Society

Dream ‘package’ turns sour

Different aspirations:</cutline_leadin> NH47-C that cuts through Mookampilly Island. Photo: H. Vibhu  

Like a gigantic python, the highway uncoils across a string of backwater lagoons. The Pokkali rice fields, coconut groves and a maze of waterways, dotted with Chinese fishnets, look as if suspended from reality. The booming city of Kochi, just six km away, seems far-off. But for the highway, Moolampilly Island, a lagoon home to some 600 families, could easily slip back to the 16th or 17th century when the Portuguese ruled Kochi and got the peasants and fisher folks converted to Christianity.

Splintering the island's stillness, bulldozers and huge cranes groan as labourers rush to finish the work on the 60-meter four-lane highway. Unmindful of the noise and dust, Agnes Antony, 60, goes about her chores in a hutment made of blue plastic sheets and woven palm leaves. The shed sits on a half a cent of land by the highway.

“This is what is left of my property,” Agnes says indignantly. She curses the Kerala Government for the millionth time for taking away her home and 5.5 cents out of the six cents of land she owned for making way for the highway. National Highway No. 47-C, which dwarfs her hutment, links the ambitious Vallarpadam International Container Transshipment Terminal (ICTT) of the Kochi port to two national highways. The stuffed hutment contains relics of the relatively comfortable life she had led in the past: a TV set, a refrigerator and kitchen gadgets — all damaged by the tremors caused by the heavy machinery used for building the highway.

Fateful day

Agnes's, and nine other families', world turned upside down on February 6, 2008. On that Ash Wednesday, a holy day for the mostly Christian residents of the island, 10 houses were demolished by a bulldozer, squads of labourers and a large posse of policemen sent by the Ernakulam district administration. Families refusing to leave locked themselves in. Women and children wailed while men fumed in anger and agony. Undeterred, the demolition squad went ahead with its task.

“They even dumped out the rice cooked for the children returning from school and destroyed schoolbooks,” recalls Jasmine Augustine, who lives in a shed built adjacent to the broken wall of her former house. She lost the house and 2.5 cents out of the five cents it sat on. “I pleaded with the officials to give the families some more days, but they pushed me aside,” rues Fr. Martin Kuttikkatt, vicar of St. Augustine's Church. “They trampled upon the people's basic human rights.”

But, the authorities were in a hurry. They needed the long stretch of land cutting across Moolampilly and five other nearby islands to be handed over to the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) for building the 18-km NH 47-C in time for the commissioning of the ICTT project. The Rs. 3,000-crore ICTT, being built by DP World on BOT (build, operate and transfer) basis, was a ‘project of national importance'. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had laid the foundation for the project in February 2005. Recalling the demolition, Rema Devi, who, as Deputy Collector (Land Acquisition), supervised the Moolampilly acquisition, said the administration had no other option. “We were under heavy pressure from the Central Government,” Ms. Rema Devi, who has since retired, says. “They had set the deadline of February 15, 2008 for the then District Collector Mohammed Haneesh to hand over the lands to NHAI. Twenty-two families at Moolampilly had been notified. Since the 10 families refused to move out insisting on a much higher rate of compensation than what had been offered under the Land Acquisition Act, we had to get them out.”

The 10 families, out on the street, were sheltered in the parish school by Fr. Kuttikkatt for more than a month and a host of charities and organisations provided them food. In the meantime, a people's struggle gathered momentum, pressing for rehabilitation and compensation for the evictees. Celestine Joseph, 78, a retired schoolteacher, who lost his house and 72 cents of land, led the struggle. “The authorities accused us of being enemies of development,” Celestine ‘Master' says. “None of us was against the highway or ICTT. We only insisted on resettlement in Moolampilly, where we have been living for generations, and adequate compensation.”

The struggle platform later expanded to include all the 326 families in six villages whose lands had been acquired for NH 47-C as well as the nine-km rail link to ICTT. Most of these families had earlier unwillingly surrendered their lands to the authorities, but the Moolampilly resistance encouraged them to fight for higher compensation and rehabilitation.

The authorities stonewalled initially, quoting the clauses of the Land Acquisition Act of 1894, a British Raj legacy, which did not provide for rehabilitation. ICTT was crucial for the flourishing Indian economy, they told the evictees, as it would decrease India's dependence on other ports like Colombo, Singapore and Jabel Ali for handling transshipment. It would facilitate mega container ships to berth at Kochi and would turn Kochi into a key international port. In its wake, the terminal would bring in enormous development and job opportunities to Kochi. So the evictees should drop their agitation, the authorities contended.

The dream package

The agitators went on a 45-day-long sit-in in the heart of Kochi city which drew wide public support. A Coordination Committee was formed to spearhead the struggle. It was a standoff between 300-odd families' right to rehabilitation and a region's need for development. It was a classic case of ‘development versus human rights'.

The agitation forced the Left Democratic Front government to set up a Cabinet sub-committee to address the issue. After rounds of negotiations, it worked out a liberal ‘Moolampilly Package'. The ‘dream package' got the cash compensation substantially increased. It offered five cents of government land to those who had lost less than five cents; and, six cents to those who lost more than five cents. The government would make the resettlement plots inhabitable by providing roads, electricity and water. Qualified evictees would get jobs at ICTT and Rs. 50,000 would be paid to each family for renting out houses for ten months, plus Rs. 10,000 as cost of relocation. And there would be no taxes on the cash compensation.

The Moolampilly Package was revolutionary, going by the nation's land acquisition history. It conceded the evictee's right to resettlement and rehabilitation. With the intervention of the Kerala High Court, the package, with certain modifications, was extended to the entire 326 families evicted for the highway and rail link. (The role of Kerala High Court and the media was crucial in the formulation of the package.) It was a win-win deal: The evictees were happy, the State government patted its own back and the organisations supporting the agitation felt they had done a wonderful job.

However, the euphoria did not last long. The package proved to be a tough nut to crack. The slow-moving government machinery was clearly not up to the task. And, once the political crisis posed by the agitation was over, ruling politicians lost interest. Without a law to back up and an administrative mechanism in place, the package that required the cooperation of several government departments and local-government bodies, dragged on.

“The officials tried to sabotage the package implementation at every stage,” alleges Francis Kalathungal, general convener of the Coordination Committee.

The payment of cash compensation and rents went off relatively smoothly (but, 11 per cent income tax was deducted.) The key provision of jobs to the evictees turned out to be a mirage as the private operator of ICTT was not bound by the package. This took the shine out of the rehabilitation package. But, the most important element of the package — land-for-land — was the toughest to materialise. It took several agitations, rallies and meetings in the past two years to prod the government to allot lands at different places around Kochi city to the evictees, though not to all. Because of the long delay in land allotment, in spite of a court order setting a deadline, the dream package was at one point considered dead.

But now, nearly 300 families, including most of those who lost houses and lands at Moolampilly, have been allotted land (4.5 cents to six cents), says District Collector M. Beena. “The administration went far beyond its capacity and resources to make the rehabilitation a reality,” she claims. “The evictees keep on accusing us of indifference without understanding our limitations.” In a densely populated State, it is hard to find land suitable to evictees' choice. The 22 Moolampilly evictees had insisted on being allotted land in the same village, which had caused some delay.

But, Mr. Kalathungal points out that the administration has not provided road, water and electricity to the resettlement areas as agreed before. Since there is no road access and no water and electricity connections, house construction was impossible. Of the nearly 300 evictees allotted house plots at different places, only a dozen could start construction. And, only one, Bosco George, has moved into the new house —at the Vaduthala settlement. “I moved in two months ago, but there are no electricity and water connections here,” Mr. George said. “I petitioned the Collector, but she said they had run out of funds.” Over 80 families have been allotted land at Vaduthala.

The fact that 28 months after they were thrown out of their own homes, Agnes's, Jasmine's and three others' families still live in the shanties by the highway is proof enough of the official apathy and lack of political will, observes Mr. Kalathungal.

A sizeable number of the 300-odd families ‘rehabilitated' under the Moolampilly Package still live in rented houses or with relatives, Many of the evictees might never build their own houses. For, the cost of construction has almost doubled in three years and the compensation money has been fully or partly spent. “The evictees remain evicted for life,” comments Mary Francis, 61, who lost all her 24 cents, her house and a furniture workshop. “The government, the officials, the politicians — everybody betrayed us.”

Need for a new law

Ms. Francis contested the 2009 parliamentary election from Ernakulam to highlight the woes of people across the country evicted to build ‘development projects'. She had promised to get the ‘inhuman' Land Acquisition Act overhauled. Of course, she lost the election.

“The country urgently needs a new land acquisition law that provides for the rehabilitation and resettlement of evictees even before their lands are acquired,” says C.R. Neelakantan, social activist, who was the chairman of the Moolampilly Struggle Solidarity Committee. Nandigram, Singur and Moolampilly should have opened the eyes of the nation's rulers. He noted that the ICTT project had been notified in 2004. “Had the government made a plan for rehabilitation, the 300-odd families would not have been traumatised.” Pointing out that ICTT's estimated cost was Rs. 3,000 crores, he contended that the project could have set apart just Rs. 50 crores for the displaced people's rehabilitation.

Senior officials responsible for land acquisition also underscore the need for a new national law to address land acquisition, resettlement and rehabilitation, in light of the Moolampilly experience.

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