Days before Telangana’s second birthday, an area in Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao’s home district of Medak is boiling over quite literally. But the heat is not to blame.
Off the Hyderabad-Siddipet road, in the direction of Dubbak in Medak district, the roads inside villages have been taken over by men and women cooking on the road. Preparing rice and chaaru, a kind of rasam, in huge pots, the villagers are protesting against the Telangana Rashtra Samithi government, which they say, is making them homeless and landless.
These villagers are among the over 30,000 people in 14 villages in Medak district, close to Siddipet, who are in protest mode. Eight of these villages will become history once the Mallanna Sagar irrigation project becomes a reality. Estimated to cost Rs 9,800 crore, the Mallanna Sagar dam will store 51 thousand million cubic feet of water and proposes to irrigate 12 lakh acres in the state’s drought-prone Medak, Nalgonda and Nizamabad districts. About 20,079 acres of land will be submerged for this project.
As is the case with similar projects, this one too has run into land acquisition issues. Villagers say they do not want to give up their land, and certainly not at the rates being offered. Hence this unique protest to let the powers-that-be know that trouble is brewing.
Spectre of displacement
At the protest site in Etigadda Kistapur, which is one of the eight villages that will be submerged, close to 400 villagers were present at a meeting recently in which villagers articulated why they needed to voice their concerns about their impending displacement. A common theme is how Etigadda Kistapur is a village that never suffers from drought.
“We have always had water,” said Padma, one of the villagers. “The crop, the cattle, people here have never suffered because of the lack of water. So why are they punishing us? Let them leave us alone.”
Another villager, Yadaiah, chips in to add that even in years when Medak district faced a severe drought, farmers in Etigadda Kistapur managed to grow several tonnes of foodgrain. “We have two crops even during drought,” said Yadaiah. “This is a multiple crop area. So there should be a good reason for us to be forced to move.”
It is not just the harsh sun that makes Kumaramma, a tribal woman, swing between philosophy and anguish. Breaking down at the protest site, she said: “There is no village without people and no people without village. If there is one, there is the other. So we will never leave. Let them drown us in the water.”
Bhargavamma, an elderly woman in her 60s, points out that Medak is Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao’s home district. “Please leave our land to us, our village to us,” she said. “We don’t want this project.”
For Bhargavamma, the feeling of being betrayed twice over is strong. During the agitation for a separate state of Telangana, her husband drank pesticide and died. “How can KCR do this to us?” asked Bhargavamma.
Battle for compensation
But Telangana Rashtra Samiti leaders defend the irrigation project. They point out that the chief minister was being considerate towards those affected by the project by settling land acquisition deals under a new order GO 123, which, they said, was better than the Land Acquisition Act, 2013.
KCR’s nephew and Telangana Irrigation Minister Harish Rao criticised the 2013 Act, calling the procedure under it cumbersome and lengthy, with the settlement process extending up to nine months. “Under GO 123, we will settle the amount within two weeks, with the land owner getting Rs 8 lakh per acre,” said Rao. “Compare this with the Act where they only get three times the registration value, which is now Rs 60,000 an acre. The SC/STs will get four times the land value but we are offering more.”
But the youth in Etigadda Kistapur village refute Harish Rao’s argument, saying that the registration value hadn’t been revised for decades.
Prasad, 24, an engineering graduate, alleged that the government was employing strong-arm tactics with the help of the police to force people to give up their land. “They are saying that if you don’t give it voluntarily, we will take forcibly and then you will get only Rs 1.8 lakh per acre,” said Prasad. “But the fact is that the registration value has not been revised here for the last 30 years. It has stayed at Rs 60,000 per acre. If you see the market value of the surrounding areas, land can’t be bought for even Rs 10-12 lakh an acre.”
Another criticism is that the GO 123 only deals with land acquisition and not rehabilitation. Tempers have been running high and government officials, who come to negotiate the land acquisition process, have been attacked. Two weeks ago, the police had to resort to a lathicharge to control the situation.
Shadow on anniversary celebrations
Realising that discontent was brewing, the Opposition is keen to capitalise on it. Former Irrigation Minister Ponnala Laxmaiah of the Congress and the Telugu Desam Party’s legislature party leader, Revanth Reddy traveled to the area to extend their support. They point out that the essence of the Land Acquisition Act was to provide “respectable resettlement and rehabilitation” so that there is social security, something they say the government does not seem to care about.
But Harish Rao said the government was offering resettlement and rehabilitation. “[On offer is] a house site, a double bedroom and infrastructure,” said Rao. “And if you don’t want that, you can take Rs 5,04,000 instead”.
But villagers said that this offer did not seem to have legal sanction. “The GO does not mention this,” said Prashant, a youth in Etigadda Kistapur village. “In fact, it talks about the sale of land voluntarily, and not procurement or acquisition by the government.”
“Officers are acting like Razakars (the armed militia of the Nizam of Hyderabad),” said Congress leader Laxmaiah. “They are showing no patience to convince and enlighten the villagers who have an emotional connect with their land.”
The design of the project has also come in for criticism with Opposition leaders saying it was a “stupid idea to build such a large storage reservoir”.
D Sravan, spokesperson of the Congress in Telangana, said the project would be inefficient. “When water is procured through lift irrigation, it will lose 40% of it through evaporation and seepage by the time it reaches Mallana Sagar,” said D Sravan. “Add to that the heavy power consumption that it will need to get the water there.”
The Telangana government, however, dismisses the criticism, saying the Mallanna Sagar, like the Kondapochamma project, was part of a strategy to increase the irrigation potential of Medak district, which would also benefit three neighbouring districts. “We want to irrigate 5.82 lakh acres in the next few years,” said Harish Rao. “It will be done through these projects and restoration of over 1,700 tanks.”
What is causing consternation in the state capital Hyderabad, 120 km from here, is that the protests are casting a shadow on the Telangana Formation Day celebrations. On June 2, India’s youngest state completes two years and the TRS admits that farmers accusing KCR – who came to power on the promise that he was one of their own – of snatching away their land, is not the best advertisement.
The villagers here have vowed to boycott the celebrations, but this is unlikely to make KCR redesign the project. With farmer suicides because of a lack of rainfall and sufficient irrigation a perennial problem, the government says it is only looking to create permanent solutions, and the Mallanna Sagar project is part of that plan.
But youth in this part of Telangana dread a life where they will have to head to Hyderabad to work on construction sites, or as agricultural labour near smaller towns like Medak or Siddipet. Each one of them refers to KCR’s promise of a “Bangaru Telangana” (Golden Telangana). The pity, they point out, is that they haven’t struck gold.