While 2020 will be remembered as the year of the pandemic, for the people of Amdanga village – who form a part of Mikir Bamuni Grant cluster of villages in Nagaon district of Assam – it will be remembered as the year their land was stolen from them.
Earlier this year, Karbi and Adivasi farmers learnt of a company that was to take their lands to set up a solar power plant. The news of the power plant, to be set up by Azure Power Forty Private Limited, came through local dalals or brokers. They were told there is a company that wanted their lands, that they should take the money and give up their land. To set up the solar power plant in Mikir Bamuni, Azure Power has bought 276 bighas of land from the erstwhile zamindar’s family who was originally granted the Mikir Bamuni Land Grant. However, the validity of this land deal has been challenged in court, and at this moment it stands as a civil dispute with contested claims over the land.
Since the so-called “acquisition” of this land, a series of false claims by state officials have come to light, including the illegality of sale of this land, procedural fallacies and inconsistencies have been exposed, those who cultivate this land and fight to defend their right to it have been beaten, threatened, even coaxed into accepting money for leaving the struggle and the land, and arrested.
In the latest incident, the morning of December 29 saw yet another confrontation between the police and farmers as the company has been forcibly carrying out construction work in contravention of the court order and with the backing of the police. Male police personnel brutally attacked women and men, leaving many badly injured as they attempted to halt the construction on land they now cultivate collectively. On the night of December 29, at 1 am the police entered Amdanga village with their faces covered, broke into peoples’ homes and picked up Lakhiram Mardi, Sikari Rongpi and Bhaity Timung, and threatened others with dire consequences if they did not give up their fight. Police presence in and around the village has continued as they look to make more arrests and terrorise the villagers.
As cases of land acquisition and displacement are picking up pace in Assam, the system of land rights and land tenure lies at the heart of all conflicts around land. Land rights in Assam have not been settled since 1964 and this leaves the large majority of farmers and peasants in a state of constant vulnerability and precarity, leaving them exposed to manipulation of the law and a denial of rights to their lands. Further, it brings out the politics of ‘green’ energy built on vacuous claims of sustainability that seeks to produce ‘clean’ energy over the stolen lands of indigenous farmers.
Land tenure and farmers’ rights
The land sold to Azure Power is part of the Mikir Bamuni Land Grant. The specific origins of this land grant may be found in the archives, but the Gohain family that sold the land to Azure Power points to the caste hierarchy and its close relationship with land holdings typical to the feudal conditions of lower Assam. This region is marked by large zamindaris, of which Mikir Bamuni is one such holding. However, these feudal land conditions were challenged by the Assam (Temporarily Settled Areas) Tenancy Act 1971, according to which a tenant who has held and cultivated a piece of land for more than 3 years has the right of occupancy, an inheritable right that can only be transferred to another agriculturist.
In Mikir Bamuni, which lies at the foothills of the Karbi Hills, Karbi and Adivasi farmers have been cultivating these lands for generations. Having cultivated and held the land for decades, if not more, the farmers’ occupancy rights were granted in the early eighties. They, therefore, have a legal claim over the lands sold to the company and documents to prove as much have been presented in the court as well. It is for this reason that the court has ordered for a settlement of their rights before any further work on the land can be done by the company.
Ignoring these claims and the rights of the farmers, Azure Power purchased the land from a handful of individuals belonging to a single family, descendants of the erstwhile zamindar family. However, land can only be bought or sold in the form of a periodic patta, called miyadi patta in Assam. In order to carry out the sale deed, the land tenure system governing the land of Mikir Bamuni was converted from a grant to periodic patta, rendering it into the individual and exclusive private property of the zamindar family members. This change in land tenure was made as part of a cabinet decision since land is a state subject.
Meanwhile, for its part, Azure Power claims “the land acquisition has been done fairly and lawfully with due consultation with all the stakeholders”. It is important to point out here that what took place was not land acquisition under the Land Acquisition Act 2013, but a private land deal between a handful of private parties. This has implications for procedural questions that are taken up below. Meanwhile following the latest round of violence and repression, state officials now claim the khatiyan papers of the farmers that entitle them to their land are fake documents. In order to deny the legal claims of farmers to the lands, the circle officers presented a report in court stating there was no cultivation on this land for the last 10 years as the land lay barren, thus dismissing the present claims to the land.
However, in such a case the legal entitlement of occupancy rights of the tenants must first be cancelled officially. No such cancellation of tenancy rights has taken place to substantiate the claim of the state officials. The case presently stands as a civil dispute where claims over the land are contested.
Given the land deal remained outside the purview of land acquisition for development projects, neither the company nor the state was compelled to talk to the farmers, inform them of the project, gather their consent, conduct a public hearing to explain the ramifications of the project, or conduct a social impact assessment to determine whether or not it is in the interest of the public. By converting the large landholding into miyadi patta and denying the indigenous claims over the land, the company can now claim “the land acquisition has been done fairly and lawfully with due consultation with all the stakeholders”. It continues to carry out construction work forcibly on land whose sale was facilitated by a string of false reports.
Having deemed the land barren and waste with no cultivation in the last 10 years, the revenue department converted the land classification from agricultural to industrial land for the purpose of setting up the power plant.
Further, the area of the grant is a well-known elephant corridor. Encountering elephants is a common occurrence for the people of Mikir Bamuni. However, the forest department has submitted a report stating there is no elephant corridor here giving the requisite clearance from its department. Kabeng Tipi, amongst those who has confronted the police on various instances, challenges this report:
“Even the day we were confronting the police, there were elephants playing nearby. We know when elephants come here and how they move, we have seen them since childhood and we have grown up with them. We know the whereabouts of the elephants, we know their routes, where they stay, where they bathe. It’s like we live together. But the forest department says there are no elephants here. And they allege we haven’t cultivated for the last 10 years. We have been growing paddy for years and years. If we don’t cultivate what will we eat? What will we feed our children?”
As recently as December 22, an elephant wreaked havoc in their village. This blatantly false report raises the question of why the state has had to resort to falsity and deception in order to facilitate a private company’s business.
In the midst of this private transaction, on March 12, 2020, six residents of Amdanga received a notice from the circle officer asking them to present any objections they may have to the demarcation of land for Azure Power the following day. With a mere 24 hours notice, this notice was challenged in the court demanding adequate time to file objections. However, on March 13, when these six individuals met the circle officer, they were told they cannot file an objection as the land does not belong to them. Why these six residents with seemingly no claim to the land in question were served a notice to file objections by the local state administration remains a question for the officials to answer.
Given the private nature of the transaction, the only stream of information and communication between the farmers and the company and/or the state has been the local dalals. Those whose lands were being taken were approached by the dalals and asked to accept some money in lieu of their lands. One of them was offered Rs 20,000 for his 22 bighas. The offers of money are a tacit acceptance of the farmers’ claims over the land.
‘Green’ energy and blue bruises
Azure Power Forty Pvt Ltd is a subsidiary of Azure Power Global Ltd., a leading player in solar power in India. Founded in 2008 with a 2 MW plant in Punjab, they have grown over the past decade to hold a 7 GW+ pan-India portfolio, with plants across 23 states of India. They are backed by long term investors including the Canadian pension fund Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (CDPQ), International Finance Corporation (IFC) and Netherlands Development Finance Company (FMO), amongst others. CDPQ increased its stakes in Azure Power Global to nearly 50% in 2018 with a total investment of US$240 million. Its investment in Azure Power is projected on its website as an important initiative to support a global low-carbon economy.
The founder of Azure Power for his part projects the rapid growth of the company as a testament to their leading status in solar power in India and contributing towards realising Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s commitment towards clean and green energy.
Projecting ideas of sustainability, low-carbon economies and green energy, such an emphasis renders invisible the violence that is meted out in order to place the interests of businesses over and above those of the people that labour on the land. Even as the country has been taken up by massive farmers’ protests against the new farm laws and the Centre’s attempts, without much success, at projecting a farmer-sympathetic image, the simultaneous attack on the rights of small and marginal farmers in the BJP-ruled state of Assam lays bare the priorities of the ruling party and government.
We are witnessing the third round of arrests, none of which have included the forest department officials who have presented false reports, the district collector who has refused to give people the certified copies of their entitlement to the land – official documents that are rightfully theirs, or the circle officer who sent a written notice asking people to file an objection to land he claimed did not belong to them within a span of 24 hours. Despite the matter being subjudice, the company has bulldozed its way over the ripened crops of farmers to carry out construction work under heavy police protection. When people protested, they were beaten, roughed up, threatened and arrested.
In the latest instance of violence, women and men were brutally attacked in the fields while attempting to stop the construction work. Buku Mardi was beaten senseless and then taken into police custody. Shikari Rongpi’s pregnant wife was kicked in the stomach by male police personnel leading to a miscarriage. Others have reported fractures and swollen limbs. A total of 10 persons have been named in the case filed by the police, and four of them are in police custody under charges of attacking police officers. The police have entered the village every night since December 29 around midnight to terrorise the villagers. The men have fled in fear of arrest and women remain in the homes alone. As state forces unleash brute violence on the farmers, Azure Power claims it is moving forward “lawfully”. The myth of ‘green’ energy must be broken.
‘Our land, our power, our rights’
The actions of the company backed by state forces is a response to the attempt of farmers to reclaim their lands through cultivation. The monsoon crop that was sown by them challenging the claims of Azure Power, mediated by APDCL and the local administration, was seen as an assertion that was not to be tolerated. Their paddy crop was ruthlessly bulldozed just as it was ripening. As Ratul Bora, Nagaon district secretary of CPI, points out, “This is the first time in history that Assam has been witness to such a barbaric act as flattening out the standing crop of farmers on such a large scale.”
Despite this, farmers returned to their lands to grow vegetables. For tribal, Adivasi and indigenous farmers to challenge the powers that be, and take for themselves what was only their own could not be tolerated by global capital, business interests and state officials in a way that smacks of a casteist and classist arrogance.
The arrogance of flouting rules, norms and law emerges from a sense of impunity that slots such populations as ‘dispensable’. The value of their lives, their claims, their words and their bodies matter little and can be sacrificed with ease at the altar of capital. However, it would only be foolhardy to think that their voices can simply be crushed and silenced.
As Kaleshwari Mardi says, “It is our land, our power, our right. We asked them [police] if they had cleared these lands. You did not come here. We don’t know where you are from, but this is our ancestral land, our forefathers cleared these lands, preserved these lands and cultivated these lands. And it is our will that will work here. We told them, and chased them away.”
The women and men of Mikir Bamuni have put up a brave fight in the face of adversity. Today, as they live amidst insecurity and fear, nursing their still fresh bruises, it needs more voices to stand in solidarity, amplify their voice, and upturn the consensus that they are a dispensable people.
Vasundhara Jairath is an Assistant Professor (Development Studies) at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati.