Chandigarh: One-and-a-half months ago, Amrik Kaur, sarpanch of village Sekhowal in Ludhiana district, was asked to attend a meeting at the Ludhiana deputy commissioner’s office. There, she was asked to give her consent for the transfer of a portion of the village common (shamlat) land for a government project.
Kaur told The Wire she was informed that the government needed around 200 acres of village shamlat land for an agro nursery.
“I thought not much land was required for this project, so I signed the resolution in the presence of the deputy commissioner (DC) and block development panchayat officer (BDPO), both of whom were later transferred out of the city,” she claimed.
But the village was rattled when the state cabinet on July 8 announced the set up of an industrial park over 955 acres of land, of which 416.1 acres belonged to the Sekhowal panchayat.
While the announcement outraged environmentalists due to the project’s proximity to the Mattewara forest range and the adjoining Sutlej river, the people of Sekhowal village called a meeting of the gram sabha, its supreme body, on July 22, and passed a fresh resolution that no village shamlat land would be handed over for the industrial park project.
In this resolution, sarpanch Amrik Kaur said that she had not been informed that the village land was meant for an industrial township when she had attended the meeting with the Ludhiana deputy commissioner.
“I gave my consent purely on my faith in the DC and BDPO. The document I signed was neither written nor read out in front of me,” she stated in the resolution.
Dheera Singh, former sarpanch of the village, told The Wire that the new resolution had been imperative since Amrik Kaur had been given a false impression about the use the land would be put to when she signed the consent letter for the transfer of the village shamlat land.
According to Dheera Singh, the population of the village is comprised entirely of Dalits and none of 80-odd families living there owns land. All of them farm panchayat-owned land on annual leases.
Since the village shamlat land is no more than 500 acres, of which 53 acres form the bank of the river Sutlej, the village cannot afford to give away 416 acres of this land, said Dheera Singh.
Aside from this, said Kashmira Singh, another resident of Sekhowal village, they receive loans from banks on the basis of their farming activities. “How we will pay our debts if our livelihood is snatched from us?” he asked.
Ready for legal battles
Though Amrik Kaur said the entire village was behind her in the latest resolution, according to Ludhiana deputy commissioner Varinder Sharma, the process of taking over the Sekhowal panchayat land had already been completed before he joined office on June 15.
“We will transfer the money to the village panchayat once we get it from the state government,” he said.
Sharma dismissed the news of the village’s latest resolution against the state’s acquisition of its shamlat land and sarpanch Amrik Kaur’s claims that she was misled while giving consent to that acquisition. “A lot of claims are being made in the media,” he told The Wire. “I can react only when the resolution comes to me in black and white. Nothing has come to me as of now.”
He added, “Do you think a DC can make them sign a resolution after misleading them? Ye baat zarur hai ki baad mein unko kuch after-thought aa gaya ho. Wo kya hai, that is a matter of an inquiry (It seems clear that this is an after-thought. What actually happened should be a matter of inquiry. We have to rely upon our institutions. Panchayats and local bodies pass their own resolutions. DCs have no role there.”
However, according to Dheera Singh, the villagers are ready to take the matter to court should the state try to take over their land. “The resolution passed by the gram sabha has a constitutional validation,” he said. “It is a question of our existence.”
The villagers are experienced in court battles, said Manjinder Singh Bawa, a resident of Sekhowal. The village is comprised of Mazhabi Sikhs, a Dalit community among Sikhs, who were uprooted from Amritsar with the promise that they would be given land for cultivation. But the village panchayat had had to fight for years in different courts to take possession of shamlat land from the state government.
The land on which the villagers farm now was initially used by the state government as a potato seed farm, said Dheera Singh. “The families worked very hard to make this barren panchayat land fertile and cultivable. We fought cases for 35 years in different courts to legally take possession of the land. Even the Supreme Court of India allowed us to continue cultivating the land,” he said. “The state should not take over the land in the name of industrial development now, as it will leave the village’s Dalit population without a permanent source of income.”
‘Acquiring Shamlat land counter-productive’
Sekhowal is not the only village to have to part with its shamlat land. The state has announced another integrated manufacturing cluster (IMC) near Rajpura on 1,102 acres of panchayat land, of which 492 acres belong to village Sehra, 202 acres to village Sehri, 183 acres to village Aakri, 177 acres to village Pabra and 48 acres to Takhtu Majra village.
The concept of shamlat land emerged from the state’s land consolidations in the 1940s and 1950s, agriculture economist S.S. Gill told The Wire. It was to be used for welfare activities in the villages, such as a school, a park, a hospital, a dispensary, a cremation ground, tree plantations, animal grazing and other public utilities.
In 1961, said Gill, Punjab had passed an Act (Village Common Land Regulation Act) to regulate the use of shamlat land. The act had a provision to lease the land to landless farmers through a bidding process. Cultivation on 33% of shamlat land was also reserved for scheduled castes (SCs).
“But if the state keeps acquiring shamlat land for its own projects, how will village panchayats be able to take care of public facilities for future needs and feed its landless and under-privileged segment?” asked Gill. “This was the real purpose of shamlat.”
According to Gill, thousands of acres of shamlat land across Punjab have been encroached and there are no serious efforts to free them for their proper use. Also, there have been no major deliberations on giving people from the scheduled castes their proper rights over shamlat land.
“The rules say that only members of the SC community can bid for the 33% reserved shamlat land. But ‘upper caste’ farmers continued to cultivate land by sponsoring proxy candidates from the reserved category, most of whom are their workers, thereby depriving the community of their rights. There are no reforms to address this issue,” said Gill.
Data obtained from the department of rural development and panchayats say Punjab has a total shamlat land area of close to 1.70 lakh acres. More than 1.42 lakh acres have been auctioned on lease for cultivation, while around 20,000 acres have been encroached.
The standard narrative of the state government is that they acquire shamlat land after due permission from village panchayats, said senior journalist Hamir Singh. “But one must understand that a panchayat is just a working body of the village,” he added.
The village’s gram sabha is a supreme body that acts like a parliament or state assembly. In the same way that the government needs to table its agenda of selling property in assemblies and parliament, the permission to transfer shamlat land needs the consent of the gram sabha, which consists of all the villagers of voting age.
“I don’t think the consent of any gram sabha was ever taken when the government acquired shamlat land,” said Hamir Singh. “The amount paid to panchayats in lieu of the land was also not put to productive use,” he alleged.
Unfortunately, said Hamir Singh, village panchayats tend to be politically divided. “Sarpanches align themselves to one party or another. That is why decisions of the panchayats are not taken through gram sabhas. Also, ordinary villagers are not aware of their rights,” he said.
In the case of Sekhowal village, said Hamir Singh, the government must order an inquiry into how the elected sarpanch of the village was reportedly misled about the transfer the shamlat land to the government.
Why the government bypasses land acquisition rules
The state government claims that the new projects will cater to prospective entrepreneurs and industrialists in line with an urgent need to develop industrial and economic hubs in the state.
According to the official statement on July 8, the panchayati land for the projects would be purchased by the Housing and Urban Development Department for development as mixed land use, industrial park and so on.
According to Rahul Ahuja, chairman of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) Punjab, in places like Ludhiana and Jalandhar, there are not enough areas where traditional industry can be shifted out of the city and grow in an organised manner.
He also said that industrialists have concerns such as cheap electricity. “Then, where is Punjab’s air connectivity with Europe or the US despite the two international airports in Amritsar and Mohali?” he asked.
The state’s intention is good, said economist Kesar Singh Bhangoo, but why does it not use the proper land acquisition process?
Bhangoo said that according to the 2013 Land Acquisition Act, whenever land is acquired, a social impact assessment must be done to identify the exact impact of the acquisition on the village. Compensation thus becomes compulsory, even to those who have no land of their own.
The Act also says that the consent of 80% of the villagers is required and if the intended purpose of the land acquired is not fulfilled in five years, the land must be returned to the villagers.
“Since these provisions are difficult to adopt and implement, governments find it easy to directly acquire shamlat land,” said Bhangoo.
When this happens, villagers tend to fight back. Krishan Singh, a farmer from Lubhana village in Patiala’s Nabha tehsil, told The Wire that in 2016, the state wanted to acquire 25 acres of shamlat land for a cattle pound. Despite objections from the villagers, the panchayat passed a resolution to hand over the land. “We cancelled the resolution by calling a gram sabha meeting,” he said.
He added: “I remember a panchayat officer arguing over the rights of the gram sabha despite the fact that the Punjab Panchayati Raj Act, 1994, clearly says that the gram sabha is the supreme body and can overturn any panchayati decision taken against the interests of the village.”
All villagers of voting age are automatically members of the gram sabha, explained Krishan Singh. “They can seek details of the panchayat’s working and annual expenditures. If they are unhappy with panchayat decisions, any voter can call a gram sabha by getting 20% of the eligible voters to sign the resolution. Decisions taken during a gram sabha are legally valid,” he said.
In Gharachon village, a new battle for Dalits
Two months after 48 acres of shamlat land reserved for SCs was auctioned in Sangrur district’s Gharachon village, the majority of its Dalit population remains on a protest dharna.
According to Mukesh Malaud, zonal president of the Zameen Prapati Sangharash Committee (ZPSC) that is leading the protest, they are protesting the allocation of the reserved land to five families who they claim are dummy candidates for ‘upper caste’ people, over the bids of 148 Dalit families who had been jointly cultivating the land earlier.
For Narbhinder Singh, the Sangrur district development and panchayat officer, this is “an unnecessary controversy”. He said that the bidding process was properly videographed and was held according to the rules. Member of the Dalit community placed bids for the reserved land and they were given the annual lease after bidding the highest.
Malaud said that according to state rules, preference should be given to those bidding in groups rather than to individual bidders. But in this case, the claims of a group comprising 148 Dalit families were ignored while the allotment was made to five individual bidders.
“The idea behind the reserved land is to benefit the large population of Dalits. This purpose was not served with this auction, so we want to cancel it,” he said.
Narbhinder Singh said the rules are clear that those who make the highest bids, whether as a group or individually, will get the right to cultivate the land.
Malaud said that leasing the reserved shamlat land through the bidding system is basically an anti-Dalit practice that leaves the majority of poor Dalit families with nothing. Those who have the backing of ‘upper caste’ farmers often get the lease rights not for themselves, but for their bosses.
“We have suggested to the state government that a minimum lease amount should be fixed for the reserved shamlat land, which should then be allotted to Dalit families who will form cooperative societies at the village level,” said Malaud. “But nothing has been done yet, leading to issues like the one in Gharachon village.”
In several villages of Sangrur and Patiala, Malaud said, they managed to bring down the bidding amount to half and successfully had the land allotted to real Dalit families. “But we need a permanent solution to sustain the livelihood of so many Dalit families in Punjab,” he said
In Punjab, only 3.5% of private farm land belongs to Dalits who make up 32% of the population (the highest percentage among all the states and union territories), according to the agriculture census of 2015-16. The 2011 census showed that the majority of people from the scheduled castes (73.33%) live in rural areas, whereas 26.67% reside in the urban areas of the state.
Gian Singh, former professor in the department of economics at Punjabi University, said that panchayat common land is meant for welfare activities and facilities. But the current practice of allotting them in different categories through a bidding process is not fruitful and favours those with money.
Ideally, he said, the state government should divide all the cultivated common land among general category landless and marginal farmers, women and the Dalit community at a concessional rate on a long-time basis so they can earn their livelihood in respectable manner.
He also said that big industrial parks have tended to fail in Punjab. “We have several industrial focal points that are no longer productive. The state should focus on agro-based industries, given that Punjab has fertile land, which will help farmers augment their income,” he said.
Vivek Gupta is a Chandigarh-based reporter who has worked for several news outlets including The Hindustan Times, The Indian Express and The Tribune.