Bhils of Dungarpur paid for the land they can’t own as the erstwhile king and new government fight over compensation
Naga Katara was about 20 years of age when he bought 14 bigha land for farming. Along with his family, he worked hard on the undulating hilly patch to make it fertile enough to reap about four crops in one season. But even after 50 years today, legally he is a landless farmer. And so are about 3000 other Bhil families spread over 7000 ha of land in Dungarpur district of Rajasthan who live under the fear of being evicted anytime from their land and livelihood.
“We sold off goats, family heirloom, cattle and jewellery to buy this land. Besides, for 30 years now, the government has been charging us a penalty for 'encroaching' on their land. Despite paying through our noses, this land can still be taken away from us anytime without even informing us,” says Katara.
Katara's story goes back to 1960s when the royal family of Dungarpur- a district with a vast population of scheduled tribes- announced that they are selling off the princely land. The Bhils, aspiring to become landed farmers, borrowed money from relatives and approached those known to the erstwhile king of Dungarpur, Maharawal Lakshman Singh Dungarpur, and acquired a piece of his benevolence. The land was sold for Rs 50 per bigha. Some people received 'patta' inked on a piece of cloth as a proof of this sale deed, many did not get anything. They were too scared of the king to ask for it. This land came to be known as Chak Rajdhani- the royal land and all the 21 villages settled on this land are prefixed by 'Chak'.
“The king selling off the land was big news. The land, originally a forest, was cleared by hired contractors and even the stumps and roots of trees were sold off so as to extract maximum price of the forest wood,” recalls Katara who sowed minor millets to soften the soil for cultivation. “Those were tough times. We had very little to eat and no money as we had invested everything in buying the land. Gradually, we built a house, dug a well and acquired animals. The water and dung improved the soil and we could sow corn and pulses and a rainfed variety of rice besides millets. Now we get enough from the farm to last us 6-7 months. The rest of the time, our kids go to town for daily wage as there is hardly any MGNGREA work in this area,” informs Nahar Singh, another villager from Chak Mahud
All was fine till 1977, when the state government began to survey land and the Bhils were told that the land was never theirs. As per the Rajasthan Land Reforms and Acquisition of Land Owners' Estates Act 1963, all the princely land now belonged to the government. The king, claims the bhils, hid this fact from them as most of the land was sold after 1963. Even as they continued to farm, in 1982, the farmers began to receive notices for trespassing on the government land. “The notice said that we were illegal encroachers and needed to pay a penalty of Rs 5,000, for this,” says Nani Bai Ahari of Chak Sarkan Khopcha village.
The penalty ranged anywhere from Rs 500-5,000. People had to sell off jewellery and borrow all over again to pay this first penalty. But nobody raised a voice against it hoping that the land will be granted to them if they paid up. In subsequent years, the penalty was lower but it has been ongoing for more than 30 years now. In fact, the sum paid over all these years could very well be above the cost of the land,” says Madhulika of the Vagad Mazdoor Kisan Sangathan, a group campaigning for forest and land rights for Adivasis in Dungarpur.
In April 2012, Dungarpur municipality was converted into a municipal corporation, giving the town administrative rights to expand in the town's periphery. “This means that our land can be acquired anytime even without a fair compensation. This is one of the reasons that has brought us together to campaign for our rights,” says Karma Roat of Chak Mahudi, who began uniting people on the issue back in 2005.
“Agriculture in this area is hard work. Because of the hilly terrain, there is the problem of erosion. Even then, the produce is just enough for the family. If we had a patta, we could seek government subsidy for embankments, levelling and digging wells. We are scared of investing much money in the land ourselves because it can be taken away from us anytime,” says Shankarlal Khatadi of Chak Mahudi-II.
After a string of applications and correspondence under the Right to Information Act, the Sangathan brought together people from the affected villages to stage a protest in front of the Dungarpur collectorate. Villagers even petitioned the Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje when she visited the district. “We initiated an inquiry into the case and got to know that a compensation claim of the erstwhile king is still sub-judice and nothing can be done till that is resolved. Still, we have sent a letter to the state Revenue Department asking for advice so that this issue can be sorted out,” says Dungarpur Collector Inderjeet Singh.
The royal family was not satisfied with the amount decided as compensation for the land acquired in 1963 and appealed to the higher court in Ajmer that redirected the case to Udaipur Revenue Court in 2006. Since then, it is being heard there but without any substantial outcome.
Meanwhile, in 1987-89, the sub-divisonal magistrate of Dungarpur alloted Gair-khatedaari (the right to till for livelihood but not ownership) to 450 farmers in 15 villages under the Rajasthan Land Revenue (Allotment of Land for Agricultural Purpose) Rules 1970. There was a condition: Whatever compensation is decided for the king would be reimbursed from the farmers who have been given these rights. As per the State Land Revenue Act, land allotment under 'Gair Khatedaari' can be regularised after three years with ownership rights to the concerned farmer. This time limit was then 10 years. However, none of these farmers have got ownership rights as no compensation has been decided till date. “Most of these Bhils are second generation farmers whose fathers bought the land. They have been tilling it for over 50 years so as per the law, the land should be theirs by now anyway. But, the government is reluctant to give away land to the Adivasis,” says Madhulika.
The compensation case might be sub-judice but there’s no dispute that the land belongs to the government. “Also, the Court has not put any stay on activities on the land and called it 'disputed.' The government has built anganwadis, primary health centres, schools and even given mining leases on the Chak land. So when it comes to farmers, why is a compensation case such a hurdle,” asks Man Singh Sisodia, convenor of the Sangathan.
Such is the government's laggardness on the issue that when the previous collector ordered inquiry into the case, the investigative officer could not find any documents and approached the Sangathan for information that it received under the RTI Act to prepare his report.
Additional District Collector of Dungarpur Ashok Kumar claims the allotments can’t be made as the compensation amount is yet to be decided. “What if the court decides on a big compensation amount? The king's descendants have claimed compensation for everything on that land including the ponds. Also, they can claim an interest upto 12 per cent for each year since the acquisition. Water supply for half of our population comes from the Dimiya dam which is on the Chak land. All these factors make it a very complicated case,” he adds.
People have diligently kept each and every receipt of the penalty that they have paid over these years in the hope that someday it will act as a proof of their land ownership. “In recent years, even the penalties have become very high but nobody dares question the patwari as he straightaway asks one to leave the land in case of non-payment,” informs Ramesh Doda of Chak Bhandariya village.
Villagers have now started forming gram sabhas to assert their rights on land and forest. “We bought land, it was not free. Then, it was the king who suppressed us and now it is the government. We are still paying for that land but don't benefit from any agricultural scheme or subsidy. And even if they do allot us the land, they will reimburse the rich man's compensation from poor people like us. Where is justice for tribals” asks Nathu Bhai Ahari of Chak Sarkan Khopcha.
People filed 1,200 applications in eight panchayats on the issue under the state's 'Sarkar Aapke Dwar' programme where bureaucrats visit villages to hear civic complaints but there has been hearing only in one village till March 2015. In December 2014, a memorandum with signatures from all affected villagers was submitted to the government. “We demanded action in a month's time failing which we will go to the court. We are just readying our papers for the petition now,” informs Madhulika.
Disclaimer: This article, authored by Ravleen Kaur, was first published on GOI Monitor.