The mood in Vemulaghat, a village in Telangana’s Medak district, 85 km to the north of Hyderabad, is grim. More than 20 policemen have set up camp in the village – home to 600 families – for over a month now.

They are there because of an agitation against the state government’s plan to build a reservoir that would displace over 30,000 people in 14 villages in the district. Visibly exhausted women have been on a relay hunger strike for more than 90 days even as the administration imposed restrictions on public gatherings.

The Komuravelli Mallanna Sagar Reservoir is designed to store 50 thousand million cubic feet of water that will irrigate 12 lakh acres of land in Telangana’s drought-prone Medak, Nalgonda and Nizamabad districts.

Nearly 21,000 acres of land are being acquired for the project, which will leave the 14 villages submerged. This has provoked farmers from these villages to organise protests against the land acquisition since December 2015.

While many of them are against the reservoir itself, others want higher compensation. Some have accepted the government’s offer, but the striking women are standing firm.

Tensions build up

Things took an ugly turn on July 24 when the police used batons and teargas on residents of Vemulaghat as they tried to block the Karimnagar-Hyderabad highway. Over 25 villagers were injured.

Soon after, in August, section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code – which prohibits unlawful assembly – and section 30 – which regulates public assemblies and processions – were enforced in the village.

“The sections were invoked due to law and order issues in Vemulaghat,” said S Chandrasekhar Reddy, Medak’s superintendent of police. “Outsiders trying to enter the village with regard to Mallanna Sagar will not be allowed.”

The administration has made no announcement of when the restrictions will be lifted. But the villagers said “this will continue till a majority of us sign the consent forms”.

A child showing his injury from the July 24 protests. Photo credit: Save Mallanna Sagar Submerging Villages Campaign

Controversial government order

The consent forms in question are Form 1 and Form 2 under GO 123, an order issued by the Telangana Rashtra Samithi government on July 30, 2015, to enable easy and quick acquisition of land for public projects.

GO 123 “allows landowners to participate in the development process by willingly selling their land and properties”.

Form 1 is an agreement between the “owner” and the “procuring agency” for “selling land voluntarily”, while Form 2 is an agreement that owners will not lay “claim for payment of higher consideration in any court of law”.

The deal is similar to private transactions, except that the government promises amenities wherever the villagers are relocated. In the case of Mallanna Sagar, the government is offering a “two-bedroom house or compensation”.

But on August 3, the high court in Hyderabad quashed GO 123, calling it “illegal, arbitrary, unconstitutional and against the concept of welfare State”. Despite this, the Telangana government managed to get an interim stay on this order.

The high court order was in response to a petition filed by over 20 villagers of areas affected by another upcoming project, the National Investment and Manufacturing Zone, also in Medak. They argued that they would lose their livelihoods, which would otherwise have been protected by the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013.

The high court made it clear that any purchase of land under GO 123 is subject to the final court orders. “While the state may proceed to purchase lands from those who are willing to voluntarily part with it, and to register the same, it shall not dispossess the land owners and the affected families from those lands till a compliance report is submitted to this court,” the order said.

This has not affected land procurement for the Mallanna Sagar project, officials said.

“We have left it to the people to chose either the 2013 Act or GO 123,” said Muthyam Reddy, the revenue divisional officer of Siddipet city who is overseeing the land procurement.

He said land was being acquired smoothly and swiftly in all the villages, including Vemulaghat. "We have achieved 100% procurement in Tukkapuram, 50% in Erravalli, 90% in Etigadda Kishtapur and 85% in Thoguta,” he said.

These figures are the percentage of cases where the government has completed the registration of land purchased from farmers with their consent. Asked about the rest, Reddy said, “Some of the villagers are yet to decide whether they want to go with GO 123 or the 2013 Act.”

The “some” Reddy refers to accounts for about 59% of the landowning farmers, who are yet to give their consent.

The government is also making payments swiftly

“Around 95% of payments [for the registered land] have been disbursed to villagers,” Reddy said. “We have paid the money for houses in one village, and in the rest, estimations are on.”

Police lathicharging protestors in Vemulaghat on July 24. Photo credit: Save Mallanna Sagar Submerging Villages Campaign

Manufactured consent

Villagers and activists, however, said the government was putting pressure on land owners to part with their plots.

In May, residents of Vaddera Galli, a hamlet of 60 houses inhabited by the backward Vaddera community, consented to sell their homes and land.

In July, as news spread that residents of Laxmipur, another village, had also agreed to sell their land, people started noticing a pattern of coercion.

“The state government was coercing the most vulnerable sections, such as sada bainama landholders, to begin with,” said Kiran Vissa of Rythu Swarajya Vedika, a collective of NGOs and activists working on agrarian issues in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.

Sada bainama is a land transaction made on a white paper in the presence of witnesses, to avoid stamp and registration fees. The government has recently started accepting some applications to regularise such land.

“Most sada bainama landholders are small and marginal farmers,” Vissa explained. “The nature of the transaction keeps the new owner out of the revenue records, and this loophole is exploited by the government. Fearing loss of compensation, the farmers started signing the consent forms.”

The villagers fear that the bullock carts will be of no use anymore. Photo credit: Ayesha Minhaz

However, the administration said it was trying to sort out the issue.

“As per our initial estimates, 15%-18% of the total land required for this project is held with sada bainamas,” said Reddy, the revenue divisional officer. “Some such papers were made over 10 to 20 years ago for sums between Rs 50,000 and Rs 60,000.”

He added that “those who sold land then are objecting to compensation being paid to the current owners” and the administration is “speaking to witnesses to ensure justice for all”.

This means the registration value of these lands hasn’t been reassessed for at least a decade, but the government is using the old transaction figures (Rs 50,000-Rs 60,000) to claim that a higher compensation is being offered under GO 123.

Residents of Brahmana Banjerpally narrated a similar story. They were among the first to agree to receive compensation for their “assigned” lands – a term that refers to plots distributed by the government to landless farmers. These make up around 20% of the land required for the reservoir project.

“We were told that because the government gave us the land, they had the right to take it back,” said Y Ramulu, the sarpanch of Brahmana Banjerpally.

According to activists, such coercive methods will impact families from the Scheduled castes and Scheduled tribes the most.

“Around 1,000 SC/ST families will be displaced by this project,” said Shankar Peddalingannagari of the Dalit Bahujan Front, a network of NGOs working for the community’s social, economic and political empowerment. “Most of them hold land with sada bainamas or assigned lands.”

The government is offering between Rs 3 lakhs and Rs 3.75 lakhs per acre for assigned lands in this village under GO 123. In comparison, registered land holders are being given Rs 6 lakhs per acre. The villagers have, however, decided to fight for better compensation.

Why the future looks bleak

It isn’t just compensation that worries the villagers, but relocation too.

Dasthagiri Nagaram village looked abandoned except for the children at the anganwadi. But minutes after the official in charge of the centre sent word for the villagers to assemble, a crowd appeared. They were among those who haven't signed the consent forms yet.

“Our children are safe here with the anganwadi teacher when we go to work,” said 65-year-old Bujji Goguloth. “Will we have the same teacher in the new village?”

Bujji Goguloth has close to three acres of land on which her four sons and 10 grandchildren are dependant. The only way of earning a livelihood in Dasthagiri Nagaram is on its farms and forest.

But recently, some have started signing the consent forms as “everyone else in every other village did”.

Bujji Goguloth, the 65-year-old farmer from Dasthagiri Nagaram. Photo credit: Ayesha Minhaz

With three youngsters from the village injured in the police lathicharge on protestors in July, Deputy Sarpanch Ramesh Goguloth said, “If the government is resorting to beating us, we understand this project won’t stop.”

He added, “Villagers are like herds of cattle. Everyone was scared and before we realised what was happening, our lands were gone.”

Leaders from most villages have approached the government and Irrigation Minister T Harish Rao seeking compensation in the form of land, but in vain.

“We were told that the project will never take off if the government starts disbursing land in compensation,” said Ramesh Goguloth.

Asked if the villagers had found suitable agricultural land to buy with the compensation they were being offered, the deputy sarpanch explained that there were families with just half an acre of land who had debts.

“An acre costs at least Rs 10 lakhs to Rs 12 lakhs in this area,” he said. “Even buying a tenth of an acre is a distant dream for them.”

For now, the residents of Dasthagiri Nagaram said they were trying to decide on a suitable site to build their new homes.

“We are showing each village a few options [for relocation],” said Reddy. “Once the areas are decided, we will build roads and ensure basic amenities are available at the earliest.”

None of the affected villagers know when they will eventually be asked to move out. The government hasn’t made any formal announcement.

But they are always jittery. Rumours of contractors conducting surveys to start work on the reservoir add to their discomfort.

“Don’t drive us away without showing us a proper alternative,” said a defiant Bujji Goguloth. “Will the government provide grazing land for our cattle or will I have to sell them too? What will happen to my cats and dog if we don’t find enough place? And where will I go for firewood?”

Her questions don’t end there. “Will there be forests and will I be allowed to pluck the fruits to eat or sell? Will my deity get a place of worship? Will my grandchildren ever know what our culture is?”