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The ABC Of Land

This is land marked 'agricultural'. But the farmers don't own it. Instead, people like the Bachchans do.

The ABC Of Land
Atul Loke
The ABC Of Land
In the quaint village of Pol overlooking the Pavana dam near Lonavala, Maharashtra, a controversy is brewing over a large plot of land owned by superstar Amitabh Bachchan over which the local farmers are up in arms. The sub-divisional magistrate of Maval taluka (under which Pol falls) is conducting an inquiry into how Amitabh came to own the land. For the farmers, the sale is a symbol of how they are being deprived of their land. This is what the Pune district collector Prabhakar Deshmukh told Outlook: "I have asked the sdm, Maval taluka, to conduct an inquiry into how Mr Bachchan acquired the land. I know this is agricultural land but Mr Bachchan or his father could have been agriculturists. We are looking into the case." If the investigation reveals that the land has been transferred to a non-agriculturist, the land can be impounded and the transaction deemed illegal.

Bachchan bought the first tract of land in 2000 and some more in 2001. Also under the scanner will be the manner in which the ownership was transferred and the terms of the sale. There are allegations by some farmers who were the original land owners that they were not aware of the deal. Many farmers are also upset over the manner in which two companies—Fortune Tree Plantation and Social Cooperative Housing Society—acquired land in the region. Bachchan bought his plot of land from its chief promoter Lakshmi Prasad Singhania.

In 1966, the state acquired land in the village to build the Pavana dam to supply water to the industrial belt of Pimpri-Chinchwad. The government acquired land under the Land Acquisition Act of 1894. In return, it promised to house and rehabilitate the 1,203 families it had uprooted and offer each family four acres of land as compensation. Today, 863 families remain landless as successive state governments diluted rehabilitation laws to facilitate the real estate developers.

In December last year, activist Dr Baba Adhav raised the issue of acquisition of land by Amitabh Bachchan. Adhav has been championing the cause of the dam-affected for the last 30 years. "While farmers become landless, people from Mumbai are picking up their land. With the government having failed to rehabilitate them, they are now falling prey to land sharks," Adhav said. "The biggest problem is that politicians and the government are a part and parcel of this exploitation."

In 1973, the state government issued a resolution promising to return the unused land from the project to the original owners. It was a promise that started grinding into place in 1995. Local district officials from the revenue department were hesitant about releasing the land and even accepted in writing that there were problems. At a January 9, 1998, meeting between the farmers and district collector Vijay Mathankar, officials accepted for the first time that the rehabilitation process was tardy. Recorded in the minutes of the meeting are Mathankar's comments: "I am returning the land to the farmers as per the Government Resolution of 1995 but it has also come to my notice that farmers are being cheated. So an inquiry will be done after permission has been obtained from the irrigation department and we are checking the facts of every inheritor of the original owner. This is the cause for delay."

While Mathankar recognised the fact that "farmers are being cheated", there was little that could be done. Soon, farmers who had got back their land from the government lost it to developers for paltry sums. In some cases, the farmers were not even aware of the wording on the documents they put their thumb impressions upon. Akhade was one such farmer. He and his brother were approached by Mumbai-based real-estate developers when their land was released. "I am illiterate so I didn't know what was written on the papers I put my thumb impression on," recalls Akhade."We got Rs 5,000 for our land and we never saw them again," he says.According to land records accessed by Outlook, survey number 135, owned by Akhade and his family, was transferred to the Cooperative Housing Society's chairman, Lakshmi Prasad Singhania. He later transferred the land measuring 1.3 hectares to Bachchan for a very low price of Rs 4 lakh. That was what was paid for land from survey number 135. Bachchan also bought land from survey number 138, 102 and 137.

Records of survey number 137 show the Margare family as part-owners. This was purchased in the name of Singhania's wife, Yashoda, among others and then sold to Bachchan and his son Abhishek. Today, landless and without a regular income, Barku Margare, the family's sole survivor, says he was paid Rs 7,500 and asked to put his thumb impression on "some papers that I could not read." Since then he has been living at the foothills of the Lohagad Fort waiting for the promised four acres of land from the government. "Is it fair to people like Margare?" asks Adhav. "Not only did they fail to get land as promised, they also lost the piece of land which was originally their own."

When contacted Amitabh Bachchan confirmed having bought the land. "I am aware of the fact that this is agricultural land and was part of the surplus land from the Pavana dam project. However, I consulted two law firms to ensure that the sale was above board," he told Outlook. He said he was not aware of any ongoing inquiry. But Amitabh should have known that there was a farmers' agitation on since 1998. And that vast tracts of surplus land in the area were acquired by allegedly duping farmers into signing documents.

Farmers who refused to sell their land, which they got back from the state, find themselves in a strange situation. In the village of Apti, neighbouring Pol, Dnyandeo Rajivde is the owner of survey number 184. The land belonged to Dnyandeo's father Sahadhu and their neighbour Barku Ganu Bhore. But when the government released the land, it was only in the name of Dnyandeo's father. Later, much to his horror, Dnyandeo realised that the land had been sold by Bhore to Singhania's Fortune Tree Plantation. Rajivde has now joined the ranks of the farmers to try and get back his land.

While real-estate developers are exploiting the farmers, there is no relief from the state government. Following a Supreme Court order of 2002, the government cancelled its 1973 resolution that would release the unused land to its original owners. While the Supreme Court judgement in the case of Government of Kerala vs Bhaskaran Pillai clearly states that land once acquired cannot be given back to its original owner, it also states that the land should be used for public use, or auctioned off and the money used for public good. "Isn't rehabilitation of the existing project-affected farmers a step towards public good?" asks Adhav.

Former Pune divisional commissioner Arun Bhatia blames this largely on the lack of transparency that curiously arises wherever the farmer is clearly ill-informed. The state government connives in the scam, leaving the field open for builders promising swanky bungalows in the countryside. The hapless farmer is reduced to a statistic in the growing list of landless people in rural Maharashtra.

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