Since March 2020, a struggle has been waged by Karbi and Adivasi farmers of Mikir Bamuni Grant village in Nagaon district of Assam against the forceful takeover of their lands to construct a solar power plant by Azure Power Forty Private Limited. In each formal statement, Azure Power continues to parrot that they are not in violation of the law, as they have legally purchased the land in question on a willing seller-willing buyer basis and are not in contravention of the law.
This, despite several news reports and other interactions pointing out to them that their “willing sellers” did not have the legal right to sell them the land in the first place. The question of land and the system of land rights is central to the story of the conflict in Mikir Bamuni. Delving deeper into this question and a close look at the documents, as well as testimonies of the residents of Mikir Bamuni, this article exposes the web of lies, manipulations and underhanded manoeuvres coordinated between the local administration, landholders and police forces that together orchestrated the theft of peoples’ lands. While stating this, it is equally important to reiterate that this does not absolve Azure Power, a nearly 400-million-dollar company listed on the New York Stock Exchange, of responsibility in the gross violation of the rights of the cultivators. Despite being in the know of the legal provisions of the Assam (Temporarily Settled Areas) Tenancy Act 1971, it appears their legal team has not yet bothered to understand the documents, which, contrary to what they believe, do exist and are in possession of the cultivators. All they had to do was ask. But more on Azure Power later.
Last year, December 29 witnessed the latest round of police aggression against the protesting farmers with one of them, Buku Mardi, allegedly beaten senseless and arrested in the daytime, followed by a midnight raid where police personnel are then said to have forced themselves into the homes of the farmers in the middle of the night, with faces covered, and arrested Sikari Rongpi, Lakhiram Mardi and Bhaity Timung.
To sharpen the protest, the farmers began an indefinite sit-in at the plant site from January 26, demanding the return of their lands and the release of their friends and family members from jail. The 4 arrested spent 63 days in jail and were released on bail only on March 2. Meanwhile, on March 1 the Guwahati High Court ordered status quo on the land in question given the ongoing civil dispute in this matter in the Nagaon district court. Since the order, construction work on the power plant has ceased. This has provided some relief to the protesting farmers and a fresh lease of life to their struggle, that will end only when they win back their lands.
Web of lies I – The adhiar patta
In Mikir Bamuni, the conversion of Fee Simple Grant land, the land tenure under which land was held by the landholders, to Khiraj Miyadi Patta, the only form of land which can be bought and sold in Assam, was central to selling the land to Azure Power. The conversion was made possible by removing the cultivators, who have an entitlement to the land, out of the picture, and placing exclusive rights in the hands of the landholder. This was done through manipulation by making a set of arbitrary and false claims, leading people to believe they had no legal right to the land.
The ease with which such claims were reiterated and spread, inculcating an initial sense of helplessness amongst the residents of Mikir Bamuni, smacks of a casteist arrogance typical of feudal relations likening themselves to kings and rulers, rajas and maharajas, attitudes that have no place in a democratic republic.
Earlier reports have briefly laid out the provisions of the Assam (Temporarily Settled Areas) Tenancy Act 1971 and the inheritable rights it confers upon tenant cultivators who are in continuous possession of the land for 3 years or more. Most cultivators in Mikir Bamuni are in possession of the Rayati Khatiyan, a document that recognises them as occupancy tenants under the Tenancy Act 1971.
Those who are not in possession of the document, claim their forefathers’ names are recorded in the Record-of-Rights as occupancy tenants. The khatiyan dates back to 1981 for all the documents I examined and is in the name of the forefathers (fathers or grandfathers) of those who currently cultivate the land.
The nature of tenant states that they are occupancy tenants, and the period of possession states 33 years, indicating they have been in possession of the land since 1948, as per government records. According to testimonies of the people, their forefathers cleared these lands to make them cultivable in the first instance.
Armed with documents that demonstrate their right of occupancy, they can only be ejected from the land through execution of a decree for ejectment passed by a competent Civil Court “on the ground that he/she has used the land comprised in his/her holding in a manner which renders it unfit for the purpose of tenancy”, i.,e., cultivation (Sec. 51(1) of the Act). Further, Section 54(2) states, “No suit for ejectment of a tenant on the ground mentioned in Section 51(1)…shall be entertained unless the landlord has first served a notice on the tenant requiring him/her to remedy, or to pay compensation for the misuse of the breach complained of and the tenant has failed to comply with it within one month of the receipt of the notice.” In the following sub-section, the Act goes on to further clarify that if the breach or complaint of misuse is remediable the tenant may be directed by the Court to remedy it or pay a reasonable compensation fixed by the Court by a specified date. Only in such case as the tenant still refuses to comply is the ejectment decree to be passed by the Court.
In Mikir Bamuni Grant, no legal notice was served to a single farmer, rendering their ejectment null and void. Instead, a lie began to be circulated such that, despite being in possession of a document that ascertained their right to the land, officials of Azure Power could say, even if in an informal conversation, that the people possessed no documents.
I was told by several people from Mikir Bamuni, including the traditional Gaon Burha or village headman, that the document they had was an ‘adhiar patta’. Adhiar refers to the system of sharecropping in Assam and derives its name from adhi/adha – meaning half – and indicates a system where traditionally half the crop was paid to the landholder for using their land. However, the Assam Adhiars Protection and Regulation Act, 1948 limits this to a maximum of 20 per cent where plough cattle is not provided by the landholder. In either case, despite being in possession of a document whose title is “Rayator Khatiyan”, or khatiyan of rayat (tenant), a distinct legal category from that of an adhiar (sharecropper), they were told they were adhiars and not rayats. Unfamiliar with reading official documents or the law, they were fed this false claim that as adhiars they were to pay half their crop as rent to the landholder, a practice they did not follow and therefore, apparently ceded any rights to the land.
In fact, residents of Mikir Bamuni across those protesting the plant and those in favour of the plant agree that for about 15 to 20 years they have ceased to pay any kind of rent to the landholders. However, as per the law, this does not relinquish their right to occupancy, a myth that was cultivated carefully. Instead, Section 54(3) of the Tenancy Act 1971 mentioned above clearly provides scope to pay the due rent if farmers are willing and retain possession of the land.
The traditional Gaon Burha reiterated this misconception to me, “We only have adhiar patta. And in that system, we have to pay some rent to the zamindar. But since my father’s time, I have never seen any rent given to the landlord. We have not given any chugti, or adhi (types of rent), or khazana (land revenue). So how can we claim any right over the land?” His document was also a rayati khatiyan. On clarifying his rights to him, he expressed both helplessness, now that he had accepted some ‘compensation’ [money], as well as a sense of loss and a search for a better way out. “No one has come and explained these things to us the way you have with clarity. We didn’t know we still have a right to the land. We don’t know the law. When we asked local revenue officers about this matter we were told since we haven’t been paying anything to the landlord, we should come to an agreement with them and settle it between ourselves for the best deal we can get”, he continued.
This is a widely prevalent lie, particularly amongst those who have ‘willingly’ given their lands for the power plant and accepted ‘compensation’ paid by the landlords. This lie has been busted by those who are protesting, and they are the ones who have taken Azure Power, the landholders and state officials to Court in this matter. The very ‘willingness’ of those who have accepted ‘compensation’ based on a fabrication that was fed to them is then put into question.
Web of lies II – Barren land
On 29 February 2020 the Office of the Deputy Commissioner, Nagaon district issued an order approving reclassification of 6 bighas of agricultural land in neighbouring Borlalung Gaon also purchased by Azure Power for the same plant, to industrial class. A similar order of the same date is said to be issued for Mikir Bamuni Grant as well. The order quotes a certificate issued by the Subdivisional Agriculture Officer, Kaliabor which states that “the land in question in not under any agricultural use for the last 10 years and at present the land is not fit for growing any profitable crops” (referring to commercial cash crops including tea).
The same claim is made for Mikir Bamuni. The position of state officials, including the Deputy Commissioner, Nagaon, is that no cultivation has been taking place on the land in question, and it was only in 2020 that people decided to cultivate this land, owing to the entry of the power plant, in a bid to extract some money. Of all the lies that undergird this case, this appears to be the biggest.
Census data shows Mikir Bamuni to be an agrarian village, as are most villages surrounding it. According to the 2011 census, out of a total of 126.6 hectares, 92.5 hectares fell under cultivation, while 26.8 hectares fell under area under non-agricultural uses in Mikir Bamuni Grant village. This would include the school, burial grounds, prayer ground, sports field, etc.
The figure is similar for 2001, indicating continuous cultivation and an agrarian lifestyle. The landscape you are met with while driving towards Mikir Bamuni Grant, which lies at the foothills of the Karbi hills, is typically agrarian, replete with harvested paddy fields.
On speaking to more than twenty families of Mikir Bamuni, across its two hamlets, the Karbi domination Gohain Grant and Adivasi dominated Amdanga, they described in detail their cultivation practices, as well as a range of daily wage and contract work they engage in in order to subsist their families.
Due to lack of irrigation infrastructure, as is the case in most of Assam, the principal paddy crop is cultivated in the Kharif season, along with seasonal vegetable in their kitchen gardens. The varieties of paddy grown include Ranjit, Aijong, Joha, Bora saul, Jeng, Bais muthi and black rice, amongst others. While sowing begins in July, the crop is harvested in December. They spoke of crop loss due to elephants frequenting the area. Labour practices usually involve cultivation on their own fields, along with employing labour from in and around the village itself.
On average, about 4-5 people would be required to work on one bigha of land where wages were about Rs. 130 for women and Rs. 200 for men. For those wanting to be paid in kind, the total amount due is calculated and converted to paddy at the rate of Rs. 500 per maund (40 kgs). Hiring a tractor to plough the land cost Rs. 350 per bigha. All of these details of the cultivation process were narrated by residents of Mikir Bamuni, indicating agrarian households and livelihood practices. However, agriculture alone does not subsist any household, and this is combined by a range of contract and daily wage work, along with animal husbandry.
This included household work in the village, agricultural labour, work in the nearby Hukanjuri Pahar stone quarry, sand mining, driving and work in the nearby tea gardens. This is typical of subsistence cultivation livelihood practices that characterise rural Assam. One would have to be a fool to believe Mikir Bamuni stands as an exception.
Mindful manipulations I – The ‘agreement’
The story so far has gone to say no cultivators were cultivating this land, they have no documents, they may have been cultivating in the past but never paid rent and so their right to the land is relinquished. However, several families of Mikir Bamuni Grant have been paid what has been termed ‘compensation’. To this, even the DC agreed, as is Azure Power fully informed of this, and in much detail in fact. The question that then arises is, why were families paid compensation if they did not cultivate the land and did not possess any right to it?
On 2 June 2019, an agreement was signed between 31 heads of households of Mikir Bamuni and 4 members of the landholder family at a meeting held in the primary and middle school ground in the Gohain Grant hamlet of the village. It was the third or fourth such meeting between the landholders and village residents. The residents were presented with the offer of either buying off their land from the landholders or accepting compensation since the landholders planned to sell any which way. The option of retaining the land, in other words, was absent.
The agreement was written on a white piece of paper and lists out 5 items that were thereby agreed upon – firstly, the landholders would ensure that people’s homestead lands would be converted from adhiar to miyadi patta in their names; that land of the school, sports field, burial ground, and place of worship would be donated to the village by the landholders; that adhiar land to the order of 50 bighas would be compensated at the rate of Rs. 40,000 per bigha; that for 60 bighas of land the value of one year’s crop would be compensated at the rate of 12 maund per bigha at market value (this was set at Rs. 500 from the testimonies of people); and finally, after completion of the 25-year tenure of the solar power plant, if the land would be sold, it must be sold back to the adhiars.
The agreement has no legal basis, extends beyond the mandate or jurisdiction of the parties that signed the paper and is astoundingly arbitrary in a way that is characteristic of feudal attitudes. This agreement is constantly invoked as a testament to the seemingly ‘just’ character of land transfer from the landholders to Azure Power. Azure Power is fully informed of the agreement, although it appears they are in the know of an agreement that has the signature of 74 families, of which 71 ‘accepted’ ‘compensation’, and 3 are fighting in court. This is also at odds with the reality since the names of 3 who did not accept compensation do not match with the people who have filed cases against them in court. The inconsistencies are endless.
Of the twenty families that I spoke with, all of whom have lost or ‘given’ their land to the landholders for sale to Azure Power, about ten received compensation, although of varying amounts. Payment towards ‘compensation’ was done by the landholders, it appears through a broker based in Guwahati, in three instalments – two towards the land and one towards the crop. Moreover, money towards the land was paid for only half the land cultivated by each family.
This was once again based on the false claim that the land was being cultivated under the adhiar system. It is for this reason that the amount was fixed for only 50 bighas of the 270 bighas sold to Azure Power. The residents were told since half the crop was the right of the landholder in the form of rent, by extension they only had right over half the land, and therefore, if a family cultivated 35 bighas of land, they would receive the agreed-upon Rs. 40,000 per bigha for only 17.5 bighas of land!
Azure Power’s repeated parroting of following the law and mandated rules and procedures are meaningless in the face of the blatant fraud involved in granting exclusive miyadi patta to the landholders in the first place, a question the protesting farmers have been raising for months now.
Therefore, while it presents legally sound sale deed papers to demonstrate their lawful possession of the land, the company’s repeated refusal to engage with the protesting farmers despite being made aware of the procedural and legal fallacies in placing this land in the hands of the landholders demonstrates its willful disregard for the rights of the indigenous cultivating farmers. Interestingly, in their formal statement to the press, they reiterate that “the land purchase has been done in a lawful and fair manner, with due consultations with all stakeholders”. If indeed the land was purchased through a private transaction on a willing seller-willing buyer basis, just who are these “stakeholders” and why were they “consulted”? The more Azure Power clarifies the greater number of inconsistencies come to light.
Mindful manipulations II – ‘Compensation’
Sam Ingti, whose families holds the right to 22 bighas, with 15 bighas inside the boundaries of the plant received two instalments, one of Rs. 20,000 towards his land, and another of Rs. 8,000 towards crop loss. Even going by the arbitrary ‘compensation’ rate for half the land as per the agreement, he should have received Rs. 3,00,000 for his land, and Rs. 45,000 for crop loss. Kawe Ingtipi’s family received all in all Rs. 2,000 for crop loss for the 12 bighas of land cultivated by them.
The indignity meted out to cultivators that labour on the land to produce food for their families when such an offensively small sum is paid as ‘compensation’ towards their products cannot be understood. Singh Teron’s family that holds rights to 10 bighas received one instalment towards the land of Rs. 20,000 and Rs. 15,000 for crop loss. Rajen Rongpi whose family lost 10 bighas to the power plant received one instalment of Rs. 20,000 towards crop loss. Babu Timung’s family received all of Rs. 3,500 towards crop loss for the 6 bighas of land his family lost.
Nigom Ingti’s family, for the 2.5 bighas they cultivated within the plant site, received Rs. 2,000 towards crop loss, a cheque they never serviced in refusal of the pittance paid to them. Instead, they have kept the cheque as is as a testament to the paltry sums distributed to them. The figures are arbitrary and nowhere near even the agreed-upon amount, itself a farce. Interestingly, as senior Azure Power officials reached out to me for an informal discussion after publication of a previous article, in order to clarify matters from their end, they insisted that fair compensation had indeed been paid to people.
It was on probing the matter further with them that it came to light that they were not the ones who paid any money to the people, and yet were in a bid to assure me the landholders, through a broker, had paid full and fair compensation to the people. Moreover, many of these instalments were paid by cheque, and are proof of the fact of cultivation. Without cultivation, there is no meaning of compensation. Meanwhile, Azure Power’s repeated press statements that refuse to comment on the grievances of protesting farmers are quite meaningless.
There are several who received no money whatsoever or refused to accept any. While Azure Power officials informed me of 71 households who accepting this so-called ‘compensation’ and are therefore assumed to be in favour of the solar power plant, there are many who received some money but are now opposed to the plant having seen through the manipulations at work in forcing them to part with their land. Several accepted the money based on misinformation and false claims leading them to believe they had no choice but to accept it and give up the land.
Some were asked to sign a stamp paper while accepting the money but were neither told what the paper said, nor given a copy of this paper. The ‘agreements’ and affidavits are closely guarded documents that even the people themselves who are said to have signed do not possess a copy of.
Armed with an understanding that they have an entitlement to the land they are no longer willing to give up their lands to the company. As they began to understand the law and their rights better, they have begun to speak in defence of their land rights demanding the company to leave the area and return their lands.
No rest till the land is returned
What has transpired in the conflict over land in the case of the solar power plant set up by Azure Power Forty Private Limited is trampling on the rights of indigenous tenant cultivators who have legally enshrined rights of occupancy to the land they cultivate, lands that were allegedly cleared and made cultivable by their ancestors and held in possession for more than seven decades.
I met with about fifteen families who held rights to approximately 200 bighas of land within the plant boundary, many of who brought their rayati khatiyan along with them to present proof of their entitlement, all of whom were opposed to giving up their land to the plant. The feudal attitudes of the landholders who actively spread misinformation, manufacturing ‘consent’ to accept ‘compensation’ in place of their land, in connivance with local administration and state officials, combined with the arrogance of Azure Power in claiming legality of the purchase on the basis of “willing seller-willing buyer” demonstrates a class-caste bias that renders certain communities ‘dispensable’.
The flouting of every norm and procedure enshrined in the Assam (Temporarily Settled Areas) Tenancy Act 1971 and a refusal to engage with its provisions smacks of an arrogance that casually runs roughshod over hard-won rights of the labouring masses who work the land.
A disconnect with the ground realities of rural India is brought out sharply by the attempt of Azure Power at winning over the “local community” when it distributed piglets principally to the Karbis of Mikir Bamuni Grant in the midst of the spread of African Swine Fever in Assam, leading most of the animals to die within a few days of distribution.
On one hand, the state-landlord-corporate nexus has come together to negate the very existence of the cultivators when they claim the land was not under cultivation. On the other, the parallel and contradicting narrative of an ‘agreement’ towards ‘compensation’, a tacit recognition of continuous cultivation, is rife with manipulation and violation of the law put in place to govern such agrarian arrangements. While much of the violations have been committed by the landholders and local state officials in connivance with a few key community members, Azure Power bears the moral responsibility for its impacts since all violations were committed in order to sell the land to the company for setting up their solar power plant, violations they are well aware of.
Meanwhile, the farmers are not prepared to rest until the land is returned to them, so that they may once again labour on the land to feed their families and loved ones.