More than 20 years after the state acquired over 2,000 hectares of land in Ghogha but built nothing on it, the High Court will decide if the land should be returned to the people.
Twenty-odd kilometres to the west of Gujarat’s Bhavnagar town is Ghogha, a sub-district that is equidistant from the commercial centres of Ahmedabad and Rajkot. Its proximity to such thriving towns should have brought it some infrastructural development, urbanisation and employment. Except, Gogha remains rural, with large swathes of agricultural lands and a one-odd factory chimney raising its head above the paddy and groundnut fields.
Gogha came to the limelight when about 20,000 people took to the streets in December 2017 seeking their farmlands back. Between 1996 and 1998, the Gujarat government acquired lands from among Baadi, Padwa, Alipore, Malek Wadar, Khadsalya, Lakhanka, Rampore and Thordi villages and others to mine lignite and build the Ghoga Power Plant. Close to 2,059 hectares from 12 villages were acquired, and compensation ranging from Rs 30,000 to Rs 50,000 per acre was paid to farmers.
But no lignite mining or power plant has come up even after all these years. Therefore, according to the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (LARR) Act, 2013, the farmers claim their lands should be returned to them.
According to Section 24, clause (2) of the Act even if land losers have been compensated but physical possession of land was not taken then the land needs to be returned to the original owners and the process of acquisition needs to begin from scratch.
Section 24 has a few more clauses regarding compensation and repatriation. Just last month, a three-judge bench led by Supreme Court Justice Arun Mishra tried to arrive at a conclusion on another clause under Section 24. The Court debated whether the compensation for land acquisition should be deposited in the courts or to the bank accounts of the land losers.
According to Centre for Policy Research’s February 2017 report, Section 24 has been the most litigated provision of the LARR Act during its short existence. A study of all Supreme Court litigation with respect to the LARR Act has shown that, of the 322 cases, 97 per cent were brought under Section 24 of the Act. More importantly, the Supreme Court has quashed land acquisition proceedings in 92 per cent of the cases.
Chhaganbhai Shivabhai of Khadsaliya village has petitioned the High Court under Section 24 of the LARR Act. Shivabhai’s is one of the 200 petitions signed by more than 60,000 people seeking back their land in Gogha from the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited.
Most farmers who signed the acquisition papers have passed on their lands and livelihoods to their offspring. “Previous generation agreed to the land acquisition. We did not,” said Polabhai Mohanbhai Solanki. “We do not want our lands to be acquired for a power plant that will make this region unsuitable for habitation,” he said.
The plan was to establish a power plant and a mine on these lands, yet there has been no infrastructure development for decades, and irrigation facilities are primitive or non-existent. “We are not even reaping the full benefits of this land,” said Solanki.
The BJP MLA from Bhavnagar Rural, Parsottambhai Odhavjibhai Solanki, has taken up the farmers battles against his own state.
However, Gujarat passed the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Gujarat Amendment) Act 2016, according to which the state is exempt from the repatriation clause. Given the caseload in the Supreme Court, the Gujarat government rushed into omitting Section 24 of the Central Act.
“Right now the farmers have filed a case under the central law. It is yet to be seen how Gujarat’s law on land acquisition pans out,” said Sagar Rabari, convenor of a farmers’ organisation called Khedut Samaj. “For all we know, the Courts will not be in the favour of the farmers,” he added.