Even as the fate of the 33,000 acres of land pooled for the development of a capital in Amaravati remains uncertain, the Andhra Pradesh government has initiated the process of pooling more than 6,000 acres of land in the Visakhapatnam district, to be used for a housing scheme for the poor.
The government issued an order on January 25, authorising the VMRDA (Visakhapatnam Metropolitan Region Development Authority) and the District Collector of Visakhapatnam to undertake land-pooling of a total of 6,116.50 acres of land in 10 mandals of the district.
The identified land includes âassignedâ and âencroachedâ land. Assigned land is land allotted to individuals from economically weak sections, particularly from SC and ST communities, for livelihood.
The pooled land will be âdevelopedâ by the VMRDA by building urban infrastructure, like roads and drainage systems, and the land will be redrawn into plots in order to provide house sites to the 1,50,584 beneficiaries found eligible for the âPedalandariki Illuâ (housing for the poor) scheme under the âNavaratnaluâ - the nine major promises made by the YSRCP government during the election campaign.
According to the terms of implementation, those who surrender their lands will be given varied sizes of âdeveloped plotsâ depending on whether they are an âassigneeâ or an âencroacherâ. VMRDA will retain 15 per cent of the developed land âto meet the expenses of the developmentâ.
The move is being opposed by local leaders and activists. The Left parties in Visakhapatnam and the Human Rights Forum have questioned the logic of taking land from the poor only to redistribute among the poor, when there are large portions of land in the city allegedly encroached upon in a multi-crore land scam.
The Amaravati case
Those opposed to the land-pooling in Visakhapatnam, are pointing to the case of Amaravati where a similar land-pooling scheme was first carried out by the TDP government.
The land pooling for Amaravati was conducted under a separate law that the state government had passed in 2014, called the Andhra Pradesh Capital Region Development Authority (APCRDA) Act. Under the Land Pooling Scheme (LPS), those owning land in the capital region could volunteer to give it up to the state government for a portion of the land to be returned to the owner, as a developed plot.
The government pooled 33,000 acres of land from farmers and landowners under the scheme. Those who contributed the land were expecting the prices to soar once a world-class capital was built in the region. These hopes have now wavered, with the YSRCP government working towards decentralising the capital.
K Lokanadham, CPI(M) Visakhapatnam district committee secretary, questions the Jagan Mohan Reddy governmentâs choice to go ahead with land-pooling after having criticised the same scheme.
âWhen we have the 2013 Land Acquisition Act, why go for this process? When thereâs no guarantee in Amaravati, how can this government give any guarantee about Vizag? We donât know what will happen five years later,â he says.
Choice of land
Thousands of acres of arable land in Amaravati has been rendered unfit for cultivation with the laying of roads and other works meant to âurbaniseâ the land. Parts of the land identified for pooling in Visakhapatnam -- from 10 mandals including Bheemunipatnam, Sabbavaram, Gajuwaka and Pendurthi -- is arable land where crops like paddy, cashew and mango are cultivated, says Lokanadham.
âPoor families are dependent on these lands for farming and livelihood. A lot of produce to the Rythu Bazaars in Vizag goes from these lands,â Lokanadham says, pointing out that assigned land is usually prohibited by law from being transferred.
âIn the past, there have been attempts like the Land Ceiling Act where the government tried to redistribute land by taking land from the rich and giving it to the poor. But this is the first absurd instance where land is taken from the poor to give to the poor,â says Lokanadham.
While the 2013 Land Acquisition Act mandates a fair compensation for workers dependent on the land and not just the owners/assignees/encroachers, Lokanadham notes that no such pensions or packages have been explicitly mentioned in the case of the Visakhapatnam land pooling scheme.
Moreover, activists have questioned why the government has not considered redistributing the land under investigation in the Visakhapatnam land scam case.
âThereâs enough land available which has been grabbed by people. Part of the land under investigation in the land scam is also close to the land identified for pooling. These lands could be used for the house sites instead,â says VS Krishna of Human Rights Forum.
The Visakhapatnam land scam, which surfaced in June 2017, deals with allegations of encroachments on several acres of land and tampering of records. The scam, involving several acres of land in the areas of Madhurawada and Kommadi, had kicked up a massive political storm in the state.
In November 2018, reports suggested that several bureaucrats and local political leaders were named in the findings.
When asked about the choice of land, VMRDA Chairman Dronamraju Srinivasa Rao told TNM that the agency is only concerned with the development of infrastructure and plotting once the land is handed over by district officials. âLand acquisition comes under the district administration, and is done under the advice of the state government. Once the land is acquired by the district administration and handed over to VMRDA, we will redraft plot-wise and create infrastructure,â he said.
Allegations of irregularities
According to the government order issued on January 25, district officials have been directed to issue notifications regarding the land pooling within 7 days, and verify documents and conduct local inquiries in the next 15 days.
According to reports, public hearings are underway in the villages where land-pooling is set to take place. But Lokanadham alleges that the process is taking place in a hasty manner, without following all the necessary steps.
âWe visited the Ananthavaram village in the Padmanabham mandal when the public meeting was going on. Peopleâs thumb impressions are being taken in a rush without filling out the details on the form first,â he alleged.
Dronamraju, however, insists that revenue officials are consulting and talking to farmers. âThey will convince the people. Majority of the land is government land. If necessary, some farmersâ land may be taken, but farmers will not be affected. Our motto is to protect those who sacrifice the land. Modalities will be put in place to protect the interest of landholders,â he said.
Who are the real beneficiaries?
The pooled land will be used for allotting housing sites to not just the residents of the 10 mandals, but to the 1,50,584 beneficiaries identified across the district.
For the beneficiaries living in central parts of the city in low-income areas, this could mean a form of displacement, notes Krishna.
âMany urban slums are located on precious land. People living there are providing critical services to the city. We will have to wait and see how things unfold, but thereâs a danger of these communities being thrown out of the core of the city,â he says.
With the possibility of the capital being shifted to Visakhapatnam, Lokandham says that the laying of infrastructure by VMRDA is likely to benefit those who own real estate adjacent to the government land identified for the housing scheme.
âVMRDA will lay roads and drainage systems, which will lead to a rise in market value for the adjacent lands, many of which have been encroached upon by the land mafia. The infrastructure is more likely to benefit these landowners,â he says.
Recently, the CM while talking about the scheme had told officials, "Donât allocate house sites for the sake of allocation, but ensure they are fit for living and if not there is no meaning for the entire exercise," he reportedly told officials.
Dronamraju said that planning is being done according to the landscape of the area to suit peopleâs wishes.
âSurveyors have met and discussed how many plots can be accommodated and how the roads and drains can be laid. The people must be happy with the living atmosphere, and VMRDA will create the amenities and infrastructure accordingly,â he said.