Nandlal Paswan is not the kind of man you could easily dupe. A decade ago, when land prices began to shoot up on the outskirts of Patna, the 48-year-old farmer briefly made a side career – and a small fortune – as a land broker. He even looks the part, with a thin moustache, a fat gold necklace, and two thick rings on the right hand. The gold he wears is worth nearly Rs 1.5 lakh.

“Even a poor man needs something to feel good about,” he joked, before turning serious. “With the land gone, an investment like this makes me feel a bit secure.”

In late 2011, Paswan first heard of the Bihar government’s plan to acquire 300 acres of land on the periphery of his village Sikandarpur, 45 kilometres west of Patna. The government wanted to create a “land bank” for private industry. One of the poorest states in the country, Bihar is desperate for industrial development, and offering land to investors is part of the government’s efforts to woo them.

Paswan and his brothers stood to lose their entire farmland – about 1.7 acres – to the land bank scheme. The 60-odd families of Sikandarpur from the Paswan group, who are at the bottom of the caste hierarchy, own small parcels of land – often no more than 0.2 to 0.3 acre. This land is used to cultivate rice, pulses and vegetables. The forced acquisition not only takes away their only asset, but also their main source of livelihood.

For Nandlal Paswan, a bigger shock came in early 2013: while he was busy organising the opposition to acquisition, the compensation for many of his plots, totalling 0.4 acre, was picked by someone else.

Paswan filed a case in the Patna district court in mid-2013, where it has been pending since. “The land acquisition department is blind. They only see this,” he said, rubbing his thumb with the index finger, a symbol for bribery.

Nandlal Paswan, a 48-year-old farmer from Sikandarpur, is a victim of fraud in land ​documentation. Image Credit: Abhishek K Choudhary

Messy land records

At least some of Bihar’s unequal land distribution has do with the colonial land tenure system of Zamindari, which helped the upper-caste landowners to consolidate their dominance over land. This sharpened the differences between the upper castes and the rest of the population.

Zamindari was abolished 1950, but mostly on paper: a tiny bunch of upper castes continue to own a disproportionately high amount of land. Over time, the concentration of land ownership in Bihar, along with one of the highest population densities anywhere in the world – 1,106 people per sq km – has reduced the average size of landholding in the state to less than 0.1 acre.

Land transactions are more complex and chaotic in Bihar than in other Indian states mostly because land records have not been updated. The first and the only comprehensive land survey in the state was carried out in British India in 1915. Since then, a piece of land might have changed hands multiple times, but its ownership status might have remained unchanged in the revenue department records. While the buyers get the land registered on their names by paying the stamp duty, there is no culture of getting the mutation – which legally establishes ownership of a property in the name of a new owner– done at the block level.

Earlier the land market around Sikandarpur village was essentially local and most buyers did not bother to get the records updated. But with the spurt in land prices, many buyers now get the mutation done. Sometimes, however, even the mutation is fudged. Often done by a powerful upper-caste landowner with the collusion of a petty official at the block, this leads to an institutionalised confusion, with several people claiming ownership of a plot of land.

In Nandlal Paswan’s case, one of the two people who allegedly committed the fraud was Sadhna Singh, daughter-in-law of a former Bhumihar landlord. According to Paswan, decades ago, Singh’s family had sold off the land to a third party, from whom Paswan’s father, a police constable, purchased it in the early 1980s.

Paswan has all the documents required to be the owner of those plots: sale deeds that verify the transfer of plots in his parents’ names, mutation documents, documents that show he has been paying the nominal land tax on those plots. The biggest proof, he said, was that his family continues to cultivate the disputed plots without a hassle. “You can take them [Singh’s family] to the site of the land bank, I bet no one would be able to recognise these plots,” he said.

Paswan alleged that Singh bribed the officials at the block to fudge mutation and other documents, and then took out the compensation money from the district land acquisition office in Patna. Attempts to contact Sadhna Singh were not successful.

Raghuvir Prasad, the present circle officer of Bihta, the block under which Sikandarpur village falls, admitted that during the paperwork in 2012-13 “some officials did indulge in corruption”. Two of the clerks were even briefly jailed.

Eminent domain

Apart from Paswans, Sikandarpur has among its residents upper caste Bhumihars and middle caste Yadavs and Koeris. Bhumihars, all of 10 households, have traditionally owned the bulk of the village land, from which they derive their power. The economic prosperity of Yadavs and Koeris, between 50 and 60 households each, varies anywhere between that of the affluent Bhumihars and the dispossessed Paswans.

In late 2012, the Bihar government declared a compensation rate for the Sikandarpur land at 2.6 times the then market price. This was based on the archaic Land Acquisition Act of 1894. At the time, all caste groups, including Bhumihars – who are for the most part absentee landlords now – deemed it too low a rate, and refused.

The next year, 2013, the Congress-led central government passed the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, whose progressive clauses included a social impact assessment of the area to be acquired, consent from 80% of the potentially affected landowners, compensation at at least four times the current market price of the land. But the state government in Bihar decided to use the new legislation cleverly: the government decided to pay the landowners across the state according to the new law, but didn’t adhere to the clauses on social impact assessment and consent.

With time, the government convinced Sikandarpur’s Bhumihars to accept the increased compensation. “We reluctantly agreed to the increased rate,” said Brahma Singh, who has given 10 acres of land for the land bank. Other castes were made to feel as if they didn’t have much of a choice: their land was going to be taken, and to protest further would have meant risking the loss of the compensation.

As it is, almost everyone in Sikandarpur holds the mistaken belief that the land ultimately belongs to the government, which can take it away whenever it wants. The most common refrain was: after all, why else would we have to pay the land tax every year.

With the compensation money, most of the absentee Bhumihar landlords have built themselves a multistoried house. Image Credit: Abhishek K Choudhary

Compensation woes

An increased compensation in Sikandarpur was a bureaucratic solution to a political economy problem. Bihar government has paid the constant rate for the entire area: approximately Rs 1.2 crore per acre. This has made the Paswans doubly-disadvantaged: the old record calls the entire area dhanhar, double-cropped, even though there is a significant variation in the 300-acre tract that constitutes the land bank.

Most of the land owned by Paswans of Sikandarpur is along the highway outside the village that connects Patna to the western districts of Bihar. An updated record would categorise the land as commercial, increasing the compensation rate more than three times. In contrast, a majority of the Bhumihars’ land is away from the main road. They have received more or less the compensation that they deserved, one of the reasons they agreed to part with their land.

Nandlal Paswan and his two brothers should receive approximately Rs 1.5 crores for 1.3 acres, barring the 0.4 acres that is under litigation. The family has received 60% of the compensation so far. A part of this compensation will go as bribe to the land acquisition officials of the district, and the lawyer who negotiates the bribe on the family’s behalf. The lower bureaucracy has no moral scruples taking a small cut from the handsome rate of compensation villagers are being offered by the government. Paswan, duped earlier, has an incentive to play safe: he would rather pay the bribe and take the rest of the money home – before someone else stakes a claim on his land, or the officials discover yet another flaw in his paperwork.

Paswan and his two brothers have a total of 17 children between them. The money will probably not last their children’s lifetimes. The rest of Paswans and at least half of Yadavs and Koeris will receive even smaller amounts in compensation. “How long will our money last?” wondered Anandi Paswan, a widow who lost all of her 0.6 acre of farmland to the land bank. “They should have instead promised poor people a job – sweeper, gate-keeper, anything.”

With agriculture becoming less lucrative, most people in Sikandarpur think it would have been more beneficial had they been compensated in other ways – such as being given a job on the developed land. In the beginning, the officials had lured the villagers with promises of jobs and vikas, development. But the government has made no such promise formally, causing further alienation.

Rampant corruption

Economic development anywhere demands a change in land use. There is enough evidence from the past to show that a fair transaction can be beneficial for both landowners and buyers. At present in Sikandarpur, though, petty bureaucratic corruption and decades of institutionalised mess in paperwork have ensured that despite committing to paying about Rs 360 crore, the government is nowhere close to having taken possession of the land.

“I challenge them to come and put a boundary wall here,” said an angry and sentimental Rajkumar Verma, a middle-aged Koeri who, despite having made nearly 100 trips to Patna, has yet to receive compensation for some of his plots.

Verma charged his uncle, Shiva Prasad, of having bribed the officials to fudge documents to prove that some of the undivided family plots, totalling 0.35 acres, belonged to Prasad alone. He did not share the compensation with Verma’s family. In fact, disputes over titles between former joint family members is a more common cause of conflict than the one between current and previous owners.

Verma also claimed that he had vehemently refused to pay any bribe to the officials, which made it easier for the latter to find faults with his papers. “You have already taken away my livelihood. How does it matter now if you jail me: I have nothing to lose.”

Abhishek Choudhary is a journalist and researcher in Delhi. He was a consultant for the IGC-funded project Land Acquisition in Bihar: Alternative Approaches.