In Vemulaghat, a Struggle Against Telangana’s Oppressive Land-Acquisition Efforts Has Been Ongoing For Over 200 Days

Residents of Vemulaghat have been on a relay hunger strike for over 200 days to protest against the Telangana government's efforts to acquire land in their district, to build a 50 TMC reservoir. Rahul Maganti
20 January, 2017

On 5 January 2017, a division bench of the joint high court for the states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh pronounced a judgement barring the use of Government Order 123, or GO123, a notification issued by the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) government in July 2015. A short, two-page order, the GO123 allowed the government to purchase land from “willing land owners” for any purpose, including development projects. It directed that a district-level land-procurement committee be set up to negotiate with the landowners. The GO123 stated that this committee could settle on a compensation amount based on the value of the land, perceived loss of livelihood, the cost required for rehabilitation and resettlement of the land owners “and others”—although it did not specify who this might include.

GO123 had first been quashed, on 3 August 2016, by a single judge of the high court. The Telangana government subsequently appealed the judgment before the high court. The court stayed the single-judge judgment on 9 August 2016—consequently allowing the operation of GO123—until its decision on 5 January 2017. The court orders were responses to several petitions filed by villagers from among others, Medak and Siddipet districts of the state. Since August 2015, the state government has been attempting to acquire land in these districts for the construction of a reservoir with a volume of 50 TMC—denoting thousand million cubic feet. If constructed, the Mallana Sagar reservoir will submerge 14 villages located in these districts. Though the government has not yet released official numbers, news reports put the cost of the reservoir at Rs 9,800 crore. The government reportedly aims to acquire close to 24,000 acres of land, of which 20,079 acres are privately owned, and 3,000 acres are under forest cover. According to a fact-finding report released by Telangana Atmagourava Vedika, a Hyderabad-based informal organisation of activists, journalists and academics, 3,112 houses and 30,000 people are likely to be displaced by the construction of this reservoir.

The high court order was a blow to the state government. Though the state assembly had passed a bill to ease the government’s land-acquisition efforts only a few days earlier, the bill had not yet been signed into law. The court order effectively ensured that, until the bill became law, the government would be able to acquire land only under the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation, and Resettlement Act of 2013 or the LARR—the existing central law, and which the GO123 had attempted to bypass.

The LARR is a far more comprehensive regulation: for instance, it specifies that a gram sabha must be convened to discuss the acquisition as a part of its social impact assessment, and specifies that rehabilitation and resettlement must be guaranteed to all those affected, not merely those who own the land. “It is not just the land-owning people who live in the village. A lot of other occupations get intertwined with the village economy,” said Rukaiah, a resident of Vemulaghat—one of the villages that would be submerged—who belongs to the oppressed Vaddera community. “Most people in these professions belong to oppressed castes—Dalits and Bahujans. This government is discriminating against us based on our caste.” The high court ruled that GO123 did not provide any benefit to these marginalised communities, and that it denied them “the rights conferred on them by the 2013 Act.”

The day the high court order was passed also marked 215 days since the people of Vemulaghat began a relay hunger strike to protest the reservoir’s construction. The ongoing hunger strike by the people of Vemulaghat is the only remaining effort in a resistance against the land acquisition for the reservoir that, until July 2016, spanned all 14 villages that the construction will affect. Residents in many of the affected villages, such as Pallepahad, Erravelli, Singaram, and Etigadda Kishtapur, have long since given up their efforts—villagers estimated that the government had, under the GO123, acquired over two-thirds of their land. Every day, residents of Vemulaghat take turns to sit in a makeshift tent, constructed outside the office of the village revenue officer, or VRO. The villagers told me that the tent is the centre of the resistance; often, the villagers gather here to sing songs and shout protest slogans. It is also where they regularly conduct meetings, dharnas and protests, and where those on the hunger strike sit every day, since it began in June.

The protests in these villages began in August 2015, when the district’s revenue officials began visiting the area to survey the land. Villagers from Vemulaghat told me that it was when they questioned the land officials that they found out that the Telangana government intended to acquire their land. Over the next year, residents from these villages employed various methods of resistance: villagers from the affected villages conducted a hunger strike at the district headquarters, in Siddipet; villagers conducted protests and dharnas in Siddipet, Thoguta and even Hyderabad, including a padayatra through the affected villages in May. Many of these protests were attacked and lathi charged by the police—on 24 July, for instance, when a group of villagers, belonging to villages such as Yeravalli and Pallepahad, started to walk towards the Hyderabad-Karimnagar highway and block it as a form of protest, the police fired into the air to disperse the protestors, and lathi charged them. The attack injured at least 20 people, some of whom were young children.

According to the 2011 census, Vemulaghat is home to over 600 families, comprising nearly 3,000 people. The villagers estimated that the area of Vemulaghat is close to 5,300 acres, of which nearly 1,800 acres are a forest located towards the north of the village. Most villagers I spoke to in the affected villages said that the government had employed coercive methods—such as the use of force and spreading misinformation—to force residents to give up their land. Despite this pressure, Vemulaghat’s resistance has sustained, in part due to several social and economic advantages.

Farmers belonging to the Reddy community—upper-caste landowners—comprise over 50 percent of the population and own most of the cultivable land. The other 50 percent includes a sizeable Muslim population—nearly a third of the total—whose main occupation is farming as well. The village is also home to over 150 Dalit families. Most of the people belonging to these families are small-scale farmers, and own 350 acres of land amongst them, while the rest work as agricultural labourers and tenant farmers in the fields of upper-caste landlords (The 2011 census data had estimated that close to 21 percent of the village belonged to the Scheduled Caste community.)

Many young men and women, who grew up in Vemulaghat and are now working in cities such as Hyderabad, are providing support to the protests. After hearing of their village’s efforts to oppose the acquisition, they decided to return and help spread information about land-rights and acquisition laws. Santosh Reddy, an engineer who works in Hyderabad, told me, “We created a WhatsApp group called ‘Mallannasagar Porata Samithi,’ where we share all sorts of information pertinent to the struggle. We shared with people the Telugu translations of the laws, news reports etc. This has helped us democratise the information. People had more access to information and they could evade the trap and lies spread by the government that the GO123 is more beneficial to them than the LARR 123.” Close to 40 government officials reside in the village—a fact that many villagers said allowed them to stay abreast of the government’s policies and land-acquisition laws.

In late May 2016, Harish Rao, the state’s irrigation minister, had said that the opposition in the state was provoking the villagers into agitating, as part of a “conspiracy” to prevent construction. I asked Srinivasa Reddy, a 38-year-old resident of Vemulaghat, about Rao’s comments. He laughed sarcastically in response. “I have been with the TRS party for 16 years now, right from its inception in 2001,” Srinivas said. “The opposition to Mallanna Sagar is not from the opposition parties but from the people of Vemulaghat.”

In the last week of July 2016, after the lathi charge, the executive magistrate of the district imposed an order under Section 144 of the criminal procedure code—which can be used to prevent people from assembling in large groups—on Vemulaghat. Soon after, police officials set up a checkpoint outside the village, a few metres away from the office of the VRO. Though the order was lifted in September, the checkpoint has remained. The police keep an eye on every person entering Vemulaghat—villagers alleged that police officials also stopped politicians and activists from entering the village. Many residents said that the police used the checkpoint to harass them. Mamatha, a 40-year-old resident of the village, said, “It looked as if the police was trying to settle scores with us. We were always asked to show our identity cards even if we go out for getting groceries. Our relatives who came to console us after the lathi charge and firing were turned back by the police,” before adding, “We seem to be living in a police state.” Srinivasa Reddy had also been severely injured in the lathi charge, in July. Srinivasa said that the police had registered 15 cases against him, including one under Section 307 of the Indian penal code, allegedly for attempting to murder a police officer. When I asked the police officers in Vemulaghat whether this was accurate, they said that they would not give me any information.

Villagers also told me that the government had attempted take advantage of the fact that some residents were not literate, and therefore they relied on revenue officials or government representatives for information regarding the land-acquisition policies. Santosh, the engineer from Hyderabad, told me that on 27 September 2016, at around 11 pm, a government vehicle patrolled the streets of the village, making announcements. According to Santosh, the announcement said that the GO123 would lapse in a few days, and that following that, the villagers would not be able to obtain proper compensation for their land. (This was false: in the absence of the GO123, the government could only acquire land through the LARR, which would entitle the villagers to compensation prescribed in the act). Several villagers confirmed Santosh’s account. He also told me that when the villagers confronted the people in the vehicle, the occupants told them that Venkatrami Reddy, the joint collector, had ordered the announcement.

According to Hayath, a teacher in Vemulaghat who has been involved in the resistance since it began, villagers reached the protest site on the morning of 30 September to find a notice pasted on the walls of the office of the VRO. The notice said that the villager’s land would be taken over under Section 40 of the LARR—an urgency clause that allows governments to take over land 30 days after the collector puts up a public notification regarding the intent to acquire land, without conducting a social impact assessment as otherwise mandated under the LARR. Hayath said that there was usually activity on the streets of the village until 11 pm, it was surprising that no one knew who pasted the notification. “Why is the government doing all of this secretly?” he said.

In late October, families from Vemulaghat filed a case against the use of the urgency clause in the Telangana high court. On 22 November, the court stayed the takeover for four weeks. It ruled that requiring land for a reservoir did not qualify as an “urgency,” and that Section 40 could not be employed. (Throughout their legal efforts, the villagers were represented in court by Rachana Reddy, a human-rights lawyer based in Hyderabad. In December, the chief minister K Chandrasekhar Rao named her in a state assembly session, alleging that she spoke “blatant lies” in court, and was standing in the way of Telangana’s development. According to a report published on the news website the News Minute, following KCR’s allegations, supporters of the chief minister began targeting the lawyer online, and directing sexist and derogatory comments towards her.)

Residents of Vemulaghat who are a part of marginalised communities, such as the women and those belonging to the oppressed castes, told me that conversations with politicians and government officials had been conducted mostly by upper-caste men. “All the meetings have been taking place either in Gajwel or Siddipet”—over 30 kilometres away from the village—“the ministers’ guest house. Only men go to those meetings,” Balamani, a 50-year-old woman, said. “Women also work on the land. Don’t they have any right in making the decision?” Balamani added that since the agitation had begun, no political leaders had visited any of the affected villages. She added: “We didn’t celebrate the Telangana Foundation Day and Independence Day. We don’t want this Telangana or this sort of Independence.”

By contrast, Pallepahad, a village adjacent to Vemulaghat, was quiet. Spread over 1,200 acres, almost the entire village has been acquired by the government—ownership of only 50 or so acres remain with its residents. About 400 families reside in Pallepahad, and nearly all are Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi households. Most residents are small farmers, sharecroppers and agricultural labourers. Though the residents had also protested the construction of the reservoir and the land acquisition, close to the end of July 2016, they began to run out of money and resources, and were forced to give in to the demands of the government. Beginning in August, the government bought the land from the residents of Pallepahad under GO123.

“We had to give up the fight because most of us will not have food for the day if we don’t work and take part in the struggle,” said Mallesham Goud, the husband of Santosha, the sarpanch of the village. Mallesham told me that during the village’s six-month struggle, there were days when many families in the village didn’t have food to eat. “Most of those leading the resistance in Vemulaghat are land-owning large-scale farmers,” he added. “We could not afford to continue like them.”

Bhumayya, a Dalit man who owns about a half-acre of land in Pallepahad, said, “We are uneducated people. We were forced to sign those empty forms consenting to give our land to the project. We have no clue on whose name land is being taken and for what purpose. Most of us signed on white papers.” Bhumayya, as well as other villagers, said that groups of people supporting the TRS government—many of whom were comprised of upper-caste men and were often accompanied by the police—regularly visited the village, and encouraged the villagers to sell their land. Mallesham said, “The government colluded with some coverts to lure people on the basis of caste, false promises, misinformation and money. All the lands were acquired only in the past three months at the heights of police repression.” Several people in Pallepahad echoed Mallesham. Many villagers told me that they were shown an alternative rehabilitation site at Muttrajpalle, a few kilometres away, in the direction of Hyderabad on the national highway. But people from the Singaram and Erravelli villages told me that they, too, were shown the same rehabilitation site. Together, the area of the villages that were promised this 200-acre rehabilitation site is more than 5,000 acres.

Manne Balanarsavva, a 56-year-old widow, a Dalit woman, does not own any land for either cultivation or housing. She told me she earns Rs 120 a day, as an agricultural labourer. “I am looked after by the people in the village. Who will look after me once the government throws us out? Where do I have to work? What if the government asks us to move again?”

Mallesham told me that it was he who brokered the deal with Rao, the irrigation minister, after the struggle began to take its toll on the villagers. He said that the government had promised all villagers two-bedroom houses, and that the residents of Pallepahad felt that they had no option but to give the government a chance. “If they go back on their promise, we will again get back into protest mode as we have no other option left,” he said.

The Mallanasagar reservoir is one in a long list of irrigation projects that have disproportionately affected the marginalised castes and communities. A Planning Commission report that reviewed the construction of large dams in India until 1997—50 years since Independence—noted that since 1947, India has uprooted more than 6.5 crore people for development projects. The report stated that tribal people constituted at least 40 percent of the people displaced for such projects. Together, Dalits and the rural poor formed another 40 percent of the people displaced. According to the report, tribal people and Dalits were the most affected communities when it came to issues of rehabilitation and compensation.

On 12 January 2017, the residents of Vemulaghat hed a press conference at Thoguta, the mandal headquarters, to discuss the high court order. The villagers released a statement explaining why they had chosen to continue the strike even after the GO123 was struck down. “This is only a half-victory for us,” the statement read. “We will not stop until the government implements the 2013 law. We also demand that the unlawful 2016 bill in the state assembly that is similar to the GO123”—referring to the bill the Telangana assembly had passed to ease its acquisition efforts—“not be sent to the president for assent.”