Road to disaster
Acheja, a small farming village in Gautam Budh Nagar district in western Uttar Pradesh, had never seen such a large congregation as it did on May 12. The venue was a rice mill. Its verandah was crammed with farmers in white kurta pyjamas and Gandhi caps. They were discussing the recent violence in the area in high-pitched voices. Once in a while, the crowd shouted: “Jab tak dukhi kisan rahega, dharti par toofan rahega (As long as farmers are unhappy, the earth will be in turmoil).”
In a room inside the mill, a group of farmers had crowded before a television set. Chief Minister Mayawati was addressing a press conference, broadcast live on a channel. As she began to blame the farmers for the recent wave of violence in Uttar Pradesh, they became agitated. One of them left the room to inform others. Just then a cavalcade of tractors and sports utility vehicles entered the mill to join the mahapanchayat called by farmer groups.
The event was supposed to be a grand affair, but the police had stopped many farmers and their leaders in Aligarh and Meerut. Those present deliberated on the recent violence in Bhatta and Parsaul villages in Greater Noida and the Uttar Pradesh government’s land acquisition policy. They then decided to march to the villages to express solidarity. But the party was soon accosted by state police and Rapid Action Force units.
Uday Vir Singh, a senior police officer, threatened to use weapons if the farmers continued with their march. A heated argument ensued but in the end they struck a compromise. Eight members were divided into three teams and allowed to enter the villages, escorted by the police.
Farmers of villages around Greater Noida have been on the warpath ever since the state government began forcible acquisition of land in 2007. A semi-constructed expressway connecting Greater Noida and Agra has opened up new possibilities for real estate companies along the transit corridor. Since 2003, the state government has notified 1,215 villages in the districts of Gautam Budh Nagar, Agra, Mahamaya Nagar, Aligarh, Mathura and Bulandshahr, all in western Uttar Pradesh, for acquisition for Yamuna Expressway, a 165-km highway project. It will reduce the travel time between Greater Noida and Agra to less than two hours from the present four hours. About 1,000 villages have already handed over land, but farmers are not happy with the compensation. Landless farm workers have not been given anything.
May 7 clash
The Yamuna Expressway Industrial Development Authority (YEA), the nodal body overseeing the project, wants to develop 44,000 hectares (ha). Of this only 9.3 per cent is for the expressway and the rest for developing areas around it, also called land parcels. About 4,100 ha has been given to Jaypee Infratech Limited, a subsidiary of Jaiprakash Associates Limited, to build the expressway and 2,500 ha to develop five land parcels.
“For the past few years, the Uttar Pradesh government has had no funds and is facing a huge revenue deficit. Undertaking such ambitious projects was beyond its capacity,” says Anil Tallan, a Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader from Aligarh. “Public-private partnership has come as a saviour.”
Since 2007, when land acquisitions began, the development of the road corridor has been marked by clashes between the police and agitating farmers, and occasional highway blockades and baton charge. Farmers also filed petitions in the Allahabad high court demanding cancellation of the acquisitions. But the cases were quashed.
On May 7, tension reached flashpoint. In the twin villages of Bhatta- Parsaul the police and farmers clashed after the farmers took two officials of the state transport department and their driver hostage. The officials were visiting the area to conduct survey for a new bus route. The village residents mistook them for officials involved in land acquisition.
They were released on May 8. In the two intervening days, Bhatta-Parsaul was transformed into a war zone. The police fired at the farmers, sometimes indiscriminately; the farmers initially responded with sticks and stones. The police say the farmers also fired at them. The people could not match the state’s fire power and fled. Official figures say four persons died in the firing— two policemen and two farmers.
Between May 9 and May 12, Bhatta-Parsaul had no men. They had run away fearing the police, or were admitted in hospitals, or were under detention. Twenty-two villagers were sent to Dasna jail in Ghaziabad. The police had blocked entry roads to the villages. Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedures was imposed, which forbids more than five persons from assembling at a place.
Soon after the clash, politicians streamed into the twin villages. Senior Bharatiya Janata Party leaders Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, Lok Janshakti Party chief Ram Vilas Paswan, Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee president Rita Bahuguna Joshi and BKU leader Rakesh Tikait were arrested while trying to make their way into the villages. So was Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who entered the villages pillion-riding a motorcycle.
In an extraordinary move even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced that those injured seriously would get a compensation of Rs 50,000 while those with minor injuries would get Rs 10,000 each.
A similar agitation had taken place in November 2010 at Tappal in Aligarh when farmers and the police clashed over land acquisition for a proposed township. Farmers relented after the state government announced it would hike land rates for acquisition and provide annuity as rehabilitation.
Real estate developers make hay
Land in the western Uttar Pradesh belt is up for grabs for private developers. The acquisitions have increased remarkably since December 2007. Besides the Yamuna Expressway, numerous townships are springing up. Land for these townships is being given to companies as special incentives to develop infrastructure in the area.
Land rates, decided by the district magistrate, depend on factors like distance from the road and the city, and presence of water supply and sewerage. The compensation amount is based on these rates. In the villages of Gautam Budh Nagar, for instance, rates of farmland were around Rs 85 lakh per hectare till 2010. Land in villages that are far from the city like Bhatta, Parsaul and Acheja costs Rs 61 lakh per hectare during the same period. The rates have suddenly shot up this year.
According to revenue officials, the cost of land in the villages of Gautam Budh Nagar increases to Rs 1.20 crore a hectare if it is developed as a farmhouse. The proposed map of Yamuna Expressway shows many new projects are waiting (see map). Apart from the five parcels of land, most of which has already been acquired by Jaypee, there is a proposal for a sports special development zone comprising a Formula One race track. Also lined up are cricket and hockey stadiums, besides apartments.
Jaypee states it would develop 35,000 ha between Greater Noida and Jewar, 60 km away, for industries, information technology institutes, warehouses, sports and transport. This does not include small housing projects.
A search through different websites reveals that more than a dozen estate developers, including big names like DLF, Unitech, Parsvanath, Eldeco, Emmar, Omaxe and Wave, have either been allotted land to develop residential and commercial property along the expessway or are in the queue.
But the development is taking its toll on the farm sector. Most of the land being diverted to real estate projects is highly fertile. The development will affect almost 1.4 million people in 850 villages between Greater Noida and Agra, complained Ajit Singh, Rashtriya Lok Dal president and member of Parliament from Baghpat, in a letter to the prime minister after the Bhatta- Parsaul incident. He expressed concern over the Uttar Pradesh government’s plan to build eight expressways on a similar economic model.
Big plans are under way for the Ganga Expressway, a 1,047 km stretch from Ballia to Greater Noida which would cost about Rs 30,000 crore. The Uttar Pradesh Expressways Industrial Development Authority will acquire 26,374 ha.
It has already notified 1,949 villages for acquisition. While 15,120 ha would be used to construct the expressway, 11,254 ha would be given as land parcels to the company that wins the bid.
Greater Noida, too, has big development plans. Greater Noida Industrial Development Authority (GNIDA), formed in 1991, has been mandated to develop this area. According to the Authority’s masterplan 21,570 ha will be acquired by 2021 for purposes other than agriculture. Greater Noida has 40,000 ha land. This means, GNIDA proposes to acquire 54 per cent of the land (see ‘Greater Noida masterplan’,).
Every plot sold translates into big revenue for GNIDA. The Authority has therefore, in some way, assumed the role of a real estate agent. Its annual budget for 2010-11 testifies this. The total earning of GNIDA, mostly from leasing and selling land and property, was Rs 1,360.10 crore. It earned Rs 512.12 crore from selling residential plots, and another Rs 394.19 crore from selling and leasing land to private builders. Simply put, it is raining money for both GNIDA and private developers. It is the farmers who have been short shrifted.
A Greater Noida farmer gets about Rs 820 per sq metre for parting with his land. As the distance from Greater Noida increases, the amount decreases. In Tappal, for instance, a farmer gets Rs 570 per sq metre for his land (see ‘Farmer’s share’). The amount a Greater Noida farmer gets translates to about Rs 8.2 million per hectare. When the same land is developed into apartments, the cheapest rate the Authority gives to a developer is Rs 35,000 per square metre or Rs 350 million per hectare.
Property agents concur, saying the profit after land acquisition, cost of construction, and other value additions is between 90 per cent and 110 per cent per square feet (1 sq ft=0.09 sq m).
GNIDA and YEA officials refused to comment.
Acquisition: some gain, most lose
A day after the violence in the twin villages, 19-year-old Firdaus Bibi of Bhatta recounts the events. Her father, an agricultural labourer, had no land of his own. He worked in the fields of landed farmers for a living. His savings helped him build a small concrete house for his family in the village. Things were looking up when YEA acquired the land he worked on.
| Cost of land goes north
|Real estate prices have gone up significantly, say Greater Noida Industrial Development Authority (GNIDA) officials. In 2008-09, the authority sold land for residential purpose at Rs 10,500 per square metre, for group housing and township at Rs 10,000 per square metre, and for commercial purpose at Rs 20,000 per square metre. In just two years, the authority raised the prices to Rs 11,550 for a square metre of residential plot, Rs 11,000 per square metre for group housing, and Rs 22,000 per square metre for commercial purpose.
However, it is private players who are making maximum profit. Apartments usually fetch a minimum price of Rs 35,000 per square metre. It goes north from here depending on the amenities and the development the builder has carried out. Development of the expressway and expansion of the Delhi Metro is sure make land holders and real estate developers in Greater Noida happier.
With land gone, he feared livelihood would go too. Shaukeen and his 17-yearold son, Naeem, joined the other farmers in the protests. But both were shot in their legs and admitted to a nearby hospital. Firdaus’ mother has been away for four days now, tending the two at the hospital.
Shaukeen and his family had shifted to Bhatta about 20 years ago. Like all daily wage labourers, they were given a small piece of land. “Our monthly income was about Rs 5,000. We also got food and other benefits from land owners,” says Firdaus. “Without land, there will be no work for us. Resettling at another place is not an easy option,” she says.
The condition of 55-year-old Munni is no better. All her four sons used to work as daily wage labourers on the fields in Bhatta. They have been missing since the violence on May 7. “The police had set afire many straw houses that store grains in the farms. I suspect my sons got killed in it or have been arrested,” says the worried mother. Land acquisitions have put the migrant labourers of Bhatta in serious trouble. Most are jobless now and plan to migrate to cities, she rues.
BKU spokesperson Dharmendar Singh cites several reasons for farmers being unhappy. “They were not consulted at any stage of acquisition. Instead, urgency clause under Section 17 of the Land Acquisition Act was enforced,” he says. The clause allows government to acquire land without giving land owners the right to a hearing. “There is no uniformity in the land rates offered to farmers. In Greater Noida, farmers got much more than what those in Aligarh received for the same project,” he adds. The Bhatta-Parsaul incident highlights that all acquisitions have been made on agricultural land, leaving the farmer in the middle of a concrete jungle (see map). Some farmers have sought other forms of employment, but illiteracy may take them nowhere.
While the acquisition has left landless labourers without means of livelihood, it has also created millionaires among the landed.
Take the case of Parshu Ram, an 80- year-old resident of Acheja village. In 2009, the Uttar Pradesh government acquired his farmland to build the Yamuna Expressway. The compensation he got was much more than what he could have ever made as a farmer. He received Rs 1 crore for little more than one hectare.
But the money has only added to his problems. Ram sips from a glass of water and quips with a tinge of rustic philosophy: “You will never understand how it feels to become landless.” He does not know how to spend the money he has got. For the past 65 years all he had done is farming.
There are others like 75-year-old Sardar Sharma of Kirpalpur village in Aligarh. He laments selling his land but says there was little he could do. Of his 7.5 ha land, he sold 5.25 ha for the expressway for Rs 2.99 crore. “My four sons are not interested in agriculture. They want easy money so that they can all move to the cities. I have given Rs 20 lakh to each one of them,” he says. The sons do not want to “ruin their lives in the village”.
Bhoora Singh, a farmer at Kher tehsil in Aligarh, wants to build a big house and buy a Mahindra Scorpio. He received Rs 2 crore for signing away his land on April 15, 2011. “Money from farming is very little,” says the middleaged man. He tried to sell his land to real estate agents in 2002, but was offered only Rs 75 lakh for 6.5 ha. “Today I am a crorepati,” he remarks.