Guest Post by – Sankara Narayanan

The Supreme Court on Feb 02 2016 gave green signal to Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL) to lay down natural gas pipelines cutting across seven districts of TN and dismissed the State govt’s objections as merely “populist”. The SC bench also questioned how a state govt could intervene in a contract between the union govt and GAIL.

The mainstream media and very many national politicians totally ignored the apex court’s verdict and its effects on the livelihood of farmers. Why should the media pundits and netas waste their precious time discussing a non-issue?

Briefly about the natural gas pipeline

The pipeline project will carry natural gas from Kerala’s Kochi to Karnataka’s Bengaluru and Mangaluru over a distance of 871 km. About 300 km of that pipeline is to pass through Coimbatore, Tirupur, Salem, Erode, Namakkal, Dharmapuri and Krishnagiri districts of TN cutting across hundreds of villages.

Initial plans of GAIL ran into rough weather, when farmers opposed the alignment. While GAIL’s pipelines would run alongside the highways and railway lines in Kerala, it insisted an alignment that would cut across farm lands in Tamil Nadu.

It would result in the farmers losing their homes, wells and pumps which have been built and bought after years of hard work. Moreover, the conditions imposed by GAIL included closing down of wells, no permission for borewell, no right to raise any long term crops among others. For a pipeline of two feet diameter, the farmer would have to spare ten meters on either side, virtually taking away 60 ft of land right across the farm land.

GAIL promised a compensation of 10 per cent of the guideline value for right of use permission for 99 years. “At this rate, a farmer in Mullainaickanur in Tirupur got a cheque for Rs 13. This speaks volumes about the setback for the farmers,” says G.K. Nagaraj of Kongu Jananayaka Katchi (KJK). “While land was being sold at Rs 2 to 4 crore per acre, GAIL wants right of usage at Rs 2 to 3 lakh,” he charged.

“This project should not be implemented in a way that affects the livelihood of the farmers,” said the agitating farmers. This will be a setback to 50,000 farmers directly and 4.5 lakh farmers indirectly. It also will lead to razing over 2,200 cow sheds and demolition of 3,000 odd houses of farmers. The farmers with small land holdings will be gravely affected, they claimed.

Brushing aside all these genuine grievances, GAIL started laying the pipeline in TN unilaterally without getting the consent of the farmers. Farmers protested against the work. GAIL approached the state govt and with the assistance of police force the farmers were arrested and jailed. Compensation cheques were thrust on the unwilling farmers. A reign of terror was let loose on the agitating farmers. People were thrown out from the dwelling houses.

Opposing the union and state govts, the affected farmers in the seven districts formed a co-ordination committee and intensified their agitation. They clearly told that they were not against the project. They wanted the pipeline to be laid along the National Highway and Railway as was done in the state of Kerala.

Sensing the serious trouble and the genuine grievances of the farm community cutting across seven districts, the Jaya govt woke up from its slumber. It passed a resolution in the State Assembly prohibiting the GAIL’s original alignment and requesting the company to find alternative alignment for laying the pipeline.

Brief history of litigation

GAIL approached the Madras High Court objecting the state govt’s orders. The State government has been arguing that the pipelines affect the livelihood of about 5,500 small farmers. It has contended that “national interest” should not be at the cost of the lives and livelihood of large number of poor farmers. It suggested that pipes should be aligned along the national highways instead of near the homes and lands of farmers which would only render agricultural operations commercially unviable and leave the land virtually worthless.

But the Madras HC citing a union govt act which permitted laying of pipeline along the private lands dismissed the state govt’s orders and allowed GAIL to go ahead with the project as per their original alignment. The state govt and a few farm associations appealed in the Supreme Court to dismiss the Madras HC orders. But the SC while dismissing the appeal has passed a few harsh strictures against the state govt.

Upholding the Madras High Court’s decision challenged by the State, the SC Bench observed that Tamil Nadu has no technical expertise or legal authority to ask GAIL to change its pipeline route. The State government’s objections were described as merely “populist”. The Bench asked how a state govt could intervene in a contract between the central govt and Gail

“We are not against farmers. But you can’t prevent the gas pipeline project which is in national interest. If you (State) have any problem you should have taken up the matter with the Centre, but you have no authority to direct GAIL to alter the alignment,” a Bench of Chief Justice of India T.S. Thakur and Justices A.K. Sikri and R. Banumathi said.

“You supported farmers’ agitation against the project because votes are involved. You have gone by the sentiments of farmers,” the court told a senior advocate representing Tamil Nadu. It pointed out that only a handful has challenged the payment of compensation.

On the adverse remarks of the apex court

The Supreme Court has all the authority to decide the case based on the prevailing act of the union govt. But some of the remarks on the state govt are clearly in bad taste. This act, though brought by a post-independent union govt, smacks colonial arrogance.  Neither the union govt is under the British Raj; nor the GAIL an East India Company. Nor the Supreme of India is the Privy Council.

Right to property has not been scrapped from our statutes. The subject of land is still under the jurisdiction of the state. How can the union govt and GAIL ignore the citizen’s right to own property and the state’s domain over land? It appears that the SC is ridiculing the federal structure of our Constitution. The apex court also erred grievously when it observed that only a few farmers objected the payment of compensation. It does not matter how many farmers objected. Hon’ble judges should understand all farmers cannot reach the SC’s doors in Delhi. ‘Is there any substance in their objection or not’ should alone be the consideration.

How can the sufferings of thousands of farmers who are already under terrible stress be dismissed as populist? Modi govt can afford to declare an undeclared war against farmers. But can an elected state govt ignore the genuine concerns of thousands of its farmers? Then what is democracy all about? For those who are sermonising the ‘National Interest’: Why should it be at the cost of poor farmers?

As an expert rightly pointed out yesterday, GAIL has committed a blunder by adopting the   judicial route. Now the attitude of farmers has further hardened after the latest adverse verdict. Opposition parties are egging the state govt to file a Special Leave Petition. With the elections fast approaching, GAIL cannot expect any help from its Delhi masters.

When will the Soot Boot Ki – Make in India pundits realise that land is a life and death issue for many a million Indians and we are a democracy?