Dalit farmers in AP protest smart township planned on land cultivated for years
Dalit farmers in AP’s Badvel are protesting a government smart township coming up on land they’ve cultivated on lease for years, despite official communication indicating there were plans to soon grant them conditional ownership.
Written by E Bhavani , Edited by Jahnavi Reddy
In January this year, Gangayya, Subbamma, Chandra, and other Dalit residents of Madakalavaripalle village in Andhra Pradesh’s Badvel rushed to the land they had been cultivating for decades, on hearing that revenue department officials had turned up with a bulldozer. They were shocked to learn from officials of the Annamayya Urban Development Authority (AUDA) that they were no longer allowed to cultivate the land, as it had been taken over by the government to build subsidised housing for middle-income families under the Jagananna Smart Township scheme. Nearly 100 Dalit families had been farming on the land for nearly 50 years, paying a nominal lease amount annually to the Kadapa district Scheduled Castes Corporation. Since that day, the farmers have made multiple appeals to revenue department officials, the Kadapa SC Corporation, and even the local MLA Dasari Sudha of the SC-reserved Badvel constituency to retain the right to cultivate the land. However, on learning that a residential layout had already been finalised, the farmers have now approached the Andhra Pradesh High Court.
The residents of Madakalavaripalle, all of them belonging to the Mala SC Community, have been protesting almost daily on the contentious lands with the support of anti-caste activists, farmers’ organisations, and Opposition leaders. On July 17, district revenue officials decided to conduct a bhoomi puja or foundation laying ceremony for the layout. “We held a protest objecting to the ceremony, but the police intervened and we were manhandled and detained,” alleged Gangayya. Despite this incident, he asserts that the residents are persistent on visiting the farmland, mainly to keep a vigilant eye on it.
A history of the lands
The contentious 60-acre parcel of land in Gopavaram mandal is about three kilometres from Gooty-Nellore state highway and about seven kilometres from Badvel town. Nearly 100 Dalit families of Madakalavaripalle village say that they have been cultivating this land for nearly fifty years now.
In August 2022, the state government issued a notification announcing the sale of plots on a layout of 30 acres of this land parcel under the Jagananna Smart Township scheme. Madakavaripalle residents said that two private real estate projects had already been built close to their lands, and a few others have sprung up in the surrounding areas as well.
Under the Jagananna Smart Township housing scheme, middle income families whose annual household income is less than Rs 18 lakh can apply for the plot on the website by paying 10% of the total amount. The beneficiaries are then selected through a lottery, and after being allotted the plot, they can pay for it in instalments. Ten percent of the sites are reserved for state government employees, at a 20% rebate.
These lands that Gangayya and other Dalit farmers have been cultivating on annual lease basis for years originally belonged to the Harijan Development Cooperative Society at the revenue division level, of which the Revenue Divisional Officer or Sub-Collector was originally the chairman at the revenue division level. In 1972-74, many Dalit households in Kadapa district were provided about two-and-a-half acres of land each with the aim of improving their economic status through agriculture. Later, the district collector was made the chairman of the district level body Zilla Harijan Development Cooperative Society (ZHDC) by merging all the revenue division level units, This was later renamed as the District SC Service Cooperative Society (or the district SC Corporation) — which is affiliated to the AP Scheduled Castes Cooperative Finance Corporation — and all of the HDCS assets were transferred to it. The Society had received a total of 4,790.64 acres of HDCS land, of which 3,620.34 acres were leased to SC beneficiaries for a year with the requirement of annual renewal, according to former Vice Chairperson and Managing Director of Andhra Pradesh Scheduled Castes Cooperative Finance Corporation Budithi Rajsekhar. The chairman (district Collector) holds the land titles, and the Dalit farmers only get lease payment receipts based on which they cultivate the land.
Detailing this history of the lands, Rajsekhar had written to the state’s Chief Commissioner of Land Administration (CCLA) in November 2020, seeking to transfer the lands of cooperative societies into individual DKT pattas, or government-assigned lands for the poor to be used for farming or housing. Earlier, beneficiaries of such assigned lands did not have complete ownership, as they were not transferable as per the Andhra Pradesh Assigned Lands (Prohibition of Transfers) Act, 1977. However, recently, the state cabinet amended this Act, granting full rights to Scheduled Castes in possession of assigned lands for more than 20 years.
Madakavaripalle residents told TNM that since the lands were assigned to them under lease for cultivation, they were unable to avail most government benefits available to land-owning farmers. While the district SC Service Cooperative Society’s does have funds to provide irrigation facilities to Dalit farmers, “three borewells were dug with the government’s help, but the underground water was excessively hard and not suitable for farming. Till today, there is no electricity facility for irrigating these lands. They are completely rainfed,” said Gangayya.
Displacement and compensation
Subbayya , another Dalit resident of Madakavaripalle and a former village council member of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), said that most of the residents cultivating the SC Cooperative Society land are second-generation farmers whose economic condition is extremely poor. “People try to find work grazing cattle (belonging to people of intermediate or dominant castes), or as construction workers. We didn’t go to school, but we made sure our children were educated. We never had to worry about food because we were cultivating those lands,” he said.
He added, “Some officials told us that as a compensatory measure, the revenue department would provide us with about half an acre of land in another village, about 25 km away. Why would people want their lives and livelihood displaced? Do they think that because we are Dalits, we can simply be flung anywhere? Will they do the same with lands used by people from other castes?” he questioned.
Some of the residents, like P Chandra, are now earning income as funeral workers. “Four men are needed to help in a burial, and we get paid anywhere between Rs 2,000 to 3,000. Poverty has not deterred us, we pooled some money together and filed a petition in the Andhra Pradesh High Court,” Chandra said. “We would have not felt so betrayed if the officials had informed us beforehand about the layout, because earlier, they wrote letters to the CCLA to provide us the land pattas,” referring to IAS officer Rajsekhar’s communication on behalf of the Scheduled Castes Cooperative Finance Corporation. The residents also claimed that they had stopped paying the annual lease amount of Rs 150 since four years based on the suggestion of revenue department officials, who gave them hope saying the government was considering issuing them DKT pattas (making them assigned lands), which would have given them partial non-transferable ownership.
When asked about the lack of transparent communication with the farmers during the entire process, Kadapa district SC Corporation executive director Venkata Subbayya said, “Why should the farmers be informed? They are ZHDC lands and the Collector is its chairman. He takes the decision. I don’t have any say in this.”
Meanwhile, Annamayya Urban Development Authority (AUDA) vice-chairman O Nandan told TNM that even though the matter is sub-judice, they plan to continue developing the residential layout on these lands. “It is the decision of the state government and AUDA has to implement it,” Nandan said. He added that the site was chosen after recommendations from the RDO, and the layout had already been finalised. He also said he was unaware of the fate of the remaining 30 acres of ZHDC land surrounding the layout, which was also being cultivated by Dalit farmers till now. “The final decision lies with the RDO,” Nandan said.
The advocate representing the Madakavaripalle farmers told TNM on the condition of anonymity that the Kadapa district collector “has previously instructed the revenue department to issue DKT pattas (converting ZHDC lands to assigned lands) to the SC beneficiaries because they were unable to avail loans or other benefits from the government like land-owning farmers. All the officials are aware of this, yet they chose ZHDC lands for the smart township.”
In May 2023, the state’s Chief Commissioner of Land Administration (CCLA) had written to the district Collectors of Kadapa and Annamayya, acknowledging that the Annamayya Collector had sought permission to issue DKT pattas to landless poor SC beneficiaries who were in active possession of ZHDC lands. The CCLA asked both Collectors to initiate the process of identifying beneficiaries eligible for pattas and submit detailed reports. Despite multiple attempts, TNM could not contact the Kadapa district Collector to understand if this process has begun and if the Madakavaripalle farmers will be considered. This story will be updated if a response is received.
“We hope that through this case, Dalit farmers cultivating land on lease get their DKT pattas not only in Madakalavaripalle but throughout the state,” the advocate representing the farmers of Madakavaripalle said.
This uncertainty over land deeds of ZHDC lands is not restricted to Madakavaripalle village alone. The advocate said that petitions to provide DKT pattas to SC farmers cultivating ZHDC lands in other districts were also pending in front of the High Court. Shiva Lingam, a 70-year-old Dalit farmer from the nearby Kamalapuram village who has also been cultivating ZHDC lands, said that he has been regularly visiting revenue officials requesting land deeds. “We need money to till the land, and it’s hard to find someone who will lend money to daily wage workers at fair interest rates. If the land deeds are given, we can take out a loan and develop the land too. Otherwise, we can only do farming when we manage to gather some savings,” he said.
Shiva Shankar Reddy, Kadapa district convener of the farmers’ rights organisation Rythu Swrajya Vedika, also pointed out that farming needs investment, which becomes difficult to provide without any title deeds or DKT pattas. “There is no electricity or irrigation facilities on these lands. The farmers are ineligible to avail investment support schemes such as Rythu Bharosa as they do not have pattas. We have made several representations between 2019 and 2021 to the district SC Corporation to recognise the farmers as tenant farmers considering their social and economic status. However, we were told that the ZHDC land lessees would get pattas (land deeds) soon and automatically qualify for schemes available to farmers,” Shiva Shankar Reddy told TNM.
Courtesy : TNM
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