By Saramma Emmanuel
Ajmer: Sangram Singh is a worried man today. He does not know where to go with his 70-member joint family after his almost 500–year-old ancestral property is evacuated.
“We have been living here for generations,” the 36-year-old resident of Rathodon Ki Dhaani, a dusty village on the outskirts of Ajmer, a pilgrimage center in the western state of Rajasthan.
“Now the government wants us to vacate the 100 bigha (62.5 acre) agriculture land and move to a new place,” Singh told Matters India on February 19. The village is 17 km from Ajmer on the way to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan.
“Our family eked out a living cultivating pulses, vegetables and wheat from this ancestral land besides rearing cattle, goats and cows,” Singh said.
More than 125 families with a population of nearly 1,500 also share Singh’s worries after the government of the northwestern Indian state decided to acquire their agricultural land for a new airport at Kishangarh. The airport project started in 2013 is expected to be functional by July end this year.
The villagers have been fighting against acquisition of their lands from the beginning as they say government officials completed the process for acquiring their land without their consent.
The sudden move to include the village in the airport project was an attempt to protect the lands of influential people close to the airport, allege villagers.
According to them, their village was not in the original blue print of the project, but later added to it.
“We got notice from the government asking to collect compensation for the land in 2013 without any prior intimation,” Singh recalled.
“When we objected, we were told that they had issued public notice about the land acquisition in two newspapers surprisingly in a little known weeklies papers in Urdu and Sindhi languages,” says Dhasharat Singh, another protesting farmer from the village.
The mostly illiterate villagers under pressure from the government officials, did accept some portion of the compensation, however, have not spent it and kept it in banks as they are not ready to part with their properties, as the amount offered was too meager, claimed Singh and other villagers..
“My family is going to lose 30 of the 70 bigha land for peanut,” Dhasharat Singh told Matters India. The villagers, according to him, are ready to give up the claim for the land provided the government should “offer us a dignified compensation.”
When they protested with an indefinite hunger strike that lasted for 12-days in 2013, the government officials agreed to grant them six-fold hike to their land according to the government rate. “We agreed to allow the government to acquire our land,” Dhasharat Singh, 45, added.
The officials, he says, however, went back on their promise and reduced the government rate to only four fold.
The dubious action, according to the villagers, was the outcome of their refusal to pay bribe. They wanted to us to pay 15 percent of the cost per bigha as bribe to them, which “we refused,” Dhasharat Singh said.
Now the villagers have decided to peacefully confront the government.
A Catholic nun Sister Alveena Barkat, who joined the protesting villagers, also termed the government action “illegal and arbitrary and against basic tenets of the constitution that guarantee right to dignified life.”
The member of the Mission Sisters of Ajmer encouraged the villagers saying, “They should not give up their fight until the government pay them their dues for the land and other properties.”
“The government should offer them alternative land for the land with houses and other facilities like grazing field for their cows, goats and other domestic animals,” Sister Barkat told Matters India.
The villagers too brought their cows and other domestic animals to the protest venue.
Sister Carol Geeta, a human right activist, said the Catholic nuns have supported the villagers from the beginning.
“Before uprooting them from their traditional habitat, it is the duty of the government to ensure that they get adequate compensation so that they can re-start their lives afresh,” she told Matters India.
With the meager sum as compensation, if they are removed from the village, “their life is under great threat,” she added.
Suraj Kanwar, a village woman addressing the protest meeting thundered, Come what may we will not move out of our land, if the government failed to pay dignified compensation to us.”
The woman, who joined the 12 day hunger strike earlier, said, “We will die for our land and we will not leave it.”.
The other villagers joined her raising hands shouting slogans said, “Unless we leave this place, there will be no flight flying from the airport.”
The government, according to the villagers, agreed to pay 126,000 rupees per bigha on the contrary others in the surrounding villages were paid up to 850,000 rupees per bigha.
“Even the best compensation itself was inadequate as they will lose the fruit bearing trees, open grazing field and the community life,” explains Sister Geeta, also a member of Mission Sisters of Ajmer.
The nun is also mobilizing support in favor of the protesting villagers, through People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL).
“The new airport,” she says “is a waste as it caters to the needs of a few people” and when compared to the investment and the loss of agriculture land “it is a huge disproportionate deal.”
Renowned social worker Himanshu Kumar whom the central Indian state government of Chhattisgarh drove out for fighting for the rights of the oppressed tribals also joined the protesting villagers and extended his support.
“The current model of development,” he said “is nothing but to grab the land of the poor and hand over to the rich.”
Even though the colonial rulers have gone, the divide and rule policy still continued in the country and now it is between the “poor against the poor for the rich”, he lamented.
Explaining it further he said, the poor people joining the police and other para-military forces for eking out a living are deployed in tribal areas to acquire their (tribal) land for industrial houses.
They (tribals) fight for their land that too for their daily bread with the police and para-military forces. Both of them die in their fight to protect their life and livelihood and the rich get its benefits”, he adds.
He, however, urged the agitated villagers to continue their fight through non-violent mode even if they would have to “shed their lives”.
The state general secretary of People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) Kapil Singh Sankhala accused the government of throttling the democratic values for serving the interest of the rich.
The agony of the villagers has risen to an enormous proportion after the state government served a notice threatening to disconnect power supply to their homes a week back.
“Now any time government can move bulldozers to raze our houses”, says another villager Laxaman Singh.
“This is unfair and we will not let anyone to take over our land and will fight and perish in this land if the government failed to provide us with dignified compensation”, asserts Laxaman and others.