What a food park in Bihar’s Khagaria can tell us about the future of corporate agriculture in India

A sign board outside the Pristine food park in Ekania village. The setting up of the park followed a litany of misinformation and illegalities that lost the people of Ekania their land, livelihood and employment. Neel Madhav
27 April, 2021

On 30 November 2018, Harsimrat Kaur Badal, then the union minister of food processing, was set to inaugurate a food park owned by a Delhi-based company Pristine Logistics & Infraprojects Private Limited in Ekania village, in Bihar’s Khagaria district. After a brief inspection of the food park—then just two sheds and a vestigial wall—she left in a huff, refusing to inaugurate a project that was far from complete. “Nobody will be allowed to cheat farmers and youths,” the Hindustan Times quoted her as saying. “Neither Prime Minister Narendra Modi nor any of his ministers will inaugurate any incomplete project.” Three years earlier, at a foundation laying ceremony in Ekania, Badal told the media that the park would be completed in two years. What has come up in the village instead, is likely one of the first examples of corporate commercial farming that activists fear will become a national reality as a result of the farm laws.

The failed inauguration of the Pristine food park is the culmination of a litany of misinformation and illegalities that lost the people of Ekania their land, livelihood and employment. The food park currently sits on land that was acquired by Bihar Industrial Area Development Authority in 1987. Many of the farmers who lost their land have not been fully compensated yet. Farmers also told me that the state government reduced the amount of compensation they should have gotten by misrepresenting the land as infertile and of low value. Along with a monetary compensation, farmers were promised jobs in a growth centre that would be built there.

However, no growth centre was built there until 2011. That year, BIADA transferred the land to Pristine, who were tasked with building a food park on the land. According to several locals I spoke to, the park was supposed to employ people whose land had been acquired to construct it, as well as acquire food grain from the surrounding region.

But according to former employees of Pristine, the company reneged on these commitments. A former employee who was involved in organising the application process told me that Pristine burned a majority of the job-application forms by farmers whose land had been acquired. Several former employees, including him, said that the company used employees to threaten farmers who were still opposing the acquisition, and fired employees who were unwilling to file false cases against protesting farmers. Farmers in the surrounding villages also told me that the food park was not acquiring any food grain from them and was instead commercially farming in their own premises. It is unclear if this legal according to contracts signed by Pristine.

The Ekania case serves as a warning of what could likely be the future of Indian agriculture. Two of the three recently passed farm laws allow for corporations to both grow crops as well as hoard them, except under extraordinary circumstances. In Ekania not only were farmers pushed to give up land to the government, but failed to get adequate compensation for 34 years. The land was also passed on to a private company without the consent of local farmers or respecting their demands that the industry hire locals. The parks growing and hoarding of food crops also undermines farmers from the surrounding region, who cannot sell during the same period, or at competitive prices.

The fight against land acquisition in Khagaria district is more than three decades old. In 1987, the BIADA started the acquisition process for 206 acres of land in Ekania, located near National Highway 31. It finally acquired only 98 acres of land. The land was only one kilometer from Mansi railway station and ten kilometers away from Khagaria railway station. A fact-finding report, from July 2013, by a team from Citizen’s Forum, a Patna-based group of activists, noted that BIADA had faced considerable opposition from farmers because of previous land-acquisition in the area by the Bihar government. “In 1960, about 100 acre land was acquired for the rehabilitation of Ekania village which suffered displacement due to erosion by Ganga river, during 1962-64 60, about 20 acres of their land was acquired for the rehabilitation of Matihani village and in 1978, about 20-25 acres were acquired for power grid,” the report stated.

“Railways acquired about 50 acres of land during 1977-80. For National Highway some 30-40 acres of land was acquired,” it continued. “Their land was acquired even for gas pipeline.  This trend of farmers’ losing their land continues.” The report quoted several locals who said that BIADA’s acquisition of the land was illegal. “The villagers stated that they were misled by the then MLA from Indian National Congress, Satyadev Singh who got their signatures assuring them that he will file a case on their behalf in the Patna High Court. Instead, he submitted those signatures to the BIADA,” the report noted. This was also something that several locals I spoke to confirmed.

Farmers also told me that they were unhappy with the amount of compensation they received for the land. “The land was cheated from us by the government. I had three bigha agricultural land” —one acre is approximately equal to 1.6 bighas in Bihar—“where the food park premise stands today,” Sachhidanand Paswan, a resident of Ekania village whose had lost four bighas of land to the acquisition, told me. “I got only around Rs 8,000 per bigha in compensation while the present market rate is almost one crore rupees per bigha here.” Paswan said that in Bihar, the compensation rate is supposed to factor in the fertility of the land, with infertile land being significantly lower in value. “We later got to know that land was declared as infertile,” Sachhidanand said. “It also contributed in the reduction of the amount of compensation we were supposed to get. This is one of the most fertile parts of Kosi region, how can they call it infertile?”

Even the reduced compensation has not been paid in full yet. Sachhidanand told me that it was supposed to paid in installments. In the first installment, which was perceived as token amount, he got less than Rs 10,000 per bigha in 1987. Later the government told farmers that they have been given 80 percent of the total compensation. They did not get any further installments, which was promised within the next two years. “We were told that whole amount will be paid within two years and the growth centre will also started functioning in the same time,” Sachhidanand said. “Neither the rest of our compensation came, nor the growth centre got built till date.”

The land BIADA acquired is even mentioned in the tenth five-year plan. “About 200 acres of land situated nearly one KM South of this village land had been acquired for establishment of a factory to give employment to villagers,” the plan stated. “While some of the cultivators accepted the compensation for their acquired land, others have preferred appeal on ground of low acquisition rate … But the factory which would have helped all the villagers economically has not yet been established. This device has helped the big cultivators at the cost of government money as well as the economic uplift of the comparatively poor inhabitants who would have gained employment in the factory. Absence of the factory has arrested economic growth of the villagers.”

In 2007 and 2008, KK Pathak, the director of BIADA at the time, passed four orders that recommended the cancellation of the land-acquisition process in Ekania. Mayank Warware, the district magistrate of Khagaria at the time, complied with the order, and cancelled the acquisition process. His order requested farmers to return the portion of compensation that they had received, following which their land would be returned to them.

Kamal Kishore Yadav, the convenor of the Upjau Bhoomi Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, told me that Warware “granted us the degree of our land under section 11A of Land Acquisition Act.” The UBBSS, which can be roughly translated to Struggle Committee to Save Fertile Land, is a local collective of farmers in Ekania, formed in 2011, who are protesting the acquisition of their land by BIADA and Pristine. Section 11A of the Land Acquisition Act states that if the state has not compensated a person whose land was acquired within two years since the start of the acquisition process, the acquisition will lapse and the land must be returned to its original owner. Pathak had used the same reasoning in his orders. The section vests the collector or district magistrate with the power to return this land. “Warware also ordered the acquisition to be illegal and post inspection termed it as a fertile agricultural land,” Kamal said.

Kamal told me that on 3 March 2008, the leaders of UBBSS had a meeting with Warware and the representatives of BIADA. “We got an assurance that the final paperwork to return the land would be ready in the next few days,” he said. “We were told to submit the total amount of compensation, which was somewhere around Rs 16 lakh, which hundreds of farmers collectively received for around 98 acres of land, to which we agreed. The next day, the money deposition had to start but when we reached the collector office, we got to know he had been transferred late at night and the process got stalled. It never resumed.”

“Soon after, things started to change,” Kamal told me. Uday Narayan Thakur, the next district magistrate stalled the process of returning land to the farmers it had been acquired from. In 2011, BIADA, on the initiative of a state and central government, transferred the land to Pristine to develop a mega food park. Many local farmers, who were still awaiting, either the return of the land or the remaining compensation launched an agitation seeking to stop the transfer. Around a thousand farmers including their families joined the agitation. “When the company got involved in the food park, which happened in October 2011, we started protesting,” Kamal said.

“On 14 December, on the order of Dharmendra Kumar, the district magistrate, the land acquisition officers came out to measure the land and to hand it over to the company,” he continued. “The first confrontation happened the next day, on 15 December 2011. The whole area was converted into a cantonment with the presence of a huge police force. The company officials were present there and were in one call to the chief minister Nitish Kumar. They called him and directly talked to him several times, which in turn put pressure on the district administration to act and use force against us.”

Kamal said that Pristine and the district administration have since been trying to intimidate UBBSS leaders, who have also been arrested at various times. “There have been more than three dozen cases filed to intimidate me. Most of the false, frivolous and out of pure malice,” Kamal said. He told me that no one has received any compensation since 2011. “Everything we achieved till 2008 was reversed, leaving us no choice other than to organise,” he added. “We also filed a writ petition and then a public-interest litigation in the Patna High Court which is sub judice. We will keep fighting against this all our lives and our children will continue then.”

In addition to full compensation, UBBSS had demanded that the food park hire the individuals whose land was acquired as a way to compensate them for the decades that they did not receive monetary compensation. “The land was cheated from the farmers,” Sanjay Singh, a district functionary of Communist Party of India (Marxist) who was one of the participants in the agitation at Ekania, told me. “Our demand at the time the land was handed over to Pristine, was that farmers get their pending compensation with added interest and reserving the job to locals. We organised several protests. In fact, we protested when chief minister Nitish Kumar visited Khagaria in 2011 and in 2012 and he promised proper compensation and employment. But he has failed to keep that promise.”

In 2012, in an attempt to quell the protests, Singh said that Pristine advertised a thousand vacancies at the yet-to-be-built food park. Singh said that nearly thirty thousand people from Khagaria and the neighboring districts applied for the jobs. The scale of applications helped photocopy shops mushroom around the area temporarily. Ramashis Paswan, whose house is near the upcoming food park, recounted that period. “There were even people charging for pins,” he told me. “Even a lot of youth who migrate to big cities came back home to apply here. It was a time when we were hopeful. Later no one heard back from them.”

Alok Kumar, who works in a shop in Khagaria town, said he had a similar experience. “A lot of youth were excited about this project,” Kumar told me. “When I got to know that they have vacancies, I along with all my friends applied for this. We submitted our metric and inter certificates along with our IDs but never heard back from them again.” Ramashis said that the company collected all the applications and disposed of them. “People who worked inside the factory say that some of them were burnt and rest papers were sent to the nearby Budhi Gandak river in a truck to be dumped there,” Ramashis told me.

In the years 2011 and 2013, around sixty locals got clerical jobs in the company. Sanjeet Paswan, a former employee in the food park, told me that he was hired at half the wage and promised a full wage after the construction was completed. Several former employees told me that they used to file police cases against protesting farmers. Sanjeet said that by threatening locals with false cases and with the full support of the police and district administration, Pristine was able to acquire additional land for the food park. He said that after the acquisition of the land, the locals working in the food park were also fired from their job.

“I started working there at the end of 2011 when the food park thing was still to come up,” Sonelal Yadav, a former employee at Pristine, told me. “We started working on the construction of the boundary wall of the said factory. At the same time, the movement of farmers whose land was acquired was going on and the company used to get my signatures on blank papers and then filed a case against the protesting farmers of my village, a lot of them who are friends and relatives. As it was difficult, we had to keep our mouth shut for the sake of our employment, otherwise, we were told to leave the job.”

Sonelal told me that he could not sustain his family on the monthly wage of Rs 3,500 that he was given. “After multiple representations, talks and even intimation of strikes, our salary was raised to Rs 5,000 per month for two to three months,” he said. “Simultaneously, they filed cases against me on frivolous charges like theft and loot, and I was fired. In those cases, the police gave me a clean chit after investigation.” Sonelal told me he now has a small shop and the cases are pending in the labour court in Begusarai. “Hearings for us haven’t happened for a long time. In these years, I have been contacted by people in the company with offers and threats, both to change my stand and backtrack from the case. It is difficult for us to fight it, but we will continue as long as our situation permits.”

Other former employees narrated similar stories. Attendance registers, application for higher wages and documents calling for a strike showed that seven employees who had demanded higher wages, as promised at the start of their employment, were fired without reason or had cases instituted against them, which they claim are false. Pristine filed multiple FIRs on employees including Sanjeet with serious charges including of attempt to murder, loot and arson.

 “We went against our own community in supporting the upcoming food park even after the already present enmity,” Sanjeet said. “Some of us were provided employment and what happened after it was sheer exploitation. We were removed after some years when we demanded a higher wage. The company filed multiple FIRs on me which later found out to be false.” The Patna-based fact-finding team said that Pristine had filed several such false cases against former employees and farmers and that the police too had actively worked to intimidate them.

In one December 2016 investigation by the police, the charges levied were found to be false. The next year, Sanjeet and ten others challenged their termination in labour court. The case was first filed in Khagaria and later transferred to Begusarai labour court. About a dozen hearings have happened in the case, but the matter is yet to be concluded. Amitesh Kumar, Khagaria’s superintendent of police, did not respond to email queries about the allegations of false cases.

Members of UBBSS told me that Pristine was not using the land for the purpose it was acquired for. Khagaria district is one of the major maize-producing areas in the country, and media reports from 2011 said that the food park was made to process maize acquired from farmers in the surrounding region. A starch-extraction unit was one of the first factories planned at the site. Members of UBBSS told me that rather than acquire maize from farmers of the district, Pristine had started the factory farming of maize in the acquired land.

When I tried to visit the food park, I was denied entry by the guards stationed at the walled perimeter. “There exists two complete and one under construction warehouse inside, one functional cold storage and one poultry farm under construction,” an employee at the plant who wished to remain anonymous, told me. “The godowns are used to store maize and other grains, bought and grown here locally and are sold later.” Other Ekania locals I spoke to suggested that the food park is essentially a storage place, where the grains are bought at low prices in an open market and kept till the prices increase. In the course of investigation for this report, pictures of the food park were also accessed from employees who wished to remain anonymous. All images show only vast warehouses with no processing, milling or starch extraction taking place.

Grain warehouses inside the Pristine food park in Ekania. All images shared by employees show only vast warehouses with no processing, milling or starch extraction taking place. Courtesy: Neel Madhav

“Total construction may not be more than ten acres where construction has been done,” Ramashish told me. “The rest of 85 to 90 acres has been left open purposefully for the purpose of contract farming.” Another local interrupted the conversation and said, “This year there are protests going everywhere and that has stopped them from not planting baby corn, otherwise every year they bring people from outside to plant baby corn on contract. This year there is also khar”—a kind of grass used primarily for the construction of temporary houses— “which they sell in neighboring areas itself.” A second employee of Pristine, who wished to remain anonymous, confirmed that the company had been using a majority of the land to grow baby corn for last three years.

“No food processing has been done ever in this plant,” Rambalak Paswan, a farmer from Ekania, told me. “Now we hear there are some preparations for starting small poultry farms. Though we are not allowed to enter inside the food park boundary, which is made on our own snatched land, what we see from the outside is two-grain storage godown and one cold storage there inside. This is not what was promised.” The rail linked logistics park, which was promised by Badal, has seen no progress. It has been 34 years since the fight for compensation started for the farmers of Ekania. A lot of marginal and small local farmers, devoid of their land migrated to the city to look for employment. Farmers who previously had more land still stay in Ekania but have seen no profits from the food park.

In 2006, Bihar abolished the mandi system through which farmers could sell food grains locally at the minimum support price. The mandis were replaced by Primary Agriculture Credit Societies, which would acquire food grain. PACS are slow in the acquisition and pay farmers so late that most are forced to sell their produce in the open market at prices far lower than the minimum support price. Now unaffected by the government, grain prices worked on the principle of demand and supply, which caused a remarkable dip in the price of food grains at the time of harvest. Small and medium farmers without any storage facilities are forced to sell their grain at unremunerative rates. The rates increase in the off season, when the traders have bought and stored significant produce amounting into huge profits.

The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act of 2020, one of the three farm bills passed by the central government, removed foodstuff from the list of essential commodities. This functionally removes the stock holding limit on agricultural items. Activists from Bihar suggest that the Pristine food park in Khagaria is an example of what is likely to occur across the country following the farm bills—private companies farming large swathes of land and hoarding food grains to manipulate food prices. The political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot and the agricultural policy analyst Hemal Thakker have expressed the same concern in an article for the Indian Express. “Essentially changing the rules around sale, storage and pricing of farm produce, the bills will permit private buyers to hoard essential commodities for future sales, which only government-authorised agents could do earlier, along with changing the rules for contract farming,” they argued. The article says the farm laws, “apprehend a process of corporatisation of agriculture in the absence of regulation, as agribusiness firms might well be able to dictate both the market conditions (including prices) and the terms of contract farming as small farmers do not have the same bargaining power.”

Farmers’ unions have argued that food hoarding, which is legal under the new act, can endanger the public distribution system which a majority of India’s poor rely on. “Now, those restrictions are being removed for all food commodities, so it gives them to purchase and store any quantities, hence indulge in hoarding,” a December 2020 letter by the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, an umbrella organisation of 250 farmers’ unions, said. “Therefore it should be called the ‘Food Hoarding (Freedom for Corporates) Act’.”

It is unclear if Pristine’s use of land at the food park for corporate farming is legal under their agreement with the Bihar government. The Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee Act, which got repealed in Bihar in 2006, specified that middlemen and traders were not allowed to practice agriculture. Beyond requiring Pristine to build food-processing centres, nothing in their agreement with BIADA suggests that they are disallowed to use the land for agriculture. In regards to food grain, the Khagaria food park is likely to be the first case of large-scale corporate farming on land acquired by the government. Amit Kumar, the director of the Pristine food park did not respond to email queries about the food park. Neither did officials of Bihar’s department of industries or the Indian governments ministry of railways and ministry of food processing industries.

Rajendra Singh, a water conservationist and Magsaysay Award winner, has been associated with the farmers protest in Ekania for many years. In 2007, he travelled to Khagaria to talk about the danger of the land-acquisition process. Since then, he has been regularly visiting to address and stand with farmers, including last year when they were protesting against the three farm laws. “What happened in Khagaria long back will become a regular occurrence everywhere in this country where the farmers will not have a say in their land and produce,” Singh told me. “All of this will be done and run by the corporates. I stand with the farmers in Khagaria against the food park. This looks nothing short of a company raj”—corporate rule—“and is a wakeup call for everyone.”

Local protestors at Ekania too associated their struggle with the farmers’ protests in Punjab, Haryana and the outskirts of Delhi. “Since my childhood, I have been seeing the standoff here,” Rajiv, an undergraduate student from Khagaria, told me. “Now, when the protests are happening across the country over this, I understand how deadly these farm laws are. Anyway, we must be understood as an example and case study on why to resist these laws.”

“We have our lessons learnt,” Bipin Paswan, a resident of Ekania, told me. “Now after the three agriculture laws, this will a norm everywhere. What we fought for last 34 years, the farmers of this country are fighting at the borders of Delhi.” Nearly all the farmers I met while reporting this story did not fail to link their protests to the three farm laws. “This is a fight of our lives, we will keep fighting, this is a test of our patience and rule of law at the same time,” Kamal said. “In time to come, we hope to regain and till our land again. If we fail to do so despite law, rules and regulations and spirits on our side, it will show you who has been made the priority of this nation.”