Nagri villagers defy government to harvest paddy

Sheela Toppo argues with a policemen as he tries to stop her son Raju Toppo from carrying paddy harvest to their house in Nagri, Ranchi. Photo: Deepu Sebastian Edmond

On the morning of November 20 Nandi Kashap and Parveen Toppo woke up at five am, an hour earlier than usual. By seven, both women were in the village akhada (square) to join a group of 20 gathered there. For two days Rapid Action Force (RAF) constables stationed in their village – two companies numbering 150 – had turned them away each time they tried to harvest the paddy they planted in August. “We will have to go to each others plots and harvest this together in big groups. Let us see how they stop us,” the group concluded.

By 10 am, several women farmers in groups of 12-13 walked along the bunds on the farms to reach plots of ripe paddy and began cutting and piling the crop in heaps. Raju Toppo, a barefoot lanky man in a white t-shirt and blue shorts was the first to try carrying two bales balanced on the ends of a stick back to his house. As the Assistant Sub Inspector waiting on the side of the road tried to dissuade him, his mother Sheela Toppo ran from the paddy field, waving the sickle in her hands. “It is my crop; why do I have to ask your officers?” she argued with the policeman, and to her son, “You keep walking.”

In 2010, the Jharkhand government allotted 227 acres of land to build campuses of Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ranchi, National University of Study & Research in Law (NUSRL) and the Indian Institute of Information Technology (IIIT) in Nagri village 15 kms from Ranchi. But Nagri farmers, more than 400 Oraon adivasi families, have refused to move away from the farmland they have cultivated since generations. Responding to their defiance, the Jharkhand government has imposed Section 144 IPC in Nagri thrice since July prohibiting farmers from gathering on the farmland, and stationed paramilitary forces in the village. Earlier in January the government bulldozed their winter crop of wheat and potato.

Raju Toppo prepares to carry his paddy harvest home in Nagri village on the outskirts of Ranchi. Photo: Deepu Sebastian Edmond

The government claims it already acquired the land to build an extension and a seed farm for Birsa Agricultural University in 1957-58. But Nagri’s farmers led by adivasi activist and journalist Dayamani Barla contest this citing documents obtained by Ms. Barla through Right to Information applications that show that of the 153 families to whom the Government had offered compensation in 1957, only 25 had taken it. The rest had refused. Nagri’s farmers possess proof of having paid taxes on this farmland till 2007 and even 2011. Why not the government not set up campuses on non-agricultural land instead, they ask. Further, they question if it is legal for the government to have acquired the land under clause 17(4) of the Land Acquisition Act meant for situations of urgent public requirement and not putting it to any use for 55 years.

With the state government floundering in providing a solution either to the farmers or to the institutions like NUSRL and IIM which are operating from ad-hoc campuses at present, the Jharkhand High Court has been goading the state government into action to secure the three colleges’ campuses in this tribal village on the outskirts of Ranchi.

In April, Nagri farmers began a 150-day peaceful protest on their farms. On April 30, favouring a PIL filed by the Bar Association of Ranchi the HC ordered the government to “to secure the construction of the buildings of the educational institutions within 48 hours.” Three farmers – Mundri Oraon, Dashmi Kirketta, and Poko Tirke – died of heatstroke while sitting on protest in the fields in the blistering May sun. When the HC dismissed Nagri farmers’ application to review government’s 1957 land acquisition claim, they approached the Supreme Court. But SC declined to hear their special leave petition saying that in this matter of land acquisition of 1956-57, it was not inclined to interfere in the HC’s orders.

Six students of the legal aid clinic of NUSRL have since become intervener petitioner in the case. They have submitted research showing that Nagri village has poor quality soil that does not yield more than “1.98 grams rice per person per day” thus disputing farmers’ claim that agricultural was their primary sustenance. Lauding NUSRL students’ “valuable data” and citing that NUSRL had already paid Rs 75 lakhs in rent, the HC on September 11 ordered the state government to “clear the construction in the administrative side within two weeks.”
“There is no such unit as “gram per person per day” for measuring soil fertility. Only 15 percent of land in Jharkhand supports more than one crop and Nagri village is one such area. Because it lies by Jumar river, farmers grow hybrid paddy, wheat, gram, and even vegetables,” said a senior scientist in the Agricultural Extension department of Birsa Agricultural University declining to be named.

RAF policemen keep watch over adivasi farmers harvesting paddy crop in Nagri village near Ranchi. Jharkhand government has imposed IPC Sec 144 (Unlawful Assembly) in this village thrice since July. Photo: Deepu Sebastian Edmond

Two weeks later, on September 26 , the Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM)’s court in Ranchi issued a property warrant against the movement’s leader Ms. Dayamani Barla for leading a demonstration for MNREGA cards in 2006 at the block officer’s office in Angada, Ranchi. She surrendered at the CJM court on October 16 and got bail two days later. But before she could leave the prison, she was charged in a second case – for ploughing the plot of land in Nagri where NUSRL and IIM had already constructed boundary walls costing Rs 2.25 crores and Rs 1.7 crores respectively. “A group of 100-150 farmers from Nagri led by Dayamani Barla entered the plot where NUSRL and IIM had constructed boundary walls and cultivated the land. We told them not to but it had no effect on them,” reads the August 15 FIR. The FIR does not mention any use of force by villagers or by Ms. Barla but a case has been registered against her under IPC Sec 353 – assault or criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of duty – a non-bailable offence. While CJM court had rejected Ms. Barla’s application three weeks back, on November 24 the district court rejected it too.

On Wednesday, as Nagri’s adivasi women reaped a defiant harvest, the area’s district magistrate stationed at the site and RAF constables wielding INSAS rifles and teargas boxes looked on expressing their sympathy and helplessness. “The government has no concern for either us, or them. Dew soaks through our tents every morning, the women constables have no access to toilets,” said a RAF constable. “It is these farmers’ labour and their money invested in this land. If these students can go abroad to study, why can they not travel a few kms further away for their building?” said another.

Staff at IIM Ranchi which has been allotted 72 acres at Nagri say they prefer to consider an alternate location. “Farmers are the backbone of our economy, we cannot disregard them. There seems to be a lot of confusion over who is the owner of this land. We are considering an alternate plot of land in Namkum,” said Director IIM Ranchi Prof MJ Xavier. NUSRL has been allotted 63.76 acres at Nagri. “At present we have five classrooms and two rooms for other work at our rented campus at BIT Mesra. For the 2013 batch, we will have no classrooms. We are merely following government orders on this issue” said NUSRL’s Dean A K Gupta, refusing to comment on the soil fertility data submitted by NUSRL students to the court.

At Nagri, each instance of the situation having reached a boil in the last two years seems to have only intensified the farmers’ agitation. “We will reap this harvest and plough the land again to sow gram and mustard. If the government tries to stop us, they should prepare for our response too,” said Vikas Toppo (35) who has emerged as the one of the main leaders in the Nagri Bachao Samiti. “There are five-six families who are willing to act like dalals (middlemen) of the government or even the real estate companies but the village does not support them,” says Toppo against whom the police has registered three cases in the course of the agitation. Toppo says he studied zoology for two years in Ranchi University but graduated in arts. He recalls he spent some months in Delhi preparing for the civil services exam. “Ten years back when I was visiting my village, I got involved in a case my neighbour was fighting against a real estate company trying to build a pathway through his land,” he recalls. He did not go back to studying after that.

This report appeared today in The Hindu. All photos are by Deepu Sebastian Edmond, my friend and Jharkhand correspondent for The Indian Express.