Land Conflict Watch note* on land conflicts in Assam, Delhi NCR and Telangana
Recently, the Assam police shot and killed two people, including a school student, during an “eviction drive” by the state government. The families of the dead, along with dozens of others evicted by the state from ‘government land’, now live under tin roofs propped together.
The story has caused shock and outrage across India, as it should. In Assam, though, this could be considered business as usual. More than half the ongoing conflicts reported in our database from Assam concern forced evictions of poor and marginalised communities. Two decades ago its forest department had sent elephants to trample over the thatched-roof homes of forest-dwelling communities. Photographs of the demolition sparked outrage and added fuel to a nationwide movement that led to the enactment of the Forest Rights Act in 2006.
The recent government-led eviction drives in Assam have brought attention to the irregular and violent manner in which evictions take place around India. They also display a lack of procedural safeguards and rehabilitative measures that can ensure that evictions are carried out in a humane manner keeping in mind the fundamental right to adequate housing guaranteed by the Constitution.
The evictions in Assam, which primarily targeted Bengali Muslims, are part of a larger trend in the state. More than half of the land conflicts reported in the state of Assam involve forced evictions of families from their homes by labelling them as ‘encroachers’.
During its election campaign earlier this year, the incumbent BJP government had assured that the state would be “free” of those who encroach upon land, and protect the identity of those in the state. The party had also promised to end what it called “land jihad” in the state, in reference to the long standing conflict between the indigenous Assamese population and Bengali Muslim immigrants – by issuing land to Assamese communities and evicting immigrants. A number of conflicts in Assam, such as the Sipajhar conflict and the displacement of flood-affected people from riverine areas, have been exacerbated by anti-immigrant sentiment.
Conflict entries in the LCW database where forced evictions have taken place show that complaints against procedural violations have been made by affected communities in over 41% of such cases. There has been no rehabilitation of displaced people in 42% of conflicts where forced evictions took place. In 45% of these conflicts, the affected communities have been demanding legal recognition of their land rights.
Khori Gaon: After Ordering Evictions, Supreme Court Seeks Provisional Rehabilitation
Meanwhile, the controversy over the demolition of 10,000 homes at Khori Gaon in Faridabad (Delhi NCR) has yet again shown what obstacles are faced by communities with little to no formal rights over their property. In June 2021, the Supreme Court had directed the Haryana government to demolish the homes for being encroachments on the Aravalli forest. Demolitions began and left over one lakh people homeless amidst the Covid-19 pandemic (read more in the entry on Khori Gaon in our database).
The Supreme Court is continuing to hear the matter. On 14 September 2021, the court observed that a one-year timeline for rehabilitation of displaced families was far too long. It directed that the Municipal Corporation of Faridabad should make provisional allotments of houses to anyone who applied. The house would be allotted within a week of receiving an application. The court directed that final allotment should be done after due scrutiny of eligibility of the applicants. Recently, the Court had asked the Municipal Corporation of Faridabad to consider whether Aadhaar could be one of the eligibility criteria to seek rehabilitation.
How Telangana Govt Violated Land Laws in Kaleshwaram Lift Irrigation Project
Villages affected by the construction of Komaravelli Mallanasagar reservoir in Telangana have been at the epicentre of protests against the Kaleshwaram Lift Irrigation Project, the world’s largest lift irrigation system.
The Kaleshwaram project is a network of reservoirs, canals and pump houses that will pump water from the Godavari river uphill into Telangana. The project has set multiple records with the world’s longest water tunnels, aqueducts, underground surge pools and biggest pumps. Its 20 reservoirs will submerge 14,567 hectares of land, 85% of which are farmlands and homes owned by individuals.
Data in the LCW database of ongoing land conflicts over different components of the project shows that that the Telangana Rashtra Samithi-led state government has violated land acquisition laws and caused forced evictions of those who refused to leave their land — some of these evictions during the strict lockdown in April 2020 following the outbreak of Covid-19.
Since 2015, the Telangana government has issued several executive orders that effectively bypass provisions of the landmark Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, or LARR.
For example, an order called G.O. 123 allowed the state to purchase land directly from “willing” landowners at negotiated prices. Another called G.O. 78 disqualified sections of affected people from their rehabilitation entitlements.
Both G.O.s have now been struck down by the Telangana High Court. The Court has heard more than one hundred petitions filed by those affected. In multiple instances, the court has ruled in favour of the people and found fault with the government. In one case, it even sentenced a district collector to imprisonment.
The state government has also amended the LARR itself to dilute some of its provisions to protect land losers. The President of India (who acts on the advice of the union government) assented to these amendments.
The controversies over the Kaleshwaram project are symptomatic of how large-scale irrigation projects displace thousands of people and not everyone gets rehabilitated.