February 21, 2020
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Brackish Waters

They were the salt of the earth once. An ossified Act has taken their land, left them worthless.

Brackish Waters
Abhijit Bhatlekar
Brackish Waters
Rupees nil per acre. That's the money 70 families in the Uran region off Mumbai got in compensation for their saltworks land—all of 3,000-plus acres. The year was 1974 and the acquisition was made by the Maharashtra government for the Jawaharlal Nehru Port project (JNPT). And the law that made it possible: the Salt Act of 1870.

Mahatma Gandhi's Dandi March to break the draconian Salt Act is a part of our collective pride, one recently re-enacted with people coming from all over to participate. But the Act itself was actually never repealed. These 70 families, along with the labourers that worked there and several others who depended on allied activity—totalling over a lakh people—have been living under its dark shadow now for over 30 years.

How did the government make the "acquisition"? One, under the Salt Act of 1870, all saltworks land was deemed belonging to the Crown and, therefore, vested in the Crown. This got automatically transferred to the Union of India in 1950. Two, under Rule 37 of the Bombay Land Revenue Rules of 1944, land under the high water mark was again deemed vested in the Crown for nobody could own the seabed.

However, what the state conveniently overlooked is the preamble to the Act. The Privy Council's preamble declared that the Salt Act was to create revenue for the Crown by controlling sales and distribution of salt. The salt department was established and headquartered in Jaipur in 1870. The preamble declared that anyone who wanted to manufacture salt could do so under the precondition that their land would be transferred to the salt department (SD) but "for revenue purposes only". While no land revenue was charged, there was a levy on the salt produced. This way, the Crown controlled both the price and distribution of salt. So, people transferred their lands as per the rules, and separate records were maintained for them. These records, the jameen kharda, clearly listed the kind of 'holdership' against the landowner's name. The types of ownership included the government's own land, private ownership prior to and post 1870 and land bought from the government itself that was again transferred to the SD for the above reasons. A clause permitted a person to revert the arrangement if he did not want to continue manufacturing salt. He could then use it for other purposes and pay land revenue as was applicable.

After '74, the affected families rushed to the courts and even submitted documentation dating back to the early 19th century to prove ownership. After 17 years of hearings, the Alibaug district court upheld the submissions and stated that the established titles be duly compensated for both land and loss of business at Rs 20,000 per acre. The government appealed and the HC again stated that a compensation of Rs 17,000 per acre be given for "other" interests (right to make salt, loss of business) under the Land Acquisition Act. This also means that the government has to pay 15 per cent annual interest for the uncompensated time that today stands at 30 years. The government challenged this in the Supreme Court under its two-point argument. Yet again, the SC observed that the land was only transferred to the salt department for revenue so the title stays with the listed owner. It also observed that the saltworks was not a part of the sea bed as salt land is artificially lowered to the spring tide line allowing water in for the manufacture of salt. The SC declared this an industrial process and the land as "land" and not part of the sea bed and, hence, it could be privately owned.

So, where's the problem? Every court has judged in the landowners' favour. But Dandi March be damned, the government refuses to pay and has also found a convenient excuse. The SC said that it wasn't its jurisdiction or job to look into each individual case separately and transferred the cases to the HC. The cases still linger there. Each case is supported by documents running into thousands of pages. One petitioner shows you a heap of 37,000 pages of documentation. There are 79 cases in all. Hearings are supposed to come up between Monday and Wednesday every week. But typically, there are always too many cases to be heard by too few judges so it all moves at a lame snail's pace. Few petitioners expect a culmination in their lifetimes. The original petitioners have all died. Their sons and executors, at it today, are also in their middle years. Fewer than a quarter sustain the continuous court visits for it costs money and time. Take Lata Tajo Makarane, who owned an acre of land. She, like many others from 12 neighbouring villages, lost their livelihood from the first fateful day. Or even a better off Noorjehan Yusuf Nerekar, whose family owns 37 acres. With no other income, even these families live a hand-to-mouth existence.

Some of the affected families have lived amazing riches-to-rags lives. Like the Bhaiji family, who was among the most educated and respected in the region. A family member was even the official translator to the royal Saudi family. Their father was an mla in the erstwhile Bombay Presidency. Having spent his early years living in a virtual palace, Alim Bhaiji, 36, now drives a rickshaw to make ends meet. Or meet Mohammed Ataullah Tungekar. At 71 years, he has little hope of seeing a reprieve. Owner of 100 acres along with his brother, he remembers "living like a king". Today, it's a far harsher story. Then there is Noor Mulla, an ncp politician and a voice of sorts for the local people. He owned 50 acres and has been in the forefront of finding the people representation, trying to get political figures involved. But it has all been in vain.

The government gave everyone bank guarantees of roughly Rs 8,500 per acre. Only the interest on this can be used. Families can barely sustain themselves today. Another proverbial sword also dangles over their heads—if for any reason they lose the case they will have to return every paise of the interest accrued to them over the years. Elders estimate legal expenses of an average of Rs 3,000 per acre so far with more spent on court visits and so on. Several families have sold off homes and jewellery. The smaller landowners are mostly resigned to the fact that they may never ever get anything like the current value for their land. Incidentally, the JNPT (JN Port Trust ) today leases out the same land to companies at Rs 1.5 crore for 30 years. The respondents would be happy with a Rs 30,000 settlement per acre, along with the interest given to agricultural land acquired at the time. But even this adds up to over Rs 600 crore. Maharashtra is Rs 1.1 lakh crore in the red. Where will it find the money? But, argues a petitioner, if the government has money to increase mla salaries and pay for free electricity, it can very well find the funds to pay up some rightful dues.

While running from pillar to post, the petitioners have met politicians of every hue, from Rajiv Gandhi downwards, but with little success. All of them sympathised but nobody came forward to resolve the matter. "Political parties are all of the same colour," says a landowner. "Right from the start, the government never challenged any documentation we presented regarding ownership," says Dosu Bhiwandiwala, a 'large landowner'. "The government has no choice, the records are completely transparent and unambiguous." The JNPT has a World Bank grant and must have hypothecated the land as an asset. How did the port trust place land which doesn't belong to it as collateral? It's a question the WB should well ask.

Meanwhile, a local goon continues to make salt illegally on a part of the land while the rightful owners watch helplessly.His temporary labour tells you the "sahib" can do so, having paid a JNPT official hafta. Most of the land acquired lies unused even after 30 years. And the once-wealthy landowners of Uran sit back in their ramshackle homes and contemplate this bizarre twist of fate. And ponder over the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Dandi March.

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