Swapna Ashok

Is this land fooling or land pooling? An activist questions us as we step into the capital lands, four years down the lane from the time the TDP Government took charge of the residuary state of Andhra Pradesh.

Amaravati today stands as a large tract of fragmented land with foundation stones hidden by weeds. Wherever one goes, one runs into farmers and other villagers who feel betrayed, their hopes shattered with a few screaming activists to lean back on. The worst hit segment of society has been that of farmers. The farming community which has been severely affected, has no clue about what lies in store for them. Worse, a majority of the residents who gave away their lands either with trust or due to coercion have been manipulated, somewhat cheated and abandoned by the Government.

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The entire process of land pooling was flawed from the very beginning tainted as it was by nepotism, cronyism, apathy and high-handedness by the Government. It becomes increasingly clear that the entire exercise this was a premeditated design to grab lands for insider-trading. CRDA norms have been flagrantly violated and ignored beyond hope of redemption.

Who were the most affected victims?

Farmers who parted with their lands were promised compensation, free education, health cards and ‘developed’ lands in prime areas, among other things. Let alone development, some of them were allotted plots in graveyards, under water wells and even in a cell tower zone! Besides, the pooled land is valued at a much higher rate today—a benefit which should have accrued to the farmers legally and ethically speaking. The health cards given to them are not accepted for most ailments that are quite common. "I had to spend Rs 4 lakhs for heart surgery because the card was not immediately accepted and it could take a long time for them to process it," said a farmer with utter dismay.

Another farmer who earlier sent his children to private schools had to shift them to a government school as his annual income has dropped steeply. With no land to till, lives have been affected beyond repair.

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While this is the plight of those who gave away their lands, other farmers in Penumaaka who held on to their fertile lands have been threatened, harassed and unfairly implicated in criminal cases. These are lands that yield 4 to 5 crops annually and fetch them huge profits. More importantly, it is surprising that the Government wants to uproot a well-functioning agriculture sector and give it away to development! These farmers who refused to part with their lands, relatively a minority, have been living a hassled life, constantly worried about what could happen next.

To add to their agony, authorities are rude and reckless in their behaviour. Norms have been brazenly violated with ministers practically engineering this entire process called land pooling which is a euphemism for land grabbing.

Another glaring instance is that of the Government’s handling of assigned lands in Uddandarayunipalem and surrounding villages. The authorities have abused the system and exploited the laws beyond imagination. The local Dalit farmers have been emphatically told that their land belongs to the Government and can be reclaimed by the state at will.

Farmers who feared that this may actually happen felt coerced into gaving away their land for a meagre sum, only to realize later that their lands are worth crores of rupees today. To rub salt into their wounds, they realised that these lands are now being held by TDP ministers under proxy names (benami). After having been betrayed by the ruling TDP, the SC farmers are at their wit’s end to slavage the one thing that has always been dear to them, has sustained them and has come to them as an inheritance through generations—their land. It has been over a year since the court ruled in favour of the SC farmers saying that GO 41 should be scrapped, but this is yet to be implemented.

Those that have been farming on leased lands are the worst affected. With no compensation of any kind, no lands to cultivate and with their daily bread difficult to earn, 10000 such families in 29 villages are lost and hopeless. Same is the case with the local workers who earlier had ample work in farms. They now have to travel over fifty kilometres in crammed autos—seeking work that fetches them a mere 100 rupees. "How can I run my family and how is the Rs 2500/- per month sufficient to feed my kids?"cries out a woman who feels utterly  helpless.

To add to this, workers are being ill-treated with personal insults and human rights violations by local contractors who have been handed outsourcing contracts for maintenance of Government buildings. "They refused to give me work as I am dark-skinned and short," says Mariamma who worked at the local Secretariat for a short while.

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In reality, the government is accountable for thousands of acres of land that was pooled (more than 35000 acres). Today, all we find is sky-scrapers of international standards on the drawing board! The Chief Minister is answerable for the pathetic plight of agriculture and the uprooted lives of thousands of families who feel broken, staring at a bleak future. How can any plan be so myopic unless there is wilful malice, gross negligence and is driven by selfish objectives?

One cannot help but remember Dr. YSR, who believed that welfare and development go hand-in-hand. His exemplary governance reflected this philosophy. Today, AP has been plunged into a major crisis where development is a myth and welfare had faded away into oblivion. All we see are shopping complexes and bars and restaurants that cater to the fancies of a small section of society and which passes for the capital city of Amaravati.

(The author is Executive Editor, Sakshi TV.)