In Masagali village, within the forest area about 30 kilometres from Chikkamagaluru in Karnataka, there is a small bus shelter in a nearby junction. On Friday, July 23, around 40 men, all of whom are small-scale coffee farmers, gathered there to talk. They meet there frequently to discuss the uncertain future of their work as well as to welcome visitors from the media or government agencies. They share a fear of being evicted from houses that have been in the family for generations or losing the land on which they cultivate coffee, especially after the revenue land was declared as a reserve forest in 1944.
Travelling uphill to Avathi Hobli from Masagali in an off-road jeep, you are immediately surrounded by coffee plantations. There are pathways full of stones, and on either side, huge trees and coffee plantations can be seen. Once Avathi Hobli is reached, tiny isolated houses can be spotted amid the coffee plantations.
It is easy to see that in some parts of the land, the coffee crops have been cut from the bottom. The villagers claim that the crops are like their children and were about 15 years old. The best coffee beans come from crops that are older than 10 years. But those crops were cut by the Forest Department in November 2020, a month before their harvest, as a process to evict the farmers.
While some men followed in jeeps, others walked along the road, pointing to survey stones laid by the Revenue Department. Barren land that once held coffee crops spread out on either side of the road, and there were plenty of leeches afoot, as is common for the region. Farmers carry lemon and salt to kill them but their blood-sucking tendencies cause a severe itch. One farmer notes, "like the leeches, others too suck everything out of us".
Farmers of Masagali village
The Masagali issue
Spread over seven villages â€” Masagali, Karaguru, Byaravalli, Shiravase, Bhagamane, Shiraguru, and Beranagodu in Chikmagalur taluk â€” there are 211 families who have been facing the threat of eviction. These families possess 374 acres of land, but have been denied permission to stay there as per Karnataka Land Reforms Act as well as the Forest Rights Act. In 1944, the government declared 5,614 acres of land as part of a reserve forest.
These families have their roots in this land, and they claim that their ancestors have been living there for the last five generations. Basavaraj, 65, who has been fighting for these farmers' rights for years, says his great grandfather had been living there.
Until 1944, these lands were under the Revenue Department and the people's ancestors had started living there, expecting that the government would give them title deeds one day.
But they were unaware of actions taking place in relation to their land. All the houses in the region were built with the help of government funds, with water connections, while electricity was given in 1998. "We have been remitting taxes since the 1960s, we have electricity and other government aides here. The government built a water tank for us, but suddenly in 2002 they started claiming we are encroaching and we will be evicted," Basavaraj says. Holding all documents and uniting the farmers there, Basavaraj has been organising a number of meetings and protests. He has visited local political leaders and national leaders, seeking help over the last 20 years.
Doddamma and her family
These farmers only have records to prove they have been staying there for around 60 to 65 years, though they claim they have lived there for longer, but authorities are demanding proof of 75 years, which many don't have. In 1995, the Supreme Court first declared that encroachers must be evicted from the reserve forest. But the state government was silent and did not take action with regards to eviction, the farmers say. Showing all the documents of tax remittance and electricity connection, Krishna, another farmer, says, "Since the government provided us all their schemes, we were expecting to get deeds one day, but from 2002 we are under pressure," he says.
Many in Masagali have pointed to another 1002 acres of land, which came under the same survey number, that is under the same order and area. "They all got title deeds and documents. That area of land was conveniently excluded from the reserve forest category, because those lands were possessed by very influential and powerful people," Basavaraj says. The land was given to 44 people, from 1944 to 1995.
The 80-year-old Balage Poojari and his wife, 70-year-old Parvati, who possess 25 cents of land in this region say, "In the 1980s when the Forest Department delineated the place, the boundary never covered our place. Now they claim that it's theirs," Parvati says.
The farmers claim that when P Srinivas was the District Forest Officer, who was later killed by sandalwood smuggler Veerappan, the delineation made by the department was perfect. "Over the years, they kept on changing the boundary stone. Srinivas sir did it correctly, then in later years they kept on including our land too," Basavaraj points out.
Later, in April 2017, the Supreme Court while hearing another petition related to the case asked the state government to evict the encroachers in Masagali in four months by providing proper rehabilitation, following which 452 acres of land were recovered by the Forest Department. However, the farmers allege that the eviction was selective.
A family in Masagali village
The government has offered Rs 5 lakh for those who are ready to evict from the land. Apart from that, for 39 families, among the 211, they have offered 4000 square feet of land (around 9 cents) each. But the coffee farmers have only ever known this form of cultivation, and that compensation is not adequate to continue their lives, they say.
"At least one acre of land is required for a small family to earn a living from coffee cultivation. To get that, we have to pay Rs 10 to 15 lakhs here. If we buy barren land, a good harvest can be expected only after 10 years of planting them. So what can we do with this Rs 5 lakh? The 39 families who are offered land can only build a house if they are losing their land. Moreover, the majority don't get that either," says Darshan, another resident of the area.
Basavaraj points out that the Forest Department has forcefully given the compensation amount to some families, and for the last two years, the department would cut their crops just before the harvest.
Vijaya reached Masagali after getting married 35 years ago. Her husband's family had 25 cents of land where they cultivated coffee. But after her husband's death, for the last many years, she has been working the land alone. But in November 2020, a month prior to the harvest, all of the crops were chopped off by the Forest Department with machines. She could barely hold back her tears while talking about it. Pointing to her land, which now has only some weeds, she says, "They gave me Rs 5 lakh forcefully, I had no option. They also made me sign a paper. Last year, they came here and cut all my crops from the bottom. Not a single crop was left. We begged to wait until harvest. They did not listen. Everything was cut, now I have no means of living. I work for daily wages. After the pandemic, that also came to a halt."
There are many such small-scale farmers whose 15 or 20-year-old crops were cut from the bottom in the last two years. "We nurture them like our own children, it takes so many years for them to grow, so it was heartbreaking to watch them cut," says Krishna, one of the farmers.
What they plead
"We are ready to obey the Supreme Court order, we are ready to leave, but we need proper rehabilitation. We lose our house where we were born and brought up. We lose our agriculture. How is it possible to earn a living with just Rs 5 lakh?" Darshan asks.
They demand land for agriculture and compensation to build a house. "As per the law, the government can give upto five acres of land to the landless. So those who lose lands here demand another land with documents. One should get at least 2 acres of land. We are farmers and we need land for a living," says Deepak, a landowner.
In a report filed by the Central Empowered Committee (a committee appointed by the Supreme Court in 2002 to look into the writ petitions filed by farmers from Masagali against evictions), there are 839.11 acres of land encroached in Masagali village. The committee has identified around 211 encroachments in the area; it says that none of them are eligible for regularisation of encroachments. The report, which was filed in 2019, also mentions the state governmentâ€™s promise to give Rs 5 lakhs to the families who lose encroached land; and 4 guntas (4,300 square feet) of land as well as a compensation of Rs 2.5 lakhs for those who lose house and land. However, it was mentioned that those who own a small piece of land other than the encroached land will not be provided any compensation. It is also mentioned in the report that only 76 encroachers out of the total are eligible for some compensation while others are not.
The report further mentions that the government of Karnataka has granted Rs 20.79 crore for the ex gratia payment of 37 families and for rehabilitation of 39 families (total 76 families). But the farmers allege that even that did not happen.
â€śFew farmers were given just Rs 5 lakh, they were not given land for a house or any other means to do farming. We have been farmers for generations, how are we supposed to live with just 4 guntas of land? Here the main issue is that our livelihood is being cut. We know it is the law, but our ancestors were settled here even before they were aware of the law. So we need the means to live, how can they expect us to go for domestic work and suddenly stop being a farmer,â€ť asks Girija, a farmer.