Vemulaghat is one of the villages that will be submerged by the state govt's Mallannasagar project.

Ground Report Why this Telangana village has been on a non-violent protest for close to a yearAll images: Abhinav Kulkarni
news Protest Wednesday, April 19, 2017 - 12:06

Ranga Reddy sits in a pensive mood in a large tent. Almost every structure that surrounds him has posters, each one calling for 'justice'.

"I have no hope left from the state government. Things should have happened a long time ago. Now, I think only the court can give us what we need," he says.

The 60-year-old emphasises that he went to jail for Telangana, and actively participated in the struggle for a separate state - a statement that many people in the village of Vemulaghat repeat with pride.

"I have been a member of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) since its inception in 2001," says Srinivas Reddy, another Vemulaghat local, as he pulls out a slip from his wallet to prove his claim. 

"We thought that all our problems had been solved. Our longest lasting battle had been won. We rightfully claimed our state back. However, I didn't know things would become worse and our own leader would turn his back on us," Ranga Reddy shares.

(Ranga Reddy (right))

The people of Vemulaghat have taken a united decision to not give up their land for the construction of the Mallanasagar reservoir, a pet-scheme of the Telangana government.

Though many villages had staunchly opposed the project and refused to give up their land initially, Vemulaghat is the lone village that has stuck to its decision for almost a year now. 

At the centre of the village, a statue of Mahatma Gandhi overlooks an enduring non-violent protest site, where locals have been on a relay hunger strike for over 300 days now.

Every morning at around 10am, five people line up in the tent and are garlanded, before they sit down and begin their day-long 'deeksha' or protest.

This includes both men and women who take turns and participate equally in the fasting which lasts till around 5pm.

A blackboard hung on the window of the village's primary school displays the names of those fasting, along with the number of days that the village has been protesting.

History

The Mallannasagar project aims to divert water to drought-hit regions of the state. 

According to the plan, water from a barrage in Karimnagar district, which lies on the Godavari river, will be diverted and transported to around 200 kms away, to a large reservoir in the area that can store 50 TMC. 

However, many villages would be submerged in the process, as the government plans to acquire several thousand acres. Vemulaghat is one of the villages that will be submerged fully.

"We were informed that the project was happening only in late 2015, when the news first came out in the media. We saw that our village was part of the list that could get submerged, and immediately tried to meet our representatives. They never gave us any clarity at that time," says Srinivas.

On July 24, 2016, as the movement against the reservoir grew, it led to a massive protest followed by a police lathicharge. Close to fifty protesters were injured.

(A video that was taken during the lathicharge last year)

Several youngsters had also returned to pelt stones, sticks and slippers at the police after the initial scuffle. Srinivas was one of those who were beaten at the time. 

However, despite all this, the residents of Vemulaghat have been saying for a while that they are ready to give up their land - under one condition. 

Land acquisition

Locals estimate that the total land under the village is around 5,300 acres, out of which, around 1,800 acres is forest land. The 2011 Census states that Vemulaghat has more than 600 families, which locals say is closer to 650 now.

The villagers have only one demand – “We will give up our land under the 2013 Land Acquisition Act only, and not under Government Order (GO) 123.”

In September last year, the Telangana government had issued GOs 123 and 214 through which it sought to speedily disburse compensation and rehabilitation.

Arguing that it paid more compensation than the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, the state also claimed that the process via the GO was quicker.

“Under GO 123, we will settle the amount within two weeks, with the land owner getting Rs 8 lakh per acre. Compare this with the Act where they only get three times the registration value, which is now Rs 60,000 an acre. The SC/STs will get four times the land value but we are offering more.” Telangana Irrigation Minister Harish Rao had earlier said.

However, locals claim that the land value hasn't been revised in years, when it should be revised every two years. 

"Additionally, what often happens, is that 80% of the people who give up their land often have to run from pillar to post for rehabilitation, but it never comes. You can ask any of the residents around this area, who gave up their land under the GO. The 2013 Act is much better as it guarantees resettlement to all those affected, and not just those who own land," says Ranga Reddy.

The village has been actively fighting the case in court.

For two months between July and September 2016, section 144 was in place at Vemulaghat. This, locals allege, also enabled the police not to let 'outsiders' into the village. 

However, the Hyderabad High Court quashed the prohibitory orders after the residents moved court. 

After an even longer battle, in January this year, the HC ruled that the state had no power to acquire large tracts of land for construction of irrigation projects under GO 123.

However, it added that the land that was already acquired would remain under the state government.

Anger and regret

If there are two emotions that unite the residents of Vemulaghat, they are anger and regret. 

They are angry at the TRS and Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao, and regret offering him support in the past.

"The village was considered a TRS stronghold. Ironically, we used to protest in support of the very same people we are now protesting against. Not one person wants to vote for KCR again. He has cheated us," claims Malla Reddy, another local.

"He wove big dreams and we bought them. We fought for a separate state so that our Telangana farmers can prosper, not so that they continue to suffer like this," he adds.

What has especially irked locals is that not one TRS leader has approached them since they began the relay fast.

"They don't even show an interest in talking to us. What kind of attitude is this? Without any discussion, they think they can just bulldoze everything and do whatever they want. They may have helped us get a separate state, but they don't own Telangana's entire land," a local pipes in.

"Even if they come now, we are ready, but they should have the guts to come here and talk to us. We are not moving anywhere," another person adds.

Some feel that it is perhaps too late for a discussion now, noting that the talks should have happened long ago. They believe that the court would grant them whatever they want.

"We are also Telangana farmers. We also participated in the struggle. Then why is he (KCR) troubling us like this? Why does the government want to avoid us and try to suppress us? I'm not able to understand it," says Narasimha Reddy, a local leader.

"Give us compensation under the 2013 Act, and we'll vacate the place, or else, you can build the project on our corpses. We will not give up our land," he avers.

 

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