One day in early August 2021, Papi Reddy took a trip to the revenue office of Yacharam mandal, in Telangana’s Ranga Reddy District, He wanted to claim some money that was due to him under Rythu Bandhu, a state-sponsored agricultural welfare scheme, which assures Rs 5,000 every season to small farmers like him for each acre of land they own.
At the office, however, Reddy faced a rude, uncooperative officer who insisted that Reddy’s name was not on the government’s list of landowners. “Your name is not on the online record, you’re not due anything,” he recounted being told over and over.
Reddy was shocked. He had just spent the morning in his fields. The land he had bought some 50 years ago was bristling with new growth even as the officer was rejecting his pleas.
Back home, he logged on to the website of Dharani, the Telangana government’s “Integrated Land Records Management System”. The website, which went live in 2020, hosts online records of land ownership. Although farmers have other forms of documentation, like state-issued passbooks, the Dharani records act as a primary base for farmer identification numbers, which farmers need to access Rythu Bandu and other essential services, like crop insurance, Central welfare and crop loans.
Reddy punched in his survey number into the Dharani portal and waited for the page to load. He froze with shock. According to the portal, his four acres of fields and mango orchards in Medipalle village had changed ownership unbeknownst to him, and was now property of the Telangana State Industrial Infrastructure Corporation, or TSIIC.
His visit to the Dharani website proved that the clerk had not been lying. Papi Reddy, at the age of 73, was no longer the land’s proprietor, or “pattadar” – deed holder, in the language of revenue.
This could have passed for another routine case of mismanagement of records. Except, in this case, Reddy is one of about 800 farmers who are refusing to give up their land for Hyderabad Pharma City, a newly christened National Investment and Manufacturing Zone in Ranga Reddy district, 60 km outside Hyderabad.
When Reddy told fellow farmers what had happened, he realised that this was not an isolated incident. As farmer and activist Saraswati Kavula noted, “We filed objection letters immediately and sent them to the RDO,” or Revenue District Officer. The two urgent letters sent in objection were signed by 34 affected farmers and their families, whose holdings run into a few hundred acres. The officer “told us it was just a mistake,” Kavula added.
Enquiries that Kavula made after the objection letters were sent revealed that the number of farmers whose names have been struck down is much higher. “This has happened to the majority of landholding farmers in my village alone,” Kondaiah, a farmer from Medipalle, told me. (Many of the farmers and workers in this story go by one name.) Ganesh Kanomani, also a farmer from Medipalle, told me that in neighbouring Tadiparthy, 280 farmers had been affected. “If it was just one or two stray plots, maybe it could have been a mistake,” Kavula said, incredulous. She explained that from her enquiries in just three villages, she had found that around 1,000 farmers had been affected. “How can it be a mistake at this scale?” she said.
The 19,330-acre pharmaceutical park, and the land acquisition for it has been mired in controversy for the last seven years.
The project was first proposed in 2014, the year after India repealed a colonial-era land acquisition law and passed a new, landmark legislation that aimed to make the process more fair and transparent.
Yet, for the first two years, land was taken over for the park in an opaque manner, through “government orders” of questionable legality, bypassing all the safeguards that the new law sought to introduce. Then, the state amended the 2013 law itself.
The Telangana High Court has repeatedly halted work on this project on the grounds that the government had taken over land in violation of the law. But despite this, and in the face of organised, persistent protests by farmers and labourers, the government has continued to steamroll its way through, using a barrage of convoluted legal and extra-legal tactics.
The project is, in fact, a test case for understanding why the 2013 law, widely hailed as bringing in more transparency and fairness in the acquisition process, has failed to live up to these expectations.
Land acquisition refers to the practice whereby the government takes land from its citizens for various economic purposes. In India, the colonial British government standardised this practice, acquiring both private and common land for roads, railways, public constructions and other infrastructure.
The idea of the greater good, formally termed as “public purpose” in the law under which acquisitions were carried out at the time, was given as justification for taking land this way. But neither was the term defined clearly, nor did it always accurately represent the purposes for which land was taken.
This law, under which much of British acquisition was done, was the Land Acquisition Act of 1894, a sweeping, draconian legislation that awarded the state inordinate power over citizens’ land.
Section 17 of the Act, for instance, featured an “urgency clause” that allowed the government to acquire land merely 15 days after issuing an official notification informing the public of the plan to acquire it – whether or not citizens’ objections to the decision had been filed within that time. Compensation, as sociologists Sebastian Morris and Ajay Pandey have pointed out, was based on an idea of “market value”, determined by a government official, which did not take into account factors such as the profits the land could generate, and the value of natural and built resources on it. Neither did it account for what they term the “social value” of the land – that is, the loss of livelihoods and ways of life of those who lived and worked on the land. These omissions, they noted, have all historically led to severe under-compensation.
After Independence, the Indian government continued to use the 1894 Act to acquire land for development. Now that the colonial rulers were gone, the Indian state presented itself as a benevolent entity doing what was absolutely necessary to ensure that the young country could catch up with the rest of the free world.
In 1948, Prime Minister Jawarhalal Nehru famously said, to 22,000 or so distraught families from 95 villages directly affected by the acquisition for and construction of the Hirakud Dam in Orissa, “If you have to suffer, you should do so in the interest of the country.” Fifty years later, in 2008, more than 6,000 families affected by the dam were still waiting for the rehabilitation and compensation due to them.
This pattern, of the government taking over land for public projects, without passing on any clear benefits to affected populations, and, in fact, leaving them out of the agenda altogether, continued in the decades that followed.
The sociologist Walter Fernandes found that between 1947 to 2000, development projects had forcibly dispossessed and severely affected nearly 50 million people. Widespread people’s protests against acquisition and displacement gained critical momentum in the 1970s and boiled over several times. The government seemed to respond to the demands and objections that protestors raised, by making 17 different amendments through the years to the original act – in 1967, for instance, it introduced interest on compensation rates paid to those whose land was acquired.
In 2013, the United Progressive Alliance government decided to do away with the law altogether and replace it with the Land Acquisition Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, or LARR Act, which sought to put in place a more “humane” and “transparent” framework for the government to take over land.
The 2013 legislation was also particularly timely given that the goals of land acquisition had by then shifted from enabling large development projects, like dams, to “distinctly political economic projects”, as Michael Levien, a sociologist studying dispossession in India, noted in a 2015 paper. Specifically, land was increasingly being taken and accumulated by the state in response to pressure from private interests who wanted to establish large greenfield projects in rural India, like Mahindra World City in Rajasthan, inaugurated in 2007, and Lavasa Smart City, inaugurated in 2009.
The LARR Act introduced crucial safeguards: for instance, it made it mandatory for the government to obtain the consent of a large majority of owners of any land being acquired, legally linked the rate of monetary compensation awards to actual market prices of the land being acquired, and introduced mandatory guidelines for resettling those who would be displaced.
Jairam Ramesh and Muhammad Ali Khan have noted that the goal behind setting a high threshold for consent (80% of affected landowners in the case of a private project, and 70% of landowners for public-private partnerships) was to limit the manipulation of the process.
The LARR Act also laid out an extensive procedure for assessing the environmental and social impact of a project. The environmental impact assessment, or EIA, would evaluate the impact on the land and ecology that was affected, while the social impact assessment, or SIA, would evaluate parameters such as the number of people who would be affected, the extent to which their assets and livelihoods would be lost, and the overall costs and benefits of the project to the affected community. These assessments are to be published online, after which a public hearing is to be held, where the community can voice their concerns.
The law also laid down a protocol for the resettlement of those displaced, including those who did not own the land but lived and worked on it. “These revisions were designed to address the overwhelming numbers of landless people who had been completely invisiblised throughout centuries of acquisition, although they make up the majority of the affected,” land activist and researcher Usha Seethalakshmi, said.
The land acquisition law of 2013 was notified on January 1, 2014. Nine months later, the Telangana government announced its plans to build the Rs 3,000-crore Hyderabad Pharma City, just outside the state capital. But when government notices for land acquisition were first issued in 2015, there was no reference to the 2013 law.
On January 6, 2015, a notice from the tahsildar, or tax officer, of Kandukur mandal was circulated in Meerkhanpet village, announcing that 493 acres of assigned land in survey number 112 would be acquired from the village for a new pharmaceutical industrial project. Assigned land refers to government land that was redistributed for agriculture to landless people, predominantly from the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities, as part of nationwide land reforms led by the Congress party in the 1970s, and state reforms in the 1980s and 1990s.
Over the next two years, similar notices were circulated in villages in other mandals, such as Yacharam, too. Residents of those villages recounted that they were approached by government officers wielding forms on which landowners were to sign their consent for acquisition.
The notices did not refer to each other, and the terms and conditions they specified did not cite any higher legislation, like LARR 2013.
The act specified that those whose land is acquired should be paid compensation of four times the market price of land in rural areas and two times the market price in urban areas, in addition to remuneration for loss of livelihood. Since land is a state subject, states had the power to amend the legislation, as well as create their own rules for its implementation. In 2015, Telangana notified rules in which it provided for compensation calculated as three times the market price of land.
The going rate in Yacharam mandal at the time the notices were circulated there, according to a rough estimate by a Kurmidda farmer, Venkatesh Jakkula, was between Rs 40 lakh and Rs 60 lakh per acre, depending on location. Under the provisions of the LARR Act, the compensation rates should have amounted to at least Rs 1.2 crore per acre. Instead, the rates offered, according to the notification, were: Rs 7.7 lakh per acre for assigned land and Rs 12.5 lakh per acre for patta land, or privately owned land.
“Officers came to our villages and houses and told us that the award would be even less if we did not sign our consent,” Jakkula said. The twenty or so other farmers standing with us as we spoke in cotton fields in Kurmidda, owned by farmer Lakshmi, confirmed this.
“Many just panicked and signed, they didn’t have time to think,” Jakkula added, shaking his head. His father, who cultivates a few acres of assigned land in Kurmidda, was one of them. “They told us this is government land, we will take it back when we want,” Jakkula recounted his father saying.
According to Ganesh, the farmer from Medipalle, “Some people signed because they needed cash, for weddings, debt, or because their land was too rocky.” He, like several other farmers I spoke with, alleged that there was persistent pressure on those who hadn’t signed, from the government officials over the course of weeks, months, even years following the notification.
Though there is no law giving the government untrammelled rights over assigned land, everyone I spoke to seemed to assume that it had such rights. Usha Seethalakshmi, who has worked on acquisition-related conflicts all over Telangana, explained that this was a common assumption, constantly reinforced by how acquisition plays out in the country. “State and central governments are always taking assigned lands for development projects,” she said.
The 2013 Act does not differentiate between assigned and private land. “It lays down the same procedures like obtaining consent, registering objection, resettlement and rehabilitation and so on” for acquiring assigned land and private land, Seethalakshmi explained. In fact, she added, the law did not use an earlier term, “resumption”, which the government regularly used earlier while taking over assigned lands under the British-era act. “What was unsaid in ‘resumption’ is this idea that the government has given the land as a matter of benevolence and so it has a right to take it back as and when it chooses,” Seethalakshmi said.
According to a 2017 news report, the TSIIC acquired 6,910 acres of land in the first phase of acquisition. It was too late by the time the larger agricultural community realised what was happening.
“In the beginning they assured us that they would only acquire assigned land,” Ramesh, the sarpanch of Tadiparthy said. But that changed in 2017. Rajasekhar Reddy, the sarpanch of Kurmidda, told me, “In 2017 they announced they would be taking even patta land.”
Devoji, a Kurmidda farmer, argued that the government “didn’t tell us this in 2015, because they knew we would fight. Who would be willing to give private land?”
The activist Saraswati Kavula, who is also a landowning farmer in neighbouring Wanaparthy village, noted that “Everything was conducted in stealth.” She added that when she attempted to track down the notifications some years later, though they should be publicly available, she struggled to find them. “Even the RDO’s offices did not have them when we asked,” she said.
The notification of acquisition serves as the official announcement of the state’s intent and invites public objections, if any, to be submitted within a stipulated time. Kavula showed me copies of a couple of notifications of the Yacharam acquisition from May 22, 2018, in the Namasthe Telangana newspaper – she acquired the notifications through Right To Information applications, after all her requests to revenue officials went unanswered. “I have never seen this newspaper circulated here,” she said. She added that notifications for different areas were published at different times, which she suspects contributed to the lack of timely, systematic mobilisation. She reasoned that each small group of landowners targeted in each notification (survey numbers are mentioned in notifications) believed they were dealing with an isolated event.
Indeed, farmers I spoke to later did recall feeling isolated when they encountered the notifications. “We had to sign, who will come forward to help us fight?” Ganesh said. Farmers also said that the government used developments in one village as a stick against residents in another. “When they came to our village, they told us it had already happened in Kandukur village, to make us sign faster,” a farmer in Nanak Nagar said. “It’s not like the government will listen to some farmer, is it?” Ganesh added.
To bypass the 2013 land acquisition law while taking over land for the pharma city project, the Telangana government resurrected an old strategy: it presented land acquisition by the government as “private negotiations” between landowners and a “procuring agency”.
In July 2015, seven months after it issued the first notification to take over assigned lands, the Telangana government passed Government Order, or GO, numbered 45. The text of the order cited an earlier order, numbered 477, from October 1998, which allowed the then Andhra Pradesh State Infrastructure and Industrial Corporation, to negotiate and purchase land through “private negotiations” – referring to direct deals between the corporation and individual landowners.
GO 45 also cited another order from 2015, which set up a committee to “acquire lands by negotiation” to develop the temple town of Yadagirigutta.
GO 45 noted that the Telangana State Industrial Infrastructure Corporation had requested the government to issue orders along similar lines for new projects. It stated that according to the head of the TSIIC, the process under the LARR Act to acquire land was “time consuming” and that the requirement to seek “prior consent of at least 80 percent of affected families will make the land acquisition a long drawn process which escalates the project’s costs and affects the project development.” The government, it stated, was therefore forming a committee, “to expedite the process of land acquisition from the Pattadar/land owners by way of private negotiations to save delays and litigations”, given that “important and prestigious projects announced by the State and Central governments require large chunks of land.”
Eight days later, GO 45 was followed by another, numbered 123, which detailed how land should be acquired through private negotiations, and brought in some key changes to the land acquisition process in the state.
First, it concentrated power with the District Level Land Procurement Committee headed by the district collector; the collector would now be the sole officer presiding over acquiring landowners’ compliance and recording public objections.
The LARR Act, as researchers have pointed out, offers better chances of representation for rural oustees in the acquisition by involving gram sabhas in a participatory process – the process of securing consent for acquisition cannot begin without a pre-notification consultation with local gram sabhas.
The LARR act also mandates that the government conduct and publish a comprehensive social impact assessment and environmental impact assessment, which are followed by a public hearing, where the community can voice their concerns. This is is intended to ensure that all the stakeholders have been adequately informed and consulted before a project is initiated.
But in implementing the GOs, the government dropped the social impact assessment entirely. And while it did conduct an environmental impact assessment, it only submitted the report to the environment ministry in 2017, well after thousands of acres of land had been acquired. “How can they take people’s land without submitting the EIA, even before conducting the public hearing?” Kavula asked.
Second, the LARR Act specified that a notification of acquisition would have to be published in a gazetted publication, after which a 60-day notice period would ensue, during which those opposing acquisition could register their complaints.
GO 123 drastically shortened this to a mere 15 days. This effectively cut down the time that the public had to respond to the notification, and to mobilise and protest if needed. “In fact, GO 123 left no space for legal recourse,” Seethalakshmi noted. “It essentially told landowners to simply take what was offered.”
Third, the order sought to avoid adhering to the LARR Act’s nuanced compensation system. According to the act, the compensation calculation is supposed to take into account the cost of the land, built structures on the land and public infrastructure lost. It also contained provisions for regular payments beyond the time of the acquisition, to compensate for the owner’s loss of livelihood. Moreover it lays down instructions for resettlement, and development of public infrastructure and amenities at the resettlement sites.
In contrast, GO 123 proposed a lumpsum amount as compensation, calculated to include the value of “land and property, perceived loss of livelihood, equivalent costs required for rehabilitation and resettlement of willing land owners and others”. This is an amount that is supposed to be agreed upon by both the “land owner/owners and Procuring Agency”, or the agency in charge of acquisition, essentially indicating a negotiation between the two.
Further, it is unclear in the way GO 123 was worded, if those affected who do not own land are to be compensated at all, or to be even counted as affected. “This is the most marginalised category of people who are dependent on the land, but are completely ignored,” according to Seethalakshmi. “While the LARR talks about landowners and also the landless cultivators and labourers, GO 45 and GO 123 completely invisibilises them.”
Some of these provisions intensified the pressures on agricultural communities by treating them as an agglomeration of individual land owners.
Sociologist Michael Levien notes, in his 2018 study of acquisition in Rajpura – where the Rajasthan government followed a similar process of buying land following negotiations with individual owners – that this policy “softened opposition” by “transforming dispossession from a collective relation with the state to an individual relation to the market.”
In any case, on the ground there was no real negotiation at all. Officials offered a price in exchange for land, and villagers were told, “take it or you’ll get even less”, Jakkula recounted, dismissing the phrasing of “private deals” and “negotiations” as misnomers.
The process created numerous fractures within the communities: between those who were actively protesting and those who weren’t; between those who gave up their land and those who held out; between holders of patta land and assigned land.
In July 2021, I noticed some farmers working on land fenced off by the TSIIC in Kurmidda. I requested Jakkula to introduce me to them. He hesitated. “They won’t talk to us. They are afraid of the government,” he said, darkly. He explained that they were particularly vulnerable because they had voluntarily given up their land, and many of them had used up the compensation they received – if the government decided to take possession of the land, it could legitimately deprive them of farming rights, and thus their livelihoods.
“They are exercising a divide-and-rule policy on us,” Tadiparthy’s sarpanch Ramesh insisted. Many villagers had grown suspicious of their neighbours, and explained to me that local members of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi had eyes and ears in the village. The majority of protesting farmers I interviewed typically requested to meet outside the village, usually on their own fields.
“They want to keep their land, but they don’t want to fight,” Devoji said, articulating the protestors’ frustration with those who haven’t stood with them.
In February this year, while visiting a Scheduled Caste thanda, or settlement, in Kurmidda, I was confronted by a visibly inebriated person who identified himself as Rakesh, a resident of the thanda. Physically barring my way, he said, “Won’t you hear my story? We are also suffering.” He continued to tell me that his late father had signed away their assigned land in 2016, when Rakesh wasn’t at home. He and his mother Sarada, now a widow, are anxious about the future. “Did you get the compensation money?” I asked her. She replied that they had, but that her husband had spent it all on alcohol. “What else is left to say?” she added.
Pantya Naik, Rakesh’s neighbour in the thanda, and others quickly extricated me from the scene. “Don’t listen to him, he drinks like an old man,” Naik said.
Meanwhile, rifts between patta and assigned land holders arose because of the different rates offered for the two categories. This deepened existing inequity and tensions in the villages, along caste and class lines.
In Kadthal, some assigned land oustees received as little as Rs 5 lakh per acre, according to Hanuman Naik, a people’s representative from the village, while patta owners were offered Rs 12.5 lakh per acre. Several assigned land oustees freely expressed frustration that their well-off neighbours with private pattas had not stood up for them. “If they want, they can contest this,” Kavula said. She cited a previous ruling by the Andhra Pradesh High Court in a 2002 case, State of AP vs Mekala Pandu, which held that assigned land owners had to be compensated at the same rate as patta owners. Assigned land holders “can win this case, but they are hesitating to go to court,” Kavula observed.
She added that given that an overwhelming majority of assignees are from already highly disadvantaged caste and class backgrounds, their reluctance to allocate funds and energy towards what they feel is a stab in the dark is unsurprising. “These people already have tight budgets and live hand to mouth, they don’t want to spare money and take the chance,” she said.
Eventually, though, it was the injustice to the owners of assigned lands that opened the floodgates to a series of stay orders from the Telangana High Court, which officially put a stop to the use of GO 45 for land acquisition for Hyderabad Pharma City.
In one of the cases, from mid-August 2016, the court stayed the government’s attempt to acquire 493 acres of assigned land in Meerkhanpet village.
When Justice Ramachandra Rao demanded an explanation for why the government was resorting to “private deals”, the government’s lawyer obliquely argued that there was “no pressure whatsoever on the assignees”, and that only “willing” landowners were involved. The judge is reported to have commented, while issuing a stay on GO 45, that the policy of using “private negotiations” to take land away from assignees was not sound in law.
The judge had already issued a stay on GO 45 in a different case a little more than a week earlier, after hearing a petition by Begari Venkataiah and eight others farming assigned land in neighbouring Kurmidda village. (Meanwhile, in a case unrelated to the pharma city, GO 123 had also been quashed by a single-judge bench of the court, only for that order to be suspended a few days later – in January 2017, finally, the court upheld the decision to quash the order.)
The government would again attempt to acquire 314 acres in Meerkhanpet through a notification issued on 23 September, in blatant contempt of court orders, only to have the move struck down by the court again.
After relying on the heavily contested government orders for years, in May 2017, the Telangana government finally notified its customised amendments to the LARR Act.
It wasn’t the first state to do so. Kanchi Kohli, a researcher who has worked extensively on land and environmental policy at the Centre for Policy Research, noted, “Almost all states in India have modified the 2013 law through state amendment acts or through rules which read down clauses of the Central legislation.”
Kohli explained that this was possible because of the intricacies of how subjects are divided between state, Central and concurrent lists. “Land is an item in the state list of the seventh schedule of the Constitution,” she said. “However, ‘acquisition and requisitioning of property’ lies in the concurrent list, which gives powers to both central and state governments to enact laws. In effect, the land acquisition is carried out through a range of laws that can be selectively applied depending on state-centre relationship or where the stakes for project design and implementation lie.”
The Telangana amendment wrought drastic changes to the procedure laid down by the LARR Act. Most notably, it eliminated the social impact assessment for certain types of development projects, such as those in the infrastructure category. An amendment to Section 101 of the principal act nullified a rule that mandated that unutilised land be returned after five years of acquisition, and extended that time limit to “a period specified for setting up the project.”
Further, Section 30A in the amended act stated that the “State Government or its Authorized Officer will enter into an agreement with the willing land owner to sell the land”. Thus, it officially legitimised the procedure of negotiating private deals with landowners. In lieu of rehabilitation and resettlement measures for landless families, the amended act stipulated only that lump sum amounts would be paid as compensation.
In essence, these amendments reinforced and legitimised the strategies of the problematic government orders. Indeed, in 2018, in responses to a petition by activists challenging several states’ amendments of the Central law, the Supreme Court, issued notice to the states. The case has not seen any major developments since then. Scroll.in emailed a detailed set of questions, including questions about the use of government orders to acquire land, the state’s subversion of key principles of the 2013 act and the insufficient compensation offered, to the district collector of Ranga Reddy, but had not received a response at the time of publication.
The Telangana government’s land acquisition protocols were established inside a very specific political climate.
Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, and Ranga Reddy district, in particular, have a rich history of people’s land struggles, with prolonged high-profile movements led by Adivasis, Communists and Naxalites. State legislations and policies of land acquisition have responded to and evolved with these movements.
The YS Rajashekhar Reddy-led Congress government, which ruled from 2004 to 2009 over undivided Andhra Pradesh, frequently found itself in the middle of acquisition-related controversies – in response, the Communist Party of India launched the massively popular Communist-led “Bhoo Poratam” against forced acquisition. The Congress government was notorious for its ruthless land grabs, use of force and the relentless arrests of hundreds of activists. It also shed blood: seven people were killed in police firing in one incident in 2007 at Mudigonda, Vijayawada, which came to be dubbed the “Nandigram of Andhra Pradesh”. In another incident, three were killed at a protest in Sompeta against a proposed thermal power plant.
“The TRS government was very aware of the fraught history of acquisition under the earlier Congress and TDP, and sought to distance itself from this,” Seethalakshmi explained. “That said, one should remember that the YSR-led Congress era was full of paradox – it is infamous for gory, coercive acquisition, but it was also responsible for launching land-assignment programs and introducing GO 68 in 2005, which acknowledged the landless displaced for the first time.”
She noted that though the order remained largely unimplemented in Andhra Pradesh itself, it directly inspired the section of the 2013 LARR Act that dealt with the landless.
Seethalakshmi described the then Andhra Pradesh government’s approach as “an assault-safety valve tactic”. She noted, “The government cannot afford to antagonise its people too much and therefore adapts these strategies, which is what the TRS is also doing now.”
But she also noted that the problem of the 2013 act being undermined wasn’t limited to Telangana, but reflected “a parallel trajectory in the Centre by the NDA government”, referring to the National Democratic Allicance, which has been in power since 2014.
“These two contexts are inextricably intertwined,” she noted. She added that “the TRS government did not raise a single objection in the Lok Sabha or Rajya Sabha when amendments to the bill were proposed in 2014” – the changes effected by these amendments included the extension of the time period within which acquisition had to be completed, and the introduction of new procedural exemptions to those acquiring land.
But the efforts to take over land have fuelled widespread anger in Telangana. This anger is not only a result of the low compensation rates that the government is offering. The people of the 12 villages where land is being acquired by the government for the pharma city, as well as in nearby villages, are concerned about the pollution that bulk drug manufacturing units might end up causing.
The government, for its part, has been vague about who the land is being leased out to, offering ever-shifting estimates of how many companies are setting up, how much revenue is expected, and how many jobs will be created. Even the official estimates of land required have shifted several times since 2015, from 11,000 acres to the current estimate of 19,330 acres. Meanwhile, the EIA submitted to the environment ministry in 2017, arrived at after discussions with “industry associations” like the Bulk Drug Manufacturers Association (India), “estimated the need for around 7,000 acres of plotted industrial land to meet the investment plans of its members.” Notably, the only stakeholders explicitly mentioned in the whole document are the industries and the TSIIC – farmers and landholders’ voices are conspicuously absent.
The government has promoted the pharma city as a public purpose project of international significance that will attract massive investments and create 5.06 lakh jobs. This number includes a promised one job for every household that is giving up land in the 12 affected agrarian villages. This promise, according to Saraswati Kavula, was an afterthought. “They never mentioned any jobs initially,” she said, and speculated that the pushback from widespread protests had led to this relatively recent promise, announced only in 2017. Moreover, she said, “these promises of employment are merely verbal, nothing is on paper.”
Other also expressed concerns that the promises were too vague, and that it was unclear how they related to the immediate community. Medipalle farmer Madhukar Reddy said, “What job will they give me? I’m eighth pass.” His neighbour B Satthaiyyah added, “Why should I give up my land and dignity to become some gardener or wage labourer?”
Kavula argued that the land was not being taken away to create infrastructure, but “pharmaceutical monopolies”. Citing a similar case, she noted that recently, “land in Meerkhanpet village, in survey number 120, was given to Amazon to set up a data analysis unit. Tell me how a data centre will help local agriculturists?” she said.
Others, too, argued that the project was essentially for private profit. Capturing a widespread sentiment among the protesters, Madhukar Reddy, a Medipalle farmer, asked me, “Why should I give land for them to make money? How is their private business going to benefit me? Should I give up my life so that they can sell their fancy drugs to people in far-off countries?”
Others farmers expressed various degrees of resignation at being up against the government’s grand development plans. “If they have to have our land, then we’ll give some land. Why do you want all of it?” the Kurmidda farmer Devoji said. But most villagers found that this was not an option, as it turned out. “The officers told us it is all or nothing,” he added.
Those who have held out have also faced intense economic pressures. Farmers in Ranga Reddy district described a systematic breakdown of their agrarian economy, actively aided by the state’s development policies. Among the affected are those involved in the cotton trade in the area, which is rich in black soil and capable of high cotton yields with irrigation. Many farmers accordingly set aside patches of fields for cotton farming, while the rest is used for food crops.
According to Papi Reddy, earlier, between 100 and 120 truckloads of cotton would make their way out of Yacharam mandal each year. “Hardly four or five lorries went out last year, from Yacharam,” Aratil Bharatamma, a Medipalle farmer, told me.
She explained that earlier, she typically earned about Rs 10 lakh a year growing cotton on six acres jointly owned by her husband’s family.
But in 2021, she ran into devastating losses because she could not sell her cotton. She attributed this to a breakdown of the supply chain, caused by the fragmentation of their land. In 2020, TSIIC authorities fenced off large patches of fields to definitively claim the land acquired in 2015 – after this, many farmers were cut off from their farms, and could not plant their next harvest. This is significant because commercial crops like cotton are usually sold and bought in bulk by traders and middlemen. With land divided up, farmers could not collectively produce their usual bulk yield, as a result of which traders broke off their contracts. “We are still struggling to find new buyers for our cotton,” Papi Reddy Said. “It is difficult to sell isolated yields.”
On a scorching summer afternoon in June 2021, I visited Lakshmi’s field in Kurmidda village. A handful of daily agricultural workers tended to bean seedlings, using scythes and callused hands to weed the crops, which spread out in either direction. As I approached, they were chatting in a tongue that sounded familiar, and hovered just at the edge of my understanding. When I asked them what language they were speaking, one of them, Sukhya, smiled at me and asked me where I was from. “Have you never heard Lambadi?” he asked me.
The Lambadas are a nomadic community with historical origins traceable to the Mewar region of Rajasthan. They make up 64% of Telangana’s population of Scheduled Tribes. Other than a few households that were given assigned lands in the 1970s, they barely own any land.
When I asked what was happening in the village with respect to land acquisition, Kumari, a wage labourer from the same community said, “What is there to say? We have no land, we have no animals, now they want to take our houses too.”
She and her fellow workers moved systematically through the field, their movements precise and practised, their progress unimpeded by the fiery sun beating down on us.
The women live in a Lambada thanda that is one of two settlements being claimed by Hyderabad Pharma City – all the other land being claimed by the project is farmland. Since 2019, when officials first tried to enter the thanda outside Kurmidda, Lambada families in the village have not been allowing them to enter. “We will not let them take our homes,” Sukhya said.
Nevertheless, if the fields around them disappear, their settlement will be an island stranded inside hectares of a pharmaceutical industry. With the TSIIC closing in all around them, not only is their livelihood under threat, but their communal grazing access to the land too will be affected – many own cattle, mostly goats, which help them with additional income from milk and meat. According to the environmental impact assessment, the project will involve fencing off the 12 Reserve Forests in the vicinity, to prevent what it describes as “encroachment” – this will cut off foraging access for the Lambada families, depriving them of firewood, and much-needed seasonal income from produce such as wild sitaphal, amla and guava.
“The government tells us that it is for our own good, but soon they will take away even the water that we drink,” Kumari said.
Kumari’s intuition may not be far from the truth: the EIA report does analyse in close detail a survey conducted between December 2016 and March 2017 on the availability of water resources in the region, and examines how the pharma manufacturing process, and the rest of the project, can be designed around this availability. Moreover, no resettlement plan for the thanda residents has been specified in the proposal.
In 2020, with steadfast assistance from Saraswati Kavula, about 800 farmer-landowners from four of the 12 affected villages filed a series of petitions in the Telangana High Court, opposing the acquisition of land for the pharma city. The petitions argued that there had been procedural irregularities, and that acquisition was being forced on the petitioners. Kavula told me that the government repeatedly sought to delay the cases. “They know they have violated laws, they have nothing to say,” she said.
Meanwhile, the government revised the compensation package – private land oustees, who were earlier assured Rs 12.5 lakh per acre earlier, will now receive 16.5 lakhs per acre and a plot of 121 square yards for every acre of land they lose. No increase in compensation has been announced for assigned land oustees. Moreover, those who lost land in acquisition before 2020 will not receive updated compensation or arrears.
But even the increased compensation rates and the additional plot add up to just a fraction of the price nearby land is being sold for.
A string of gated real estate projects have recently come up in the immediate surroundings of the pharma city project. A broker I spoke with in the first week of April this year said that plots at a gated layout adjacent to Kurmidda were being sold for between Rs 3,000 and Rs 4,000 per square yard.
This puts the rate at approximately between Rs 1.5 crore and Rs 2 crore per acre. In Wanaparthy village, less than 7 km away, where Kavula lives, rates have skyrocketed up to Rs 3 crore per acre. On the Dharani website, the official market value for agricultural land in Kurmidda, which is the figure used for calculating compensation, stands frozen at Rs. 5.62 lakh per acre.
Many villagers reported that their compensation money had long run out, spent on routine household expenses. Ganesh and other Medipalle farmers painted a picture of villages steadily filling with dispossessed farmers, landless and sinking into debt with no foreseeable means of supporting themselves. Many have continued to farm their land, disregarding fences and boards declaring the land as “property of TSIIC”, along with warnings against trespassing.
Despite the long delay in setting up Hyderabad Pharma City, no interest is being awarded to the oustees, landowners and activists said. The 2013 LARR act includes a provision, in case of delays in executing projects, under which the executive authority – the Telangana government in this case – is required to award interest calculated at 9% per year from the date of possession up to the date of payment; if any amount remains unpaid at the end of one year, an interest of 15% per year is to be paid on that amount up to the date of payment.
Many, like Madhukar Reddy, expressed extreme frustration at being forced to sell their land to the government. “We will sell our land to the big companies by ourselves if we have to. Why should we give it to the government for their cheap rates?”
But many farmers told me that the state government stopped processing sales and registrations of land under the area earmarked for acquisition in 2017, putting an end to land transactions in the area, a common step followed by states all over India in acquisition projects. However, many villagers see this as part of a strategy of extra-legal tactics to force them to give up their land. With no other options, landowners said, they were effectively forced to sign off their land to the government when they needed to liquidate assets, usually to pay for weddings or treatments for ailments.
Sumitra Srinivas of Kurmidda village went to the Ranga Reddy district collector’s office in January of this year to give up a portion of her family’s land holdings because they needed the money for her daughter’s wedding. “We need the money, we can’t sell our land, where else can I go?” she said.
The family owned around 3.3 acres, reflected in two different passbooks in her husband’s name – one for 2.27 acres, and the other for 1.01 acres. “I told the collector to take the 1.01 acres because I need the money,” Srinivas said.
She was asked to submit the passbooks and wait outside. When the passbooks were returned to her, she discovered that the larger piece of land had been taken, and that its passbook had been struck down and “cancelled”. “He betrayed us, and now I have been running around for days to correct this and no one is listening to me,” she lamented.
Farmers also find themselves financially squeezed in other ways. When I visited Kurmidda in March last year, farmers Devoji and Vinod, who are refusing to give up land for the pharma city, narrated to me in detail how the Mandal Revenue Officer, or MRO, had been denying them crop loans. “We’re going to take the land anyway, why do you need loans?” they recounted him saying, dismissing them every time they approached him. When they approached the officer directly above him, the Revenue District Officer, or RDO, to lodge a complaint, Devoji described feeling like he was encountering a sinister design, aimed at divesting him of the meaningful use of his farmland.
“The MRO says he has orders from the top and that it is out of his hands. When we go to the RDO, he promises that he will look into it, but nothing ever comes of it,” Vinod said. Like the incident with Papi Reddy and the Rythu Bandhu due to him, this could have seemed, at the time, like an isolated tangent.
And then, in August of last year, hundreds of farmers found that their names had either been completely removed from the Dharani online land record website, or that part of their holdings had disappeared from the online records.
As affected farmers have been cut off from essential services like crop insurance and loans, many fear that there is a deliberate manipulation of records, aimed at intimidating them.
Of 80 villagers I interviewed at random, whose names had been struck off the Dharani website, only six of them were not represented in the High Court petitions against acquisition – these six included three who had later chosen to remove their names from the petitions, contending that the case was dragging on for too long.
A group of affected farmers in the district subsequently appealed to the High Court asking it to intervene in the matter of the missing Dharani records – these applications were inserted into the main petitions challenging the acquisition more broadly. In a series of hearings in December of 2021 and January 2022, the judge ruled in their favour and instructed the government to rectify the situation.
These favourable orders have encouraged some farmers to join the legal fight for their rights over their land. Still, it is a long, circuitous battle. “The officers keep telling us that this is inevitable and we should stop fighting,” Jakkula said, referring to a recent meeting at the office of the state’s chief commissioner for land administration. “How can they talk to us like this?” he added. As Michael Levien noted in an interview in August, despite the fact that the amended act refers to those who give up their land as “willing landowners”, the government has, in fact, attempted to force them into a corner. “Consent is not valid when it is not a real choice to keep land,” he said.
Reporting for this story was facilitated under the National Foundation for India Fellowship for Independent journalists.