Thirty men and women gathered in a room in the primary school of Kawardari, a small village in Washim district in eastern Maharashtra, one Thursday morning in November.

They were here to listen to Ravi Bhiste, a man not from their village or even district. An unofficial government representative, Bhiste was in the village to explain to its people the terms of a new government scheme that would absorb much of their land.

“Let me talk for 10 minutes and then you can ask all the questions you want,” Bhiste pleaded, cutting through the clamour that prevailed in the room. “Let me explain to you what land pooling is.”

Maharashtra is pushing an ambitious Rs 46,000 crore project to build what it calls a “supercommunication expressway” or “prosperity corridor”, an eight-lane road that will pass through 10 districts between Mumbai and Nagpur. The government hopes that this will boost development in at least 24 of Maharashtra’s 36 districts through 24 nodes, or developmental clusters. It envisages new factories and agricultural processing units that will generate employment and higher incomes in districts that have so far been neglected.

The problem, however, is land. The entire project will require around 10,000 hectares. Acquiring this using the land acquisition law will be expensive for a state whose finances are already strapped. Instead, the state wants to get the land through the process of land pooling.

This method of gathering land, where farmers voluntarily part with land in exchange for some return in the developed project, is popular in countries like Japan and Germany. States in India have also implemented variations of this policy.

The most high-profile of these projects in recent times has been the land pooling done by Andhra Pradesh to build its new capital city, Amaravati. Gujarat too has been implementing developmental projects through land pooling under the Gujarat Town Planning Act for some decades now.

Maharashtra’s plan has slightly different ambitions. Unlike Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat, which have implemented the policy within close clusters, this highway passes through an expanse of 10 districts. It is also the largest land pooling project attempted in the country.

The government is relying on communicators like Bhiste to inform people in more than 300 villages like Kawardari about a project that will upturn their lives.

Ravi Bhiste points to an expressway marker placed by the Maharashtra Road Development Corporation. This marker is in forest land just outside Kawardari in Washim district.

Terms of returns

The terms of Maharashtra’s land pooling scheme are straightforward. Landowners will agree to transfer land in the planned area demarcated for the road and townships to the government. In return, they will get an annuity for 10 years with an annual 10% increase. There are different annuity slabs: Rs 30,000 per acre for dry land, Rs 45,000 for seasonal irrigated land and Rs 60,000 for land that is irrigated through the year. According to the plan, within 10 years, they will also get back 25% to 30% of the acreage they have contributed as a developed non-agricultural plot in the township nearest their landholding.

This compensatory parcel will come with road connectivity, electricity supply and sewage facilities. As per existing rules, only residential plots can come up on these non-agricultural lands, though 25% of it can be used for commercial purposes.

According to Jagannath Virkar, deputy general manager of land acquisition at the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation, the government intends to increase this allocation in a new development plan it intends to create for the highway. The corporation is executing the super expressway project.

The theory is that the land value will appreciate by the time the project is completed and landowners will be more than compensated for the value of their land.

If landowners want to sell the compensatory parcel of land, the government will not charge a duty on the first transfer of ownership. It has also promised that if landowners cannot find buyers for this land in 10 years, it will buy back the land according to present land acquisition laws, but accounting for a 10% increase in ready reckoner rates.

“Land is anyway going to go for the project,” said Virkar, who played a key role in drafting the law and government resolution. “We are just trying to offer landowners a better deal than they will get with land acquisition.”

The land pooling scheme also drastically reduces the immediate payment the government will have to make if it followed the land acquisition law. Instead of giving an average of Rs 50 lakh per acre to landholders in a single year as per the land acquisition law, it will pay an average of just Rs 45,000 per acre as yearly annuity. Over 10 years, factoring in the incremental increase, this amounts to just Rs 6.5 lakh – a fraction of the cost of land acquisition. It is also unlikely that every single landholder will opt for the government to buy back their developed land.

These terms bear superficial similarities to the deals offered by Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat. Andhra Pradesh also offered to return 25% to 30% of the developed land to owners, along with an annuity of Rs 30,000 to Rs 40,000 per acre to farmers.

Considering land ownership patterns, particularly in Western Maharashtra, what the project is offering landowners is a pittance.

In Dhasai in Thane district, where landowners have protested violently against the highway, land ownership is largely fragmented. Take Haji Kasam Sheikh, who owns 25 guntas of land, or a little more than half an acre, along with two brothers.

“With the government’s rate of compensation, we will get only four guntas [one tenth of an acre] in return,” said Sheikh, who retired from the Maharashtra Public Works Department. “We will be able to build only a house on it, no more.”

As Sheikh explained, rice cultivation can yield Rs 1 lakh per acre each year in that fertile region in Thane. Compared to this income, the annuity will not be enough to support families, he argued.

Gujarat promises a higher rate of land return, with landowners getting back 60% of the land they contribute to pooling schemes. Yet even a promise of higher land compensation does not always work in favour of the government. The state successfully used the scheme to build a ring road around Ahmedabad in 2002. It has, however, failed to gain landowners’ consent for a series of industrial clusters across the state, even though landowners will retain ownership of 60% of their land.

In the Maharashtra villages that this reporter visited, the low rate of land compensation did not seem to be a concern.

What citizens are doubtful about is whether the government will finish the road at all.

Houses are spare in Kawardari, which is a predominantly Adivasi village.

Doubt on the ground

Pralad Rathod, a resident of Kawardari, was present at the meeting at which Ravi Bhiste, the communicator, tried to sell the idea to the villagers. Rathod has 13 acres of land, of which six might go to the project. He seemed to be an enthusiastic supporter of the scheme.

“Can the government take all my land, not just half of it?” he asked, to laughter in the room.

Agriculture had been so bad for the past four years that he had to change private moneylenders five times, he added, by way of explanation. He borrowed Rs 50,000 from one, only to pay off the previous one, and with no profit from his soya bean crop, he saw little way out of the situation.

“Had I not studied matric [matriculation, Class 10 ], I would have killed myself by now,” said Rathod. “Since I am educated I understand this is a better deal. I would like to buy better land elsewhere.”

But even as he said this, he expressed concern. Some minutes after Bhiste explained that the government could only take that land through which the highway would pass, and went on to explain what people could do with their new plots, Rathod broke in.

Sarkar aaj ahe, udya nahi. Sarkar jar gela tar kay guarantee?” he said. The government is here today and gone tomorrow. When it is gone, what is the guarantee that I will get these benefits?

The Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation says it has this covered with its “buy back guarantee”. According to Virkar, this is the first time a land pooling project in India has come with a government guarantee to buy the land landowners have been compensated with if the state does not develop it in 10 years as promised, or if the landowner is unable to find any other buyer. The communicators have tried to explain this to everyone they meet, but this doubt is echoed across land that falls on the route of the planned highway.

“If the government can ban notes, it will be nothing for them to change these terms at any time,” argued a farmer at Kisan Nagar in Washim. “How do we know we will actually get these annual salaries or this land?”

Pralad Rathod. (Photo credit: Mridula Chari).

Involuntary pooling?

Given the doubts on the ground, it is largely due to communicators like Bhiste and their methodical building of rapport that the government has received the agreement statements it has. According to the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation, it has received consent forms from 40% of landowners, with large pockets of resistance still lingering mostly in Nashik and Thane districts.

As communicators go from village to village, they knock on doors, avoiding group meetings. They seek out influential people in the village to explain the terms on offer. They document each visit painstakingly, noting objections and reactions of individual stakeholders. Once they have built a rapport, they also carry detailed printouts showing the monetary difference between the deals offered by land acquisition and land pooling.

Though the communicators are contract employees with Indian Magic Eye, a Pune-based company hired by the government for this purpose in June, they do not have official identity cards, a matter of concern for many of them. Many complained that they had not been paid a salary for four months and that they had no recourse to police protection in the event of violence.

But beneath their explanations and coaxing, there is an underlying threat: no matter what the opposition landowners put up, their land will go one way or another. For instance, revenue officers, along with Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation officials and the local BJP MLA, held a meeting at Chande Kasare, a village in Ahmednagar district, to introduce the project.

“We protested loudly at the meeting,” recalled Jnaneshwar Hon, a large landowner and resident of the village. He claimed that at the end, the sub-divisional magistrate said: “If you are not ready, then we have another law to get the land.”

In Igatpuri block in Nashik, Eknath Dhande reluctantly reminded a detractor of this clause.

He said, pleading, “This is the chief minister’s dream project. It is going to happen whether you agree or not.”

This is the first in a series of stories on land pooling for Maharashtra’s ambitious new expressway between Mumbai and Nagpur. The second story can be read here.