Widowed say Telangana officials asking them to shift out of 2 BHK houses
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Forty-year-old Bhagya lost her father Thutukuri Malla Reddy to suicide in June 2022. The 70-year-old farmer was in distress after the Telangana government denied him a two-BHK house, a promise made to those evicted for the Mallanna Sagar reservoir project in Telangana’s Siddipet district. While many families have been relocated to the Rehabilitation and Resettlement (R&R) colony in Siddipet district’s Gajwel, Malla Reddy and others like him were denied separate housing. What made them ineligible was the fact that they were widows/widowers. At the root of their suffering is the Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS)-led state government’s order (GO) 120.
Passed in June 2017, GO 120, regarding rehabilitation and resettlement packages for evictees of Mallanna Sagar, contains a definition of ‘family’ that legal experts call ambiguous. The order does not explicitly allow for widows/widowers to be considered as separate families eligible for rehabilitation and resettlement. On the other hand, the 2013 Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation, and Resettlement Act (LARR) offers more clarity in its definition of a family.
The Mallanna Sagar reservoir is one of many that is part of the Kaleshwaram Lift Irrigation Scheme (KLIP). The reservoir can store 50 TMC water, of which 30 TMC is meant to meet the drinking water needs of Telangana’s capital city Hyderabad. It was designed to support two popular schemes of the ruling BRS — Mission Kakatiya and Mission Bhagiratha, which intend to improve tank capacity and address Telangana’s drinking water needs, respectively. In 2016, residents of 14 villages were displaced to establish the project.
While inaugurating the Mallanna Sagar project in February 2022, Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao (KCR) remarked that the state government has implemented the best possible relief and rehabilitation package for the displaced families. The statement was made despite the fact that evictees from 14 villages have time and again protested against the project, demanding rehabilitation and implementation of the LARR Act.
On November 11 this year, the Telangana High Court directed the state to consider the request of 80 widows to be treated as a separate family unit and grant them separate housing. While the court order favours the petitioners, it remains to be seen how the state government will react if and when other similarly evicted widows/widowers ask for the order to be implemented.
What does GO 120 entail?
GO 120 defined a family as that which includes “a person, widow/widower, his or her spouse, minor children, minor brothers and minor sisters dependent on him/her”. Terms like ‘single family’ and ‘family living together’ were also used, without incorporating clear cut definitions.
The LARR Act offers more clarity in its definition of a family. Under Section 3 (M) of the 2013 Act, widows, divorcees, and women deserted by families are considered ‘separate families’.
However, as several lawyers and activists have pointed out over the years, GO 120 complicated the distinction. As per GO 120, a widowed man or woman is expected to stay with their offspring and are not entitled to separate housing. The High Court ruled in favour of the widowed after finding “no material evidence to show that the petitioners herein have consented for payment of benefits under GO 120 in favour of one of their family members”.
Widowed men and women displaced from Etigadda Kistapuram and Vemulaghat villages in Telangana’s Siddipet district insist that their independence should not be tied to familial relations. In 2017, residents of Vemulaghat, one of the 14 displace villages, held a year-long protest against construction of Mallana Sagar. Telangana Jana Samithi president M Kodandaram had called the village an inspiration for land oustees across Telangana.
Despite having lived independently for several years, the state government is now keen on making the widowed dependent on their children. “Won’t they feed you?” is the question that government officials pose to them while justifying the denial of separate housing.
Plight of widows in R&R colonies
Addressing the plight of families displaced by Mallanna Sagar, CM KCR said, “All these villages are very dear to me. I hail from Siddipet, I even know some of these people. If anyone is still not compensated, I request Siddipet MLA Harish Rao to do so. A lot of money has already been spent. Rs 100 crores more is not a big deal. As a son of Siddipet, I would never want their sacrifices to be in vain, which is why they have all been provided with good rehabilitation colonies.”
Ground realities are, however, in stark contrast with his promises.
In the Mutrajpally rehabilitation colony in Gajwel town, which is CM KCR’s constituency, widows are faced with a different problem. Here, widows who were allotted houses before GO 120 was issued are now being asked to vacate the houses. The widowed women said that government officials are now approaching them with this demand.
“The government is asking us to go stay with our sons, but we don’t want to. Eight acres of land was taken away from me. I don’t have a rupee to my name. My husband died shortly after giving up land for Mallana Sagar,” Laxmi, a resident of the Mutrajpally R&R colony, told TNM. She added that after she gave up eight acres of land, her sons took their share of money, which doesn’t pay for even an acre now.
“My husband died shortly after he gave up land for Mallana Sagar. I am not employed either,” said Laxmi.
Seated next to her was Ellavva, another widow who said that several elderly people are being asked to leave the houses allotted to them and stay with their children. “If we want to stay alone, the government will not let us. I gave the government five acres of land. It will be difficult to stay with my son after having lived by myself for so long. There is not a rupee to my name. How will I live?” she asked.
Speaking to TNM, the late farmer Malla Reddy’s daughter and Vemulaghat resident Bhagya said that no one visited her after her father’s death. “I have received neither a double bedroom house nor the Rs 7.5 lakhs promised. My father died by suicide shortly after my mother succumbed to cancer, because his compensation didn’t come through,” she said.
Hayatuddin, an activist in Gajwel fighting for those rendered homeless by Mallanna Sagar, highlighted a different issue. “There are instances where elderly people have died by suicide because they were ashamed of their living situation. One couple in Gajwel killed their elderly mother, as they were unwilling to deal with her medical expenses. It is an issue of poverty, which, combined with a lack of housing, creates several problems,” he remarked.
Hayatuddin added that several widows haven’t been registered for houses in the R&R colony. “They were just shifted from Kistapuram or Vemulaghat and dropped off here. They could be kicked out at any point.”
Widows who spoke to TNM also pointed out that all the documents given to them for acquiring their land and granting them rehabilitation packages were in English, a language they are unfamiliar with. In a contempt of court case hearing in May 2019, the High Court directed the state government to furnish the documents in Telugu before seeking the signatures of the petitioners.
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Attempts to alter the LARR Act
The government decisions that caused damage to the widowed appear to have begun even before the land acquisition for Mallanna Sagar began. In July 2015, the state government issued GO 123, which allowed it to acquire land from “willing landowners” for any purpose. Chief Minister K Chandrasekhara Rao had at that time alleged that the LARR Act, which GO 123 tried to bypass in the government’s bid to get land, came in the way of developmental works. The LARR Act imposes several checks and restrictions on how land must be acquired. For instance, it specifies that a gram sabha must be convened to discuss land acquisition as part of its social impact assessment.
“I discussed the issue with Prime Minister Narendra Modi who advised me to take a cue from some states that brought out their own Land Acquisition Acts. It is not possible to take up developmental projects without taking land. We have a right to amend the Act. The Opposition parties have been trying to put a spoke in our plans to take up irrigation projects,” he said, referring to the Mallana Sagar project.
However, in contravention to the government’s plans, a division bench of the High Court in January 2017 passed an interim order directing that the state shall henceforth not purchase lands under GO 123 for the construction of irrigation projects. The court ruled that GO 123 did not provide any benefits to marginalised communities, and that it denied them “the rights conferred on them by the 2013 [LARR] Act”.
The government had in December 2016 passed the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Telangana Amendment) Bill. When Congress leader Jana Reddy and the then Telugu Desam Party (TDP) leader Revanth Reddy expressed reservations vis-a-vis the law, then irrigation minister Harish Rao alleged that the Opposition was against empowerment of farmers and development of irrigation projects in Telangana.
At several meetings in Vemulaghat in June 2017 and since then, several farm and land rights activists have pointed out that provisions similar to those in GO 123, such as voluntary acquisition of land and no social impact assessment, were included in the 2016 Act.
The criticism is not limited to Telangana. The Odisha government was under fire in September 2023 for their Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Odisha Amendment) Bill, which empowered the state to exempt “strategic and development projects” from social impact assessment and special provisions to ensure food security.
“GO 123 was brought in to replace the LARR Act. Once it was scrapped, the Telangana government brought in the 2016 legislation. The rules in GO 120 are based on the 2016 legislation,” said a lawyer who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “In effect, there is very little transparency and fair compensation isn’t taking place,” she added.