Agriculture

Abode of the Immortal Turns Battleground Over Rights to Land

A look behind the Andhra Pradesh government’s much touted land pooling policy for the new capital of Amaravati

Kallam Sami Reddy of Undavalli village says his land is too fertile to be given up for the building of a new capital. Credit: Sandhya Ravishankar

Kallam Sami Reddy of Undavalli village says his land is too fertile to be given up for the building of a new capital. Credit: Sandhya Ravishankar

In Undavalli village, a stone’s throw from where the brand new residence of the Andhra Pradesh chief minister is rapidly being built, farmers gather quickly when the words ‘land pooling’ are mentioned. Phone calls are eagerly made and farmers, young and old alike, arrive determinedly to voice their anger against the state government’s land pooling policy.

Kallam Sami Reddy, 46 years old, points to neatly planted rows of roses, lily and jasmine flowers in his single acre of fertile farmland. “Look at this soil,” he says proudly. “See between the flowers, I have planted brinjal here and bitter gourd there. There are tomatoes in this row along with green chilly plants,” he points.

Sami Reddy calls this ‘God-given land’. Anything you sow here will flourish, he says. Apart from his own single acre of land, he also cultivates eight more acres on lease. “How does the government expect us to give up this rich soil?” he asks. “My ‘aadhaayam’ (income) per month from this land is Rs 4 lakhs. I have put my son through an MBBS course thanks to this ‘bhoomi’ (earth). This land has made us rich. I cannot give it up to the state government,” he says.

Undavalli is part of around 35,000 acres of rich fertile agricultural land earmarked for the ambitious new capital city for Andhra Pradesh following bifurcation last year. Undavalli’s farmlands also fall into the bracket of around 2000 acres within the earmarked capital region, whose owners flatly refuse to part with their ‘polaalu’ (farms) under the state’s land pooling scheme.

“I saw the land pooling document,” continues Sami Reddy. “It says that I willingly give up my land to the government in return for developed land of about one quarter of the original size of my farm. Who knows when it will get developed? It will take 50 years to develop this whole city. I will not be able to see it. Maybe my children will. But what is the use?” he asks.

The Andhra Pradesh state government introduced a unique land pooling policy in January this year to acquire 8,400 square kilometers of land to build a brand new capital city called Amaravati, meaning Abode of the Immortal in Hindu mythology. Under this policy, farmers in the designated capital region, around 20 kilometres from Vijayawada and Guntur, would willingly donate their lands to the state government for construction of the capital. In return, they would get roughly one quarter of the original size of their land holdings as developed plots, part residential and part commercial. For ten years after giving up their land for pooling, farmers would be entitled to an annuity of Rs 30,000 per acre for dry land and Rs 50,000 per acre for ‘jareebu’ or fertile land. Apart from this, Skill Development Training would be provided by the government to teach these farmers new vocations, since the pooled land would not be allowed to be cultivated again.

In the areas of Undavalli and Penumaka villages, the resentment is largely over money and perceived excesses by the state government.

70-year-old Manam Subhash Chandra Bose Reddy, a seasoned farmer who has cultivated onion and paddy in his 10 acres all his life, argues that Undavalli’s farmers would get shortchanged if they agreed to land pooling.

“Our land is worth Rs 10 crores per acre here,” he says. “This land is closest to the capital area where the seat of power will be built. This land is costly land. We cannot give away our lands to the government. Let them acquire it under the Land Acquisition Act by paying us four times the market value of the land,” he says.

The economics of land in the region makes for compelling logic.  In Bose Reddy’s case, he makes Rs 1 lakh a month per acre. From his 10 acres of land, he gets an income of Rs 10 lakh per month overall, meaning an annual sum of Rs 1.2 crores. According to the state government’s land pooling policy, if Bose Reddy gave up his land for the capital, he would get a mere Rs 3 lakhs every year for the next 10 years. Realty developers moved into Undavalli at least four years ago, he says, hiking up the land value to the current Rs 10 crores per acre.

The site of the Bhoomi Pooja and the laying of the foundation stone for the new capital Amaravati by Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier this year. Credit: Sandhya Ravishankar

The site of the Bhoomi Pooja and the laying of the foundation stone for the new capital Amaravati by Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier this year. Credit: Sandhya Ravishankar

Bose Reddy’s neighbour, Balaji Reddy, 30 years old and a tenant farmer working 5 acres of land alleges that the state government has turned aggressor in its quest for land for the new capital. “I was one of many farmers who did not want to give up land for pooling,” he states. “As per the Land Pooling Act, if we fill in Form 9.2, the form objecting to giving up our land, the state government must give us written replies for the objections and any queries put forth by us. That has not happened. Instead, the state government is harassing us. In December 2014, banana crops were slashed in 8 farms in 3 villages which are protesting against land pooling. No one knows who did it. Farmers who tried to file complaints were harassed in police stations. They were called for questioning at midnight. Irrelevant questions were asked of them about why they were not giving up their farms for land pooling. A posse of policemen were stationed in our village ostensibly to protect us, but they actually searched and harassed villagers,” he alleges.

Balaji Reddy is one among over 3000 farmers who have moved court since March 2015 against the land pooling policy, demanding that their objections must elicit responses from the state government. Over 22 petitions have been filed in the high court in Hyderabad against land pooling and the court has largely ruled in favour of the protesting farmers, asking the state government to respond to farmers’ objections and ensure that agricultural land is not taken over forcefully by the state. Concerns still remain, though.

“Even if they leave our lands alone, the plan is to build the capital at a height of 18 metres higher than the present level,” says Balaji Reddy. “All of our villages will become slum areas and when the Krishna waters rise, we will go under. We won’t be able to live here after the city is built,” he adds.

The state government, though, says that the concerns of those protesting against land pooling are primarily about land rates. “Look at the geography,” says Srikant Nagulapalli, commissioner of the Capital Region Development Authority, the government body in charge of building the new capital. “Undavalli is contiguous with Vijayawada. Land value there was already at Rs 5 crores per acre, before the site of the new capital was announced. It was already an urban centre,” he says. The state government is planning to acquire the remaining land under the Land Acquisition Act of 2013, once legal hurdles are cleared. This would mean that the state government would have to pay upto four times the market value of the remaining 2000 acres and also seek consent of up to 80% of land owners of the protesting villages.

Political hawks though say that Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu’s decision to earmark that particular area for the capital reeks of a smart play on caste equations. Most farmers in that region are Kammas, belonging to Naidu’s own caste. The opposing parties are largely Kapus and Reddys, locally at loggerheads with the Kammas. “It is a self-interest capital,” mocks MV Mysora Reddy, senior leader of the opposition YSR Congress Party.

While Naidu’s government may have accomplished the near impossible feat of acquiring 33,000 acres out of the required 35,000 for Amaravati, those who have pooled their lands now sit worried and anxious in their villages. As 83-year-old Noothaki Sriramaiah, a farmer in Mandadam village says – “Babu Naidu has brought us here, to this juncture, and we are all sitting and doing nothing but watching. I am very old. We are doing nothing now, since we are not allowed to cultivate the land that we have given for pooling. We are just sitting here after having given away our lands. When will the Singaporeans come? When will work begin? What will happen to us and our lands? We just don’t know and we are very worried,” he says.

And that perhaps is the current mood all over the brand new capital region of Andhra Pradesh. Young and old alike, farmers who have pooled their lands as well as those who are protesting against it – the theme surrounding Amaravati is one of frightening uncertainty. Chief Minister Naidu put it rather succinctly earlier in December when he appealed to protesting farmers to withdraw their petitions in court. “The whole world is looking at Amaravati, and you should be aware of that,” he said.

His critics certainly believe that it would serve him well to follow his own advice.