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.