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Tamkuhiraj/Maharajganj (Uttar Pradesh): Nearly 50 families residing for generations in two villages of Uttar Pradesh’s Kushinagar and Maharajganj districts are now living in constant fear that their houses will soon be bulldozed by authorities following Gram Sabha notices asking them to vacate ‘government land’ and pay a fine.
Most of these families are financially disadvantaged and despite efforts have been granted no relaxation.
More than two dozen families of a village in Shankar Patkholi of Kushinagar’s Tamkuhiraj tehsil received a notice from the office of the tehsildar two months ago.
The letter alleged that the families had been illegally occupying land belonging to the Gram Sabha and said that they must vacate it and pay a fine as well. The residents claim they were taken aback at having suddenly been declared illegal occupants of land on which their families have lived for several generations.
In the last two months, concerned locals knocked on every door from the tehsildar’s to the local MLA’s as well as the Chief Minister’s camp office at Gorakhpur but have got no respite or relaxation.
While the local MLA told them that their houses are “bound to get bulldozed,” the CM’s camp office heard their grievance and sent on their way with assurances which have not yet been fulfilled.
Scared of the threats from and warnings of revenue officers from the tehsil office, a woman has dismantled her shack herself. Another house was pulled down by the revenue officers themselves.
Most of the families in Shankar Patkholi’s Malhuri Tola village belong to the Mali community. Two families belong to the Gaur community, recognised as a Scheduled Caste. A single family belongs to the Koeri community.
All of them – including the two dozen families who have received the notice of eviction from the Tamkuhiraj Tehsil office – live in abject poverty and their members work as daily wage labourers. Most of the villagers are MGNREGA job card holders. The Mali families sell flowers and vegetables in various districts to earn their livelihood.
Awas Yojana recipients among those who have received notices
Vishram lives with his mother, wife, disabled brother and children in the Malhuri Tola village. Using money received under the government’s house construction scheme, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, he recently built a house on the very plot of land on which his father used to live.
Vishram, who sells flowers for a living, says that he came to know that his house was on fallow land only after getting the notice.
He has been asked to pay Rs 48,000 as penalty. Vishram says that revenue officers have been paying daily visits to the vill’age and pressuring villagers to deposit the fine and vacate the houses. If they don’t, then their houses and agricultural land will be marked with red flags, their cattle and two-wheelers will be seized, and their houses will be bulldozed, revenue officers said, says Vishram.
He says that the villagers visited the CM’s office situated in the Gorakhnath Temple’s premises and narrated their ordeal.
“They took our applications and assured us of action but nothing has happened so far. Revenue officers claim that the bulldozers will reach the village sometime during this week,” he adds.
Another resident, Mahendra, has received a notice to pay a fine of Rs 32,000. His wife, Geeta Saini, says that the fear of eviction has given them sleepless nights. Revenue officers visit their house daily to ask for the fine and to vacate the house.
“My husband and I live in this house along with our three sons and a daughter-in-law. My parents-in-law also lived here. How can we suddenly become illegal occupants of a house we have been living in for generations?” she asks.
Hira Saini, who says he has lived here for the past 50 years, received a government notice asking him to pay a Rs 8,200 fine. Saini and his wife own one katha or 1361 square feet of agricultural land and earn a living partly through labour work and partly through cultivation. “We can’t even manage a daily meal, how will we pay a fine? We don’t possess any other plots of land. Where will we go?” he asks.
Om Prakash Gaur has a similar story. He has been fined Rs 32,000. The officers warned him that if he failed to pay the fine, his agricultural land will be seized. His house is going to be razed, regardless, they said.
Bachchi Devi has been served a notice for penalty of Rs 1,28,000. She says that the revenue officer asked her to pay the fine adding that her house is going to be demolished irrespective of whether she has paid the fine or not. Bachchi Devi earns a living by selling vegetables. “Our neighbours have also received such notices. When we went to meet MLA Surendra Singh Kushwaha he told us that the houses were bound to get demolished,” she says.
‘If we are illegal occupants, how come the government provided for housing and toilets here?’
When Rajmati, who has been slapped a fine of Rs 32,000, asked an official from the Tehsil about the notice, he told her that her house is built on Gram Sabha land and she needs to pay for the duration for which she has lived there. If she fails to deposit the amount, the house will be demolished.
“How can a MGNREGA labourer afford to pay such a hefty fine?,” asks Rajmati. “My parents-in-law also lived here but nobody said anything till now. What has happened now that they are intent on uprooting us?”
An old woman standing next to Rajmati says in her local dialect, “Ever since the notice has come, I have eaten nothing and am constantly crying. In my entire life, I have never witnessed such injustice.” Another resident, Sushila Devi, adds, “If we are illegal occupants, how come the government provided for housing and toilets here? Why did they come seeking votes in every election? Where will we go if they destroy our houses?”
Among the residents of Shankar Patkholi who have received the notice, Hira Saini, Munna Saini, Sushila Devi, Sursati Devi and Ramankshatr have got government aid to build houses and toilets.
Sushila Devi ‘s husband Satchidanand has received a notice to pay Rs 1,28,000. She says that her husband is blind and the couple has four daughters. They, too, were told by the MLA and revenue officers that their houses will be demolished irrespective of whether they pay a fine.
As per the notices, Om Prakash has been fined Rs 32,800, Ramankshatr Rs 48,000, Mahendra, Hira, Lakshman, Jhoori and Pramod Rs 8,200 each, Banarsi Rs 1,92,000, Sursati Rs 16,400, Girja Shankar Rs 16,400, and Dinanath Saini, Rs 32,000.
Each notice states that the person has damaged or misappropriated the property of the Gram Sabha and is responsible for illegal encroachment. For this, a fine of Rs 41 lakh per hectare will have to be paid. Asking to remove property within 15 days, the notice has also asked villagers to deposit the fine within 15 days of receipt of notice, appear before the Tehsil and explain why coercive action should not be taken against them under the Revenue Code, 2006.
‘No relief from CM’s office’
Another resident, Dinanath Saini, asks after the rationale of singling out residents in a populated area in this manner.
Saini also visited the CM’s camp office along with other villagers. “They kept our application and told us that we will be informed about a decision but till now we have not received any update,” says Saini.
“Two days ago, a revenue officer came and asked us to vacate the house after paying the fine or else all the property will be attached. Tell me, where will a poor man like me go?” Saini asks. He too has lived here since the time of his forefathers. He sells flowers for a living.
Revenue officials allegedly put so much pressure on another villager, Lakshman, that on July 5, he dismantled his own hut. All his belongings are now in a fellow villager’s house. His wife, Gyanati Devi, says that both their daughters-in-law have been sent to their respective parents’ houses. They also have nowhere to keep cattle and they are tied by the damaged hut with no shelter from the scorching sun.
She adds that her husband works as a labourer. “My eyesight is weak and the doctor has asked me to get a new pair of glasses but I don’t have the money for it. How can I pay the fine in such a situation?” she asks.
When this reporter spoke to Tamkuhiraj Tehsildar Mandhata Prasad Singh about the eviction proceedings concerning the poor families of Shankar Patkholi village, he said that a person from the village had complained long ago that people have occupied land of the Gram Sabha.
“On receiving information and after on-site inspection, a notice was issued. The notice has been issued for penalty at the rate of 5% per annum on property built on government land. The land on which these people have settled is barren or was previously a pond. It will be freed at any cost,” Singh says.
“There is neither any order nor any act allowing these people who have settled here for many generations to continue living here,” he adds.
Singh also says that such action has been taken in many villages. “Our bulldozers are removing illegal encroachments on a daily basis. A fine of Rs 50,000-Rs 70,000 is also being deposited in the tehsil every day,” he says.
Similar action has indeed also being taken in Sowal village of Maharajganj tehsil in Maharajganj district. Twenty three families in the village have received penalty and eviction notices similar to the residents of Shankar Patkholi. The village lies at a distance of about 4 kilometres from Bhathat on the border of Gorakhpur and Maharajganj districts.
Local residents Ramesh Yadav and his brother, Ugrasen, have received notices from Maharajganj tehsil. Ramesh Yadav said that he and his brother live in a house built on about two and a half dismil (one dismil is 435.6 square feet). His father and grandfather also used to live here.
“We are now being told that we have occupied land meant for six roads of the village. Tell me, if that was the case, how have people been commuting for so many years?” he asks.
Yadav says that the house of a family was demolished soon after a complaint of illegal occupation a while ago. ” Soon afterwards, we also got a notice. We are making our case with the help of our advocate but the revenue officials keep visiting the village every day and ask us to vacate the land and deposit the fine. Some of the villagers have paid the fine. My brother and I have also paid Rs 1,000 each to the tehsil and got a receipt,” he adds.
Yadav says the revenue records are wrong.
“Instead of making a correction in the records, the Tehsil administration is intent on destroying the lives of people living here. We even visited the CM’s camp office with our complaint,” says Yadav.
Village head Vishwavijay Mishra agrees that several people have been served notices in the village. “The land on which these people have settled is marked as ‘road’ in the records,” he adds.
“We are making all efforts at our level to avoid eviction of residents. All of them are poor families. If people are evicted in this manner, half the village will be gone,” Mishra says.
Rajesh Kumar, the Tehsildar of Maharajganj Sadar said that all those who have received the penalty notice in Sowal village have occupied of land belonging to the Gram Sabha. “Compensation will be recovered from the concerned persons and encroachment will also be removed. There is no ground on which they should be allowed to stay here,” he says.
As poor families of remote villages bear the brunt of the government’s ‘bulldozer justice’, there is no one to pay heed to their plight. As Gita and Sushila of Shankar Patkholi village say, “We have no idea what is going on. There is no one to help us. We can only wait for the bulldozers to come and bury us under our own houses so the government may get a sense of peace.”
Translated from the Hindi original by Naushin Rehman.