In MP's Chhatarpur, Farmers' Land Is Being Seized Without Notice or Compensation

What a four-lane highway, for which the land is being taken, will do for these farmers remains unclear.

Chhatarpur (Madhya Pradesh): Twelve kilometres from Khajuraho, the widening of National Highway 75 – which connects Gwalior and Rewa, and many other significant tourist towns in northern Madhya Pradesh – has restarted. Ten to 15 farmers gathered in Rajnagar tehsil here on June 5, demanding the subdivisional magistrate show them a notice for the work and provide compensation for possessing their farm land along NH 75.

The process of claiming land from farmers began in 2004. The idea was to widen the road from ‘single’ to ‘four-lane’. The road sees considerable traffic – especially of buses and trucks – between major towns like Chhatarpur, Satna and Rewa, and numerous accidents have occurred as the volume of traffic has increased.

We followed the farmers back to their Basari village, where the roadwork has begun. Many villagers here own small shops along the main road, which leads to the tehsil headquarters. The area, now marked by dry land and fallen trees where aggressive roadwork has begun, once saw successful wheat, mustard and peanut farming, which slowly dwindled with successive years of drought. The past two years have seen barely any cultivation. What this ‘four-lane’ – in the midst of arid Chhatarpur – will do for these farmers remains unclear, may be increase tourism to Khajurao, barely a 12-minute drive away.

Lakhan Lal, a resident of the village and a farmer, is concerned, but not as incensed as one may imagine. “Land from 100-150 farmers has been taken. We don’t know how much more will be taken. There’s been no notice or compensation. They’ve already cut the trees on our land. If we knew, then it wouldn’t be so objectionable, and if they had let us know how much we’d be getting in compensation.”

Lal resides in a kachha dwelling, and cash compensation would come in handy to build a house. The problem is not so much that the land is being taken, it’s that it is being taken unfairly and without due compensation. Agricultural land prices have fallen considerably, and the possibility of being bought out by the state is not a bad option, according to these farmers. As per the reform in the Land Acquisition Act, 2013, and the more recent First Schedule to this Act in 2015, there has been a rise in land prices in order to ease the process of land acquisition. Acquisition prices for highways especially has increased substantially – from Rs 0.9 crore in FY14 to Rs 2.05 crore in FY16, according to government data.

Roshan Kumar, a teenager manning his parents’ kirana shop along the main road, says what is clearly the only thing adults in the village are talking about, “We don’t have any information – about how much land is being taken, when is the work going to begin, how much money will we get for our land. We’re totally in the dark. All we were told, by the SDO (sic) and the tehsildar, was to turn up at Rajnagar [the next day].”

Himalaya Yadav turns to the camera and speaks directly to the powers that be, “You tell us, where does it happen that you first take our land, and then think about a notice or compensation? The contractors make an appearance here; they’re bullies, throw money in the police station and take the land and begin the work.”

According to Yadav, and around 20 other farmers who had gathered with similar testimonies, the SDM had declared that the compensation announced in 2017 to farmers would be paid. What the farmers are implying is that compensation offered at the time of the first proposed acquisition of land in 2004 was not adequate, whereas the increased compensation they are entitled to as of 2015 is something that they are agreeable to. It’s a better deal than farming arid land in a drought-stricken region. They only need to know, on paper, how much land is being acquired and what will be the compensation due. Whether land reform on paper ever translates into fair compensation for poor land owners is a question worth asking in the upcoming Madhya Pradesh polls.

Khabar Lahariya is a rural, video-first digital news organisation with an all-women network of reporters in eight districts of Uttar Pradesh.