Section 144 (IPC) has been imposed thrice at Nagri since July, prohibiting farmers from gathering on their farmland

On November 20, Nandi Kashap and Parveen Toppo woke up at 5 a.m., an hour earlier than usual. By 7 a.m., both women were in the village akhada (square) to join a group of 20. For two days, two companies of Rapid Action Force (RAF) constables, numbering 150, had turned them away when they tried to harvest the paddy they planted in August. “We will have to go to each other’s plots and harvest this together in big groups. Let us see how they stop us,” the women concluded.

By 10 a.m., several women in groups of 12-13 walked along the bunds to reach plots of ripe paddy and began cutting and piling the crop in heaps. Raju Toppo was the first to try carrying two bales balanced on the ends of a stick back to his house. As an Assistant Sub Inspector tried to stop him, his mother Sheela Toppo ran from the field, waving a sickle. “It is my crop; why do I have to ask your officers?” she argued and told her son to keep walking.

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

The government claims it had acquired the land to build an extension and a seed farm for the Birsa Agricultural University in 1957-58. But the Nagri farmers, led by adivasi activist and journalist Dayamani Barla, contest this citing documents obtained by Ms. Barla through Right to Information applications which reveal that of the 153 families to whom the government had offered compensation in 1957, only 25 had taken it. The rest had refused.

The farmers possess proof of having paid taxes on this farmland till 2007 and even in 2011. Why not the government 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 government floundering in providing a solution either to the farmers or to the institutions like the NUSRL and the IIM, which are operating from ad hoc campuses, the Jharkhand High Court has been goading the State into action to secure the campuses of the three institutions in the village.

In April, the farmers held a 150-day peaceful protest on their farms. On April 30, following a PIL filed by the Bar Association of Ranchi, the High Court 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 on the fields in the blistering May sun. When the High Court dismissed the farmers’ application to review the government’s 1957 land acquisition claim, they approached the Supreme Court. But the Supreme Court 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 High Court orders.

Six students of the legal aid clinic of the NUSRL have since become intervener-petitioners in the case. They have submitted research showing that the Nagri village has poor quality soil that does not yield more than “1.98 grams rice per person per day,” disputing the farmers’ claim that agriculture was their primary sustenance. Lauding the NUSRL students’ “valuable data” and citing that the NUSRL had already paid Rs. 75 lakh in rent, the High Court, 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 per cent of land in Jharkhand supports more than one crop and Nagri village is one such area. Because it lies by the Jumar river, farmers grow hybrid paddy, wheat, gram, and even vegetables,” said a senior scientist in the Agricultural Extension department of the Birsa Agricultural University, declining to be named.

Two weeks later, on September 26, the Chief Judicial Magistrate court in Ranchi issued a property warrant against Ms. Barla for leading a demonstration for MGNREGS 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 the NUSRL and the IIM had constructed boundary walls costing Rs. 2.25 crore and Rs 1.7 crore respectively. “

A group of 100-150 farmers from Nagri, led by Ms. Barla, entered the plot where the NUSRL and the 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 first information report. The FIR does not mention any use of force by villagers or by Ms. Barla but a case has been registered against her under Section 353 of the IPC (assaulting or using criminal force to deter a public servant from discharging duty), a non-bailable offence. While the CJM court rejected Ms. Barla’s application three weeks ago, on November 24, the district court too followed suit.

On Tuesday, as Nagri’s adivasi women reaped a defiant harvest, the area’s district magistrate stationed at the site and RAF constables wielding 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 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 km further away for their building,” asked another.

Staff at the IIM-Ranchi, which has been allotted 72 acres at Nagri, say they prefer an alternative 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 alternative plot of land in Namkum,” said IIM Director M.J. Xavier.

The NUSRL has been allotted 63.76 acres at Nagri. “At present we have five classrooms and two rooms for other work on 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 Dean A.K. Gupta. He refused to comment on the soil fertility data submitted by NUSRL students to the court.

“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 one of the main leaders in the Nagri Bachao Samiti.

“There are five-six families willing to act like dalals [middlemen] of the government or even real estate companies, but the village does not support them,” says Toppo, against whom the police have registered three cases in the course of the agitation. Toppo says he studied zoology for two years in the Ranchi University but graduated in arts. He spent some months in Delhi preparing for the civil services exam.

“Ten years ago 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 never went back to studying after that.

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