Karnataka Farmers From 17 Villages Displaced For Residential Project: Farms Razed, Compensation Under Colonial-Era Law

26 Apr 2023 9 min read  Share

On the outskirts of Bengaluru, a sprawling residential project is displacing farmers, pastoralists and residents across 17 villages. Dozens of farms belonging to small-land-holding farmers have been bulldozed, without payment of fair compensation using a colonial 1894 law instead of its 2013 replacement. As many as 1,850 families, about 10,000 people, will lose their land and will not be resettled. Environmental clearance procedures were pushed through without careful impact assessment, say residents.

A municipal corporation backhoe excavator uproots Rs 400,000 worth of cabbages on Suresh Gowda’s farm in Shyamrajapura on the outskirts of Bengaluru./ RAMESH M

Bengaluru: On the morning of 24 February 2023, excavators or bulldozers rolled into the three-acre farm of Suresh Gowda in Shamarajapura, Yelahanka taluk, 15 km north of the city of Bengaluru. His cabbage crop, almost ready to harvest and worth Rs 400,000, was uprooted and destroyed.   

When farmers from the neighbouring Ramagondanahalli, Kempanahalli and Doddabettahalli villages gathered to protest the bulldozing, nine of them were arrested and kept in custody for five days. 

They were charged under sections 143 (unlawful assembly), 341 (wrongful restraint), 353 (assault or criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of his duty), 504 (intentional insult with intention to provoke breach of peace), 506 (criminal intimidation), and 149 (members of unlawful assembly) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860. 

“All of a sudden, 2,000 policemen landed in our area, and nine farms were bulldozed without any prior intimation to the farmers,”Ramesh M, one of the arrested farmers from Ramagondanahalli, and a member of the Dalit Sangharsha Samiti, told Article 14

The large police force intimidated the farming community, he said. 

Chandrika Gowda, whose 3-acre farm in Doddabettehalli was also bulldozed, said her family depended on the daily income from their small farm. 

Gowda grows flowers, vegetables and fodder for her five cows. Every day, the flowers and vegetables are harvested and sent to markets in the Bengaluru suburbs of Yeshwantpur and Yelahanka, income she lost overnight. 

Feeding her cattle has become a challenge. “I have to either leave them at a goshala (cattle shelter) or at the local MLA’s house, and hope that they will be taken care of,” said Gowda.

Over the next few weeks, dozens of farms in Ramagondanahalli, Kempanahalli and Doddabettahalli were bulldozed under police supervision, at the behest of the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) which is acquiring these lands for the development of a 3,500-acre residential layout called the Dr Shivaram Karanth (SK) Layout.

Residents of the villages, who have been living here for generations, depend mainly on agriculture, dairy farming and livestock rearing. Ramesh said his village alone has 5,000 cattle, and contributes 2,000 litres of milk per day to Bengaluru. In a year of good rains, a farmer can harvest 40 sacks of ragi or finger millet per acre.

“Where can we earn this money if we are displaced?” asked Ramesh. “There is no answer from either the BDA or the government.”   


A 3,500-Acre Residential Layout Across 17 Villages

In December 2008, the BDA published a notification announcing its intent to develop the Dr K Shivaram Karanth Layout, over 3500 acres of land covering 17 villages in Bangalore North taluk. The layout would be the second largest proposed by the BDA ever. 

The notification was set aside in 2014 by the high court of Karnataka in response to litigation by a number of affected people. In 2017, the matter went to the Supreme Court after the BDA filed appeals.

According to the farmers, in 2018, the BDA received conditional approval from the Janata Dal (S)-Congress government in Karnataka to develop the layout, with the BDA bearing all expenses. 

In 2019, affected farmers saw a gazette notification regarding acquisition of the land against payment of compensation according to the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, called the LARR Act. 

According to Ramesh, Rs 9,500 crore was set aside for compensation.

However, in December 2020, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court headed by Justice Abdul Nazeer allowed the BDA to acquire land under the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, the colonial-era precursor to the 2013 Act.

In 2021, farmers were informed of a final notification under which compensation would be paid according to the LAA, 1894. Land-owners were offered residential plots measuring 30 ft X 40 ft in lieu of farmland surrendered to the BDA, as an alternative to compensation under the LAA, 1894.

Nidhi Hanji, a lawyer with Environment Support Group (ESG), a Bangalore-based trust working on social justice issues, said the 1894 law was a colonial legislation enabling government acquisition of private lands for public purposes. 

“But the problem with the old act is that the amount of  compensation granted under it is not enough,” said Hanji. “It doesn’t do any justice to the people who are losing their land.” 

More importantly, the 2013 law on land acquisition by government agencies  mandates a social and economic impact assessment of the project, and resettlement and rehabilitation based on a social impact assessment.  

Under the LARR Act, compensation is calculated according to a detailed formula, is tax-free and considerably more sizable than the 1894 law. Those losing land also receive a  solatium and other benefits.

“There has been no discussion on rehabilitation. The farmers should be given compensation before they start demolition,” Hanji said. “The SC order doesn’t say don’t follow the law.” 


10,000 To Be Displaced, Will Incur Deep Losses

A day before Ugadi, the Kannada new year, the farms wore a barren look. 

Mounds of soil with rotten cabbage heads, uprooted cucumber and tomatoes, rows of uprooted mango trees, now dried and desiccated, lay on the land. Farms with silver oak trees and coconut trees were destroyed too. Cattle across these villages were without fodder for days after the bulldozing.

Article 14 sought comment from the BDA but received no responses. BDA commissioner Kumar Naik did not respond to calls. The additional land acquisition officer directed us to the deputy commissioner for land acquisition, but calls to her office were not answered either. Emails and Whatsapp messages to them were not answered.

“This government claims to be gaurakshaks (cow-protectors), but they are doing the opposite,” said Muniraju, who uses one name, a farmer who was arrested. He said the BDA was “harassing” farmers using the 1894 colonial law.

Muniraju said the farmers did not object to the development of the new layout. “But we need proper compensation according to the 2013 Act,” he said.

According to the final notification, an estimated 1,853 families would be displaced. At an average of four to six persons per household, that would be nearly 10,000 people. 

Also, since the dismissal of the preliminary notification, many affected persons  built houses or sheds or other structures to improve their land. 

When the SC revived the notification and upheld it in 2020, a question arose regarding what would happen to these constructions erected in the interim period. 

The SC in May 2021 constituted a committee headed by Justice A V Chandrashekhar, a retired judge of the Karnataka high court.  “Anyone who had a legitimate claim with legal documents, their buildings could get left out of the acquisition,” said Hanji.

Rina Mahindra, a resident of Avallahalli village, whose land comes under the proposed SK Layout, said the Chandrashekhar Committee was supposed to have regularised structures that fall within the layout but had not announced a decision in her case. “... they are yet to visit us despite us having submitted all the details a year and a half ago.”

Until March 2023, about 5,000 structures were regularised. 


2013 Law Applicable For Land Acquisition, Said SC

Activist Leo Saldanha of ESG, who is helping the farmers to get fair compensation, said in November 2022, a three-judge SC bench ruled in the Mahanadi Coalfields case that the Land Acquisition Act of 2013 is the law of the land as far as any land acquisition was concerned.

In the SK Layout case, the two-judge bench, headed by Justice Abdul Nazir who was named governor of Andhra Pradesh after his retirement, passed an order emphasising the 1894 law.  

“The BDA is acting on the basis of this SC order, when it is aware that the Mahanadi coalfields case is the more pertinent order for land acquisition,” said Saldanha. According to him, the BDA should not have destroyed the farmlands, and should have complied with the LARR Act of 2013.

The ESG has now sent a petition to chief minister Basavaraj Bommai asking that the government issue an ordinance favouring the farmers. The chairman of the BDA is S R Vishwanath, the Bharatiya Janata Party legislator representing Yelahanka. 

Discrepancies In BDA Projects

Meanwhile, several BDA residential projects in different parts of Bengaluru have remained unused over decades, or were executed improperly.

In 2014, the BDA took up land between the Bangalore-Mysore Road and the Bangalore-Magadi Road comprising 12 villages to develop the Nadaprabhu Kempegowda Layout. In the first phase, the BDA developed 26,500 sites on 2,252 acres. The purchasers of these plots have been unable to construct homes due to inadequate infrastructure. Construction of roads, water supply and drainage and electrification are pending.

A CAG report said the BDA had improperly executed the Kaniminike housing project, off the Bangalore-Mysore highway. In 2007, the BDA had been allotted land off the highway to construct affordable housing for economically weaker sections. However, until the end of December 2021, 85 % of the flats had remained unsold. 

The report said the BDA had wasted Rs 27.24 crore without determining the feasibility of the mini-housing project. 

An audit report (ordered after a complaint was lodged with the Karnataka Lokayukta) submitted in 2021 found that while the BDA had acquired 37,168 acres of land to develop 64 layouts, it was yet to utilise 1,171 acres.  

Buildings were constructed on 11,399 acres of land, but compensation was not given to the landowners, the report said. It also noted that 1,207 acres of land were vacant, and the BDA was yet to pay compensation to former owners of this land.  


Possible Damage To Eco-Sensitive Zone 

The proposed SK Layout falls in the eco-sensitive zone of the Thippagondanahalli (TG Halli) catchment area and watershed of the Arkavathy river that supplies drinking water to Bengaluru. 

Besides, there are 13 lakes, 23 secondary nalas or streams and 40 tertiary nalas within the proposed zone. These lakes are interconnected by raja kaluves (canals) that store water for the villages. Unplanned development has already left Bengaluru bereft of hundreds of lakes that used to dot the city.

Additionally, 9,651 trees are estimated to be felled for the project. Bengaluru has already seen a drastic decline by 88% in green spaces from 1973 to 2017 due to urbanisation.

Other areas of important biodiversity surrounding the project that could be impacted by surface run-off during construction include the Jarakabande Kaval Reserve Forest and Puttenahalli Bird Conservation Reserve, located less than a mile away.

As much as 69% of the proposed project site falls within Zone-I of the TGR notification, issued by the government of Karnataka in November 2003 to protect the watershed of the TG Halli catchment area. The TGR notification prohibits overexploitation of groundwater, and disposal of solid and liquid waste in the area without scientific processing.

The SK Layout, with its proposed 33,660 residential plots and four high-rise apartment buildings with 15,000 flats, could degrade the eco-sensitive area , deplete groundwater and pollute water bodies, adversely affecting aquatic flora and fauna and public health, said residents. 

ESG, on behalf of the farmers represented by Ramesh, has filed a case in the National Green Tribunal stating that the BDA should have conducted an accurate and comprehensive Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) study considering the irreversible land use changes  and degradation of the environment.

However, they claimed, the BDA submitted an “inaccurate and incompetent” EIA that lacks verifiable evidence. The State Environment Impact Assessment Authority of Karnataka accepted the report and cleared the project. No effort was made to involve public participation, ESG members said.

Local residents unnerved by the razing of their farmland pinned their hope on the case in the tribunal. People had never witnessed such “atrocities against farmers”, said Ramesh.   

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(Deepa Padmanaban  is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru, Karnataka. She writes on issues related to the environment and biodiversity.)