0.9 tmcft each, besides the Cholavaram tank.

Accordingly, the Water Resources Department (WRD) of the Public Works Department, while submitting a proposal, said Chennai city received drinking water supply from the Krishna river in Andhra Pradesh under the Krishna Water Supply Project. The four reservoirs of Poondi, Cholavaram, Red Hills and Chembarambakkam stored the monsoon flows and acted as storage reservoirs for the water received from the Krishna river. At present, the combined storage capacity of the four reservoirs is 11,057 million cubic feet.

During the monsoon, according to PWD officials, whenever the four reservoirs achieved full storage level (FRL), water received from the Krishna river could not be stored in them. “Subsequently, the government has to ask Andhra Pradesh to cut supplies during these periods. On account of this, the city is not able to receive the full quantum of allocated water,” an official pointed out.

Hence, it was held that a new reservoir be formed by connecting two tanks—the Thervoy Kandigai tank and the Kannankottai Rajaneri tank—will ensure an additional annual storage of 1 tmcft. (The reservoir will have the capacity to hold 1 tmcft when filled twice, which is equal to the amount of water drawn every month from the existing reservoirs to meet the city’s water requirements.)

To build additional storage capacity for the Krishna water, the WRD proposed to construct an off-take canal from the Kandaleru-Poondi canal (through which the water comes from Andhra Pradesh) with a length of 7,900 metres, passing through Thamaraikuppam, Senjiagaram and Pallikuppam villages and the reserve forest of Pallikuppam. A maximum flood discharge diversion canal would also be built.

To implement the scheme, the State government needed to acquire 1,252.47 acres of land at a cost of Rs.160 crore. It includes 692.42 acres of patta land, mainly wet; 527.92 acres of poromboke land; and 32.13 acres of forest land. On the basis of this assessment, the government sanctioned Rs.330 crore for the “formation of a new reservoir near Kannankottai and Thervoy Kandigai villages in Gummidipoondi taluk”, which the then Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa, inaugurated on September 11, 2013, through videoconferencing.

The concern of the people that the water in the new reservoir is actually meant for industries situated in the SIPCOT Industrial Estate is not far from the truth. The State, in its administrative sanction note dated January 24, 2012, has specifically stated that the project should be executed “without affecting the SIPCOT lands”. A notification under Section 4(1) of the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, was passed to acquire land in Kannankottai village. It also invoked the urgency provisions under Section 17 of the same Act to dispense with the mandatory inquiry under Section 5(a) of the Act. These were notified in the gazette on July 15, 2013.

The villagers pointed out that the government’s decision to dispense with the mandatory inquiry was not justifiable since it deprived the landholders of their rights. Senior advocate N.R. Chandran, while arguing their case in the Madras High Court, pointed out that even the Supreme Court had held that the exceptional and extraordinary power of dispensing with the inquiry under Section 5(a) of the Act “is not a routine power and a greater degree of care must be taken by the State while invoking such powers of compulsory acquisition”.

He noted that the government had not notified the acquisition under the provisions of The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, which came into effect on January 1, 2014. The notification under Section 4 of the 1894 Act, he maintained, violated the fundamental rights of the farmers, guaranteed under Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution.

But the State in its reply pointed out that the project was meant to meet the drinking water needs of Chennai city and hence was very important. It states: “The government has already taken possession of 629.92 acres of poromboke lands and, similarly, out of 800.65 acres of patta lands, 24 awards have also been passed for acquiring 753.22 acres and of which 102.80 acres have already been acquired. Land owners, 36 in total, have also received compensation of Rs.11.96 crore. At present 33 per cent of project work has been completed. Of the total 571 land owners, only a few have approached the court.”

It further claimed that the government had issued an order on January 20, 2014, regarding the applicability of the 2013 Act to the land owners, stating that all provisions of the new Act relating to the determination of compensation shall apply to them.

But the residents are wary. They are not sure whether the amendments regarding rehabilitation and resettlement (RR) under the new Act will be applicable to them. A former village vice-president, E. Govindasamy, a Dalit, however, pointed out that the provisions of the new Act had not been followed.

Against the spirit of the law

The Act, he said, was meant to “ensure, in consultation with institutions of local self-government and gram sabhas established under the Constitution, a humane, participative, informed and transparent process for land acquisition for industrialisation, development of essential infrastructural facilities and urbanisation with the least disturbance of the owners of the land and other families and provide just and fair compensation to those whose land has been acquired and make adequate provisions for their rehabilitation and resettlement”. The resolution of the village panchayat’s gram sabha meeting on September 9, 2012, asking the State to “abandon the project” had been ignored, he said.

As the controversy over the land acquisition deepens, farmers alleged that they were not properly informed about the terms of what they called “a compulsory acquisition”. No public announcement such as beating a tom-tom was made, nor were the details of the acquisition proceedings conveyed to them, they said. “We have not been given the copies of the necessary environmental impact assessment (EIA) report of the project too,” said Vijayakumar. They insist that instead of fertile wetlands, alternative lands are available on the southern side of the village, which could be utilised for the project.

The hasty land acquisition has left important questions unanswered. The aggrieved farmers claimed that the State government did not obtain the mandated social impact assessment report. The Tiruvallur District Collector, they alleged, had not visited them in their village to listen to their grievances. They said that before the announcement of the project, a team of revenue officials had come and sought their views on it and that they had strongly opposed it.

But nothing seems to have worked in the farmers’ favour. “The land now technically belongs to the PWD since March this year,” says District Collector K. Veera Raghava Rao. Talking to Frontline, he said the villagers had, in fact, met him. “It is an important project. We have dispersed interim awards of compensation as per the guidelines. Adequate awards will be paid as per the new Act. A few have refused to accept and gone to court.” He added that he had asked the officials not to pursue the acquisition until the harvesting of crops was over.

But the people are sceptical. The major political parties, barring the Desiya Murpokku Dravidar Kazhagam (DMDK) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), confined their support to the mere issuing of statements. The affected residents want compensation on the basis of current market value. They are at a loss to understand how water will be shared by the rest of the traditional ayacutdars of Kannankottai and Thervoy Kandigai tanks once they are merged.

Today, Kannankottai wears a haunted look. Though the heavy machines that wreaked havoc on their lives have been withdrawn temporarily, the fear remains. They are yet to recover from the trauma of the Black Friday when their crops were killed. Their future looks bleak.

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