Fighting Forced Evictions: 75 Families achieve victory in Maharashtra

Over 15 million people are displaced annually across the world due to development projects. In this interview Community Correspondent Anand Pagare speaks of how he inspired his community to challenge the development projects undertaken by the Maharashtra Housing And Development Authority (MHADA), thus sparing more than 75 Dalit & Tribal families from being displaced due to development projects.

There’s been a steady increase in the population of urban India as it records some of the highest rates of growth. In the last decade second-tier cities have spawned roads, railways, malls, dams & several other projects meant to bring ‘development’ which spill over into & swallow whole the outskirts & neighbouring village communities. Under the umbrella of a distant and mostly disinterested urban administration, life in the erstwhile villages is irrevocably afflicted. Until 2011 Sayane and the neighboring Mhalade had been villages that came under the village Panchayat system. It was only in 2012 that they came to be a part of the Malegaon City Municipality. This is the loophole that MHADA is using to exploit & alienate the people from their land. The authorities maintain that since the villages now come under the jurisdiction of the city, the original land registration papers (registered at the panchayat) are now meaningless. As the people have been displaced due to development projects, there is no compulsion for the State to provide for any kind of compensation and rehabilitation to the displaced families erstwhile living on ‘un-registered’ land.The development-damned villages would have to make way for the burgeoning bourgeoisie. Community owned common land, private land, agricultural land, any land that took the MHADA’s fancy was seized to raise housing projects.

Anand snorts with derision when describing the MHADA’s logic, “They bulldoze the homes & lives of the poor, the tribal, the Dalit. Bulldoze them, and their only means of livelihood, to create big beautiful homes for those who already have so much.”

More than 40% of the annual displaced population in India is tribal. Anand goes on to describe how the MHADA forcibly evicted more than 25 Bhil families in Mhalade.

“These families had been residing right there for over 50 years. Their homes were bulldozed and destroyed in a matter of minutes. Even though they had proof of residence, records with the stamp of the Mhalade Village Panchayat, they weren’t given any official legal notice or even any time to remove their belongings. There was no mention of resettlement or rehabilitation.”

A vast majority of those evicted are usually not even recognized as Internally Displaced People thus denying them a chance of any compensation. Mhaladehad been a functioning village with water and sanitation facilities. It had housed a primary health and education centre. Most of the families residing there were land-owning farmers. After eviction, the village had been reduced to a scattering of makeshift plastic sheds with no water, no toilets and no schools, on the periphery of what was once their land.

Alienating the tribals from their land has continued at an alarming pace across the country. The reason given is mostly based on the twin concepts of ‘progress’ and ‘development’. The development damned state of Maharashtra, despite passing laws protecting and restoring tribal land, has had a poor record. According to the Annual Report 2007-08 of the Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India, 45,634 cases have been reported and filed in the state. 44,624 cases have been disposed off by the court, of which 19,943 cases (44.7%) involving 99,486 acres of land have been disposed of in favour of the tribal communities and 24,681 cases (55.3%) against the tribal communities. It is estimated that the number of unreported cases are even higher.

Well aware of these statistics, Anand realized that his village & his people would soon be displaced. Determined to discontinue the MHADA’s forceful acquisition of land, Anand began documenting instances of these evictions. 50 acres of community pasture land and a Dalit graveyard had also been usurped, and finally, the development authorities stooped to a new low when they cheated a deaf, illiterate tribal to get his land signed over to them.

Finally, he initiated a unique grassroots campaign to safeguard and assert his communities’ right to land. He began screening the videos he had previously made at various locations across Malegaon in an effort to give the oppressed communities a platform to make their dissent heard and struggle visible.He began with small screenings in his own village.

“I would show the video to anyone willing to listen! Groups of 5-10 people, or larger groups I could mobilize. Soon, everybody in my village knew about the MHADA’s evictions. Then, it was time to think bigger.”

Anand made a 5 minute clip of the earlier videos, especially for screening at his campaign drive. The first screening at the local press club had an overwhelming response. Members of local organizations offered to conduct screenings & activists put forward proposals to form a people’s movement against the forced evictions. Following the press conference, local reporters began offering their solidarity.

“Across the country, voices against land evictions are rising and making their presence felt,” says Anand. “We pooled all our resources and our strength in numbers to pressurize the authorities until they have no option but to bring about the change we sought.”

The campaign was two-pronged. It was designed for advocacy & awareness. “With the screenings we highlighted the future of our people, and then, with the signature campaign we provided the communities with an opportunity to participate in the protest, to register their voices, their wishes. It was overwhelming. Every single person who had been or would be affected stood by us. We wrote a public petition to officials, & sent copies of it in emails to Government Departments like the Anti- Corruption Bureau, MHADA vigilance cell, the Collector of Nasik & the Chief Minister of Maharashtra.Daily there would be 4-5 phone calls to MHADA officials questioning this sort of development. Many of my colleagues, the other Community Correspondents from IndiaUnheard had also called the officials.”

Over 300 people saw Anand’s video in multiple locations across Malegaon. In January 2013, the multiple complaints being made by the community was registered at the Anti-Corruption Bureau, which was then forwarded to the Office of the Chief Vigilance & Security Officer of MHADA. In August 2013 the MHADA took cognizance of the people’s complaints & removed all previously built structures on the land set aside for the Dalit crematorium. Mhalane village was rebuilt at the same location. “I also put forward an appeal to the Municipal Corporation that whichever community’s land was going to be used, needed to be recorded first in the land records, and once that was done, development projects could be considered. They have begun the process, and the community will feature soon in the city survey.”

“It is important that the country hears our story,” says Anand,”If you’re a marginalized community staying in a rural area, there is a distinct possibility that one day you will be rudely awakened to the rumbling of bulldozers tearing down your house. There are a few experiences I would like very much to share with everybody. The first was when it was time to start screenings. I didn’t have very much money, but was determined to get this done. The affected community had nothing, so they couldn’t help me plan this, but had assured me of their support during screenings. Then I borrowed 4000INR from a friend & bought a DVD player. The problem was, not more than 50 people could watch together at a time. When we went to the neighbouring village for screening, then I had to pay for about 7-8 people. Everyone working with me kept saying, till this issue is published in the newspapers or on TV, no department is ever going to pay any attention to it. So the plan was to call a press conference but that was going to cost us a lot of money – almost 4-5000 INR – no one was willing to fund it, or contribute towards the costs. Also it was festival season – I had only one option – to spend all the money I had set aside for the month’s supplies to feed my family. I lied to my wife, that I didn’t have the money to celebrate the festival & that I felt bad my little daughter wouldn’t be able to celebrate. So she came up with the solution that she could take our daughter to her mother’s home for the month, that way our child could celebrate the festival too. I was torn between sorrow & elation – that I was unable to provide for my own family, & yet I now had the means to call the press conference.

“Another experience was in December 2012, when I was going to a video workshop to Panchgani. Halfway there, I got a call that the roof of our home had been broken because someone had thrown big rocks on it. I had to return home to fix the roof, and left for Panchagani the next day. When I returned from the video workshop, some of my colleagues from the youth wing informed me that they had made inquiries, and had found out that a MHADA employee from our village had thrown the rocks on my home. He wanted to scare me, & my family. But because he got busted, the entire community went to his home & we royally thrashed him – we were all in the same mess, and needed to stand by each other to help each other out.

The third, and most frightening perhaps was when I went to Mhalade village, to the homes of the Adivasi people who had been displaced, to ask them something about the status of compensation. Instead of answering my questions, they instead started firing questions at me, ‘What happened, even though you came & filmed with us – nothing came of it, right?! All you media people are just the same. You must be working with the Municipal Corporation!’Then they showed me a bond agreement for 100INR, which had been given to them by their leader. They’d been instructed not to speak with anyone, & that if anyone comes to break their houses, they should ask them to sign on that sheet of bond paper, & then let them break their homes. I read that paper, and didn’t know whether to laugh or be angry. The paper had words like ‘Satyamev Jayate’ and other such random words strung together, written in Gujarati, which of course these people couldn’t read.

The one fact I learnt while trying to create change for my community was that, till date, development always comes at the cost of the already marginalized. Not anymore. With this instance, my people successfully fought for their rights. Over 25 Tribal families and 50 Dalit families were restored to their own lands, and we succeeded because of our unity. When communities are united, we have the strength to speak. Now that my people have a voice, we shall never be silent again.”

Interview compiled by Radhika.

Read more about Development induced Displacement here & here

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