Fighting Injustice in Polepally SEZ

…more than courage it takes WILL to stand up against injustice !

Polepally’s 1,000 acres of despair

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– Rakesh Reddy

When moves to set up the Polepally special economic zone began five years ago, natives of three Telangana villages rejoiced. The proposed project on roughly 1,000 acres of land offered hopes of a decent livelihood for the residents of Mehboobnagar district’s Polepally, Mudireddypalli and Gundlagadda Tanda — a chunk of them marginal farmers or labourers and all of them poor. Yes, their soil lent itself best to agriculture — their traditional occupation — but the industries that were to come up were agro-based. Or so they were told. Thus, it wasn’t just aspiring entrepreneurs who were ecstatic.

That was in 2003. Today, the mood is one of despair. The project, which gained momentum by 2005, has displaced over 350 families, wiping out livelihoods of the largely dalit, adivasi and SC/ST populace. Few of them anymore own the land in which they once toiled. And the worst of the fallouts is suicides. This, when the government has sold off most of the land for Rs 1 crore per acre.

Significantly, Mehboobnagar is only some 100 km from the state capital of Hyderabad, but the district has the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of labour migration. The Polepally SEZ in Jadcherla mandal was supposed to help improve things. Ironically, the move to promote industrialisation has accentuated the agony of its people. A controversial December 2006 amendment that empowers the government to reclaim “alienated” land for “public purposes” has yanked off the last sliver of hope that its folks had on prospering through the SEZ project.

“My husband died right here of a heart attack, as soon as he heard that our lands were being taken over by the government,” says middle-aged Narsamma. “We were supposed to give a part of the land as dowry to a boy who had agreed to wed my daughter. He now refuses to marry her…. We don’t even have enough land to bury him.”

Some 47 people have committed suicide; a local Telugu newspaper claims to have verified 25 such deaths. The government, though, chooses to term them as natural deaths.

Initially, after land acquisition began in 2003, several local farmers became labourers in their own plots, as the companies under construction offered them work as daily wagers. But this dried up once construction was completed. Today, the only way out for them is to find work elsewhere.

But it’s agro-based firms here, right? No. The “Green Industrial Park”, as it is named, is home to bulk-drug industries. There’s little that can benefit the farming community.

Right from the word go, activists say, they were suspicious of the acquisition process carried out by the Andhra Pradesh Industrial Infrastructure Corporation. The project area was said to be 1,000 acres, while government figures put it at only 969. “To begin with, many farmers didn’t know exactly how much land they were tilling,” says senior CPI leader K Ramakrishna, an ex-journalist now working on the Polepally problem. “That changed when the government estimated the land to be acquired as per the ‘new measurements’. It conjured up additional 280 acres in which the farmers were tilling not really knowing if it was their property. And that was later acquired.”

“We never wanted to give away our land, but we had no option,” shrugs Jaipalli Sayanna. “The government had decided everything for us. We came to know of our fate only the night before the acquisition started.” Sayanna says he has lost his two acres of his land, and got Rs 18,000 an acre. Yes, Rs 18,000, in contrast to the Rs 5 lakh the government paid for each acre it took away for the Hyderabad International Airport at Shamshabad, not too far from Polepally. As for Polepally’s best patta lands, the figure was Rs 85,000 an acre.

Piquantly for the present Congress-led state government, these villagers were gifted much of their land by Indira Gandhi, when she was Prime Minister in the 1970s. Completely dependent on farming, they earned, at the best of times, around Rs 10,000 a year after their food requirements.

Their plight today has CPI state secretary K Narayana fuming. “It is the poorest of the poor who get assigned lands. But the government says it’s not bound to give any compensation for reassuming them, and thus it’s being considerate paying some cash.”

Narayana, who visited Polepally even as its SEZ-affected people have taken up a hunger strike, backs up his ire with precedence from the state’s legal history. “In fact, in a case (LAO Chevella Vs Mekala Pandu), the Andhra Pradesh High Court has clearly stated: An assignee of government land is in no way inferior to any other owner of land and hence, cannot be discriminated against in the matter of compensation in land acquisition.”

Lawyer K Balagopal, an AP Human Rights Forum founder-member who is crusading for the villagers, says: “Apart from the court orders, a pertinent state GO mandates payment of basic market value which, as fixed by the LAO (in this case) is Rs 24,000 besides a solatium of 30 per cent. While the correct figure, according to the GO, is Rs 32,000, the government decided on a princely Rs 18,000.” But the government has sold most of the land at Rs 1 crore per acre.

Worse, many haven’t got even this money. “I have received only Rs 9,000 an acre,” says septuagenarian Sandayya. He is still lucky. For there are many who have signed on vouchers of Rs 9,000 an acre, but effectively got not a penny. Many paid middlemen and peons sums ranging from Rs 100–500 at government offices at various times. As if this was not enough, the government arrested many of the farmers who agitated against the project, and slapped cases on them.

“These already poor farmers forked out money for bail and spent money in the courts before the cases were lifted by the government after six months, in an act it termed an ‘agreement’ with the farmers,” says Sujata Surapalli, an activist from Hyderabad. “Such pacts usually mean goodies for the poor, but they are being harassed.”

It’s not as if political leaders are ignoring Polepally. It’s not just the local MLA and MP, even Chiranjeevi has visited the place. The flamboyant actor-turned-politician local MLA promised works amounting to Rs 1.2 crore for the construction of community halls and a school building. In a sad twist of sorts, that’s probably the only permanent construction, as the people of Polepally themselves still have no houses to live in!

fouling the waters

The Polepally “Green Industrial Park”, ironically, doesn’t serve any purpose that is green. A case in point is what it has done to Rajapuram Vagu — which flows right next to the zone and maintains the water table.

This stream is one of the most important water sources for the Dindi reservoir in Dindi mandal of Nalgonda district. The population is mainly Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes who are completely dependent on agriculture. The command area of Rajapuram Vagu and Dindi reservoir is over 28,000 acres.

But Rajapuram Vagu’s waters are being fouled by effluents from the bulk-drug units, putting at risk the entire command area and the lives of thousands of people. The possible damage is best understood if one looks at the paper mill at Bhadrachalam, next to the Godavari. Its effluents have polluted the ground water for miles in this paddy-producing region. The farmers adjoining Rajapuram Vagu and the Dindi reservoir are at the same risk.

Moreover, all these people should be considered as project-affected persons (PAPs). But the government has not identified even one PAP in the area surrounding Polepally SEZ, though there are as many as 150 to 200 PAP families in that area alone.

waiting for the last rites

At 75, Sandayya doesn’t ask much of life. The Polepally SEZ has shattered the life of this scrawny, doddering man, his impoverished family has been forced to scatter. Sandayya’s only prayer now is that his son must come back to perform his last rites. “Indiramma (Indira Gandhi) gave me two acres of land, it was our only source of earning. I cultivated jowar in it and it was enough to sustain my family,” he trails off.

Sandayya’s son, Mogalaiah had, along with his wife, left the village in search of a job for a place none of his family or friends seemed to know. It was Mogalaiah who used to till the two acres, but now there’s no land for him. So, an uneducated Mogalaiah had to migrate. He left behind his daughter and a son. There’s been no word since then.

Sandayya’s daughter Maisamma is clueless too. “Sometimes, you even doubt whether they are alive,” she says, adding her attempts to marry off her daughter have been futile. “Everybody wants some land as dowry. I can’t afford to eat every day. How can I afford dowry?”

Lakshmi, the elder of Sandayya’s grand-children, all of 13, has turned a cattle-herder of the asami (landlord) to earn some money for the family’s daily food. The old man says he wants to work so that he can send Lakshmi to school. But his age doesn’t allow him.

Stories like this are commonplace here. The displaced have not been given any jobs in spite of the state’s promise of one job per family displaced by the industries. These are people who were downtrodden for generations except for a brief period of self-reliance when they got land for cultivation. Now even that little has been taken away from them, denying them their right to live in peace if not prosperity.

rakeshvk@epmltd.com

Courtesy: The New Indian Express 26th Oct 2008

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Written by dilkibaatein

October 29, 2008 at 8:11 pm

Posted in English, News Archive

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