No matter what happens, K Anjeya makes sure he spends a few hours every day sitting on a platform that has been built in the centre of his village. He has been doing this without a break since June 5, 2016, when farmers like him in Vemulaghat village in Siddipet started a protest against Telangana government’s plans to acquire their land for the Kaleshwaram lift irrigation project.

Anjeya, 61, stands to lose five acres, on which he cultivates paddy and cotton, to the project. “The pain of fighting for our rights will clearly be less than losing our land,” he said, seated in front of a banner that listed the reason for the protest in bold red letters.

The Kaleshwaram project, which is estimated to Rs 80,500 crore, is touted as India’s largest irrigation scheme. The Telangana Rashtra Samithi government claims it will benefit farmers in eight districts, raising agricultural output and incomes. But an independent study has found the benefits have been exaggerated to justify the project’s high costs. Worse, farmers losing their land to the project allege the government has defrauded them through legally dubious means.

Soon after it launched the project, the government issued an order in July 2015 that circumvented the Right to Fair Compensation in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013. The order took away some of the safeguards introduced by the law to ensure rehabilitation of those losing their lands and livelihoods. When the order was stayed by the High Court, the government amended the law itself.

Activists and lawyers said by diluting the law through amendments, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi government achieved what the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Union government could not pull off in Parliament.

In the amendments, the protesting farmers of Telangana see a collusion between the Centre and the State. Many in Vemulaghat say they will not vote for the Telangana Rashtra Samithi in the upcoming Assembly elections on December 7.

“We cannot back a government that will not listen to our voice,” said Anjeya.

The government order

In 2013, India got rid off the colonial-era law, the Land Acquisition Act 1894, which gave the government sweeping powers to forcibly acquire private land if it served a “public purpose”.

In its place, the United Progressive Alliance government introduced the Right to Fair Compensation in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013. Its objective was to bring more transparency in the land acquisition process and ensure proper rehabilitation not only for those losing their land but also for workers and artisans whose livelihoods were affected.

One of the primary features of the 2013 law was the introduction of a robust social impact assessment clause, which made it mandatory for consultations to be held at the panchayat level with people affected by the project to evaluate its costs and benefits. The aim was to curb arbitrary acquisition of land by making it compulsory for the authorities to prove public purpose and ensure that only the bare minimum extent of land was acquired. For rural areas, the 2013 law fixed compensation at four times the market value of land.

On July 7, 2015, Telangana government passed an order, known as “GO 123”, which sought to bypass this process by entering into individual agreements with willing farmers, as if the state was a private buyer. This effectively meant that no social impact assessment was required.

Police action during a protest against land acquisition in Vemulaghat in July, 2016.

Significantly, several compensation clauses available in the 2013 law for landless workers, artisans and others were dropped or diluted. For landowners, the order said the compensation would be calculated on the basis of the value of land and property and the perceived loss of livelihood. It would also include the “equivalent cost required for rehabilitation and resettlement” of both landowners and others. This clause was dropped four months later, a petition that challenged the law in the High Court claimed.

But the government continued to insist that the terms on offer were better than what the 2013 law provided. In 2016, irrigation minister Harish Rao told that farmers will get around Rs 8 lakh per acre under the order, compared to Rs 60,000 under the Act. “Under GO 123, we will settle the amount within two weeks,” he said. The implication was that either the farmer gave up land under the order for higher compensation or the government would acquire the land under the 2013 law at a lower rate.

On the ground, this move divided farmers between those who wanted to give up their land and those who did not. By the time the 2015 order was stayed by the High Court, close to 300 of about 700 landowners in Vemulaghat village had already sold their land to the government, said Anjeya, leaving others with very few options.

According to A Ranga Reddy, one of the leaders at the relay protest in Vemulaghat, the government first offered a compensation of nearly Rs 6 lakh per acre under GO 123. It also promised a two-bedroom house in an alternative area. Many farmers in the village felt the compensation was too low and demanded Rs 15 lakh per acre. The government refused.

The matter then went to the Andhra Pradesh High Court, which issued a stay in January 2017 on buying further land using GO 123. The court said that the order effectively nullified important protections to landless people envisaged under the 2013 law. On the question of the validity of the order, the court said it would take a decision later.

The Telangana government did not wait for court’s final verdict and went ahead and notified the amended law in May, 2017.

A step ahead of Parliament

State assemblies are barred from making laws that would contradict an Act of Parliament. However, Article 254 of the Constitution gives the President powers to condone these changes even if they are contradictory, keeping in mind the unique situation in a state.

On July 15, 2015, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley told reporters in Delhi that the Centre would award its consent to amendments brought by state governments to the Right to Fair Compensation Act, 2013.

The statement came in the midst of a high-pitched battle in Parliament against the Centre’s move to amend the Act. The proposed changes included exempting certain projects from social impact assessment, waiving a clause that mandated that the consent of 80% landowners be obtained for private projects and allowing the acquisition of multi-cropped land beyond limits prescribed in the 2013 Act. But protests broke out across the country. The Opposition stalled proceedings in Rajya Sabha, forcing the government to eventually drop the amendments.

However, both Telangana and Andhra Pradesh governments went ahead with amending the law through their legislatures. Telangana’s amendments were sent for the President’s consideration twice, the second time in April 2017, following objections raised by the President in the first round. The assent finally came in May 2017.

Essentially, some of the amendments proposed by the Centre, which were blocked in Parliament, were passed by the Telangana assembly and received the consent of the President, who is advised by the Centre.

What were the amendments?

Telangana made significant changes to the central law. Many of them mirrored what the BJP wanted to achieve in Parliament. For instance, Section 10 A was inserted to exempt certain projects from social impact assessments. Guidelines limiting the acquisition of multicrop irrigated land to safeguard food security were diluted. Land usage clauses were changed. While the central law says acquired land unutilised for five years shall be returned to the landowner or to a government-sanctioned land bank, Section 101A inserted by Telangana changed this to “a period specified for setting up of any project or for five years, whichever is later”.

Most significantly, Section 30 A was added, which allowed the government to buy land on a voluntary basis. Lawyer Rachana Reddy, who appeared on behalf of farmers and farm labourers in the High Court, said the insertion of clause 30A amounted to a revival of the 2015 government order that the court had stayed.

For her work, Rachana Reddy had to face a smear campaign unleashed online by TRS supporters after Chief Minister Chandrashekar Rao alleged she was spreading lies.

This has not deterred Rachana Reddy, who continues to represent the farmers “These amendments have also been challenged in the High Court in September,” she said.

Losing livelihood

For villagers in Vemulaghat, the government’s relentless pursuit of their land has put them under great distress. In July 2016, the villagers had to face the brunt of police attacks in the village when they protested against the land acquisition. The farmers said cases for obstructing officials and damaging public property were filed against some of them. Police officials confirmed that cases were filed but refused to share copies of the FIR.

While they first resisted the acquisition, the villagers say they are now willing to part with their land, provided the government gives them Rs 15 lakh per acre and resettlement houses, apart from compensation in the same manner for the landless.

“The government is going ahead with the project,” Anjeya said, pointing to canal constructions for increasing the capacity of the Mallanasagar reservoir in the area. “If land around us goes under water, what can we do?”

This is the third part in a three-part series investigating Telangana government’s claims about the Kaleshwaram irrigation project.

Read the first two parts here:
Have Andhra companies cornered contracts in Telangana’s largest irrigation project?

2800% jump in farm returns: Telangana government’s claims about irrigation project are ‘laughable’