//INDIA: Administrative neglect and corruption resulted in the death of farmers who lost their land

INDIA: Administrative neglect and corruption resulted in the death of farmers who lost their land

21 oct 2011

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has received information that two small-scale farmers died of intense stress and illness after realising they had lost their land to fraudulent companies that have tricked the farmers to sell their properties to the companies. Seventy farmers from 11 villages in Balangir district, Orissa, including the two deceased, lost their land due to the alleged actions of ten fake companies. The legally illiterate farmers had been informed that they were signing a lease deed of their land for three years to these companies. Instead, the companies were purchasing the land amounting to a total of 358.43 acres between October 2005 and March 2007. The fraud allegedly happened with the connivance of the land registry officials.

Although the farmers as well as civil society in 2006 complained to the administration, it failed to make any effective intervention, even after conducting a fact-finding mission. The Revenue Divisional Commissioner submitted a report to the administration for further action in October 2007, which was ignored. Additionally, this report was not released at that time, despite demands from civil society and the victims. Only four years later, when an application was submitted in May 2011 under the Right to Information Act 2005, was the report released. While the administration continues to ignore the poor farmers, two have died and others have turned migrant labourers to find means for their daily sustenance.

CASE NARRATIVE:

Mr Lingaraj Sahu, a farmer in Ghumer village, Patnagarh Block, Balangir district, Orissa, died on 12 September 2011. Lingaraj owned 5.23 acres of land, which he leased for three years to Mr Mahesh Kumar Dixit, for M/S New Ace Builder and Developers in 2005. The company tricked Lingaraj to execute a sale deed instead of a lease, which Lingaraj was not aware or informed. In this way, 70 other farmers from 11 villages – Ainlatunga, Ambabanji, Bagdor, Ghumer, Ghunghutipali, Jalpali, Kadlijharan, Kirabahl, Luhasingha, Rengali, and Thelkochhapar — lost their land. Four persons including Mahesh, on behalf of ten companies, are involved in the purchasing process. Prior to Lingaraj’s death, Mr Mahan Kand died from similar shock and distress in 2007.

All the farmers were encouraged to lease their land by the company representatives, who informed the farmers that they could get their land back and ready to cultivate Jatropha Curcas in three years time, as the lease ends. The company representatives told the farmers that Jatropha, as an alternative fuel, which could provide them with income for 30-40 years, without much investment. This was at a time when the farmers were being confronted with a failure of cash crop cultivation (mainly cotton), which they had resorted to after leaving traditional crops such as groundnuts or cereals. The government was aggressively promoting bio-fuel plantation like Jatropha at the time. Today the policy has led to the private sectors occupying traditionally agricultural land, thereby affecting local agro-biodiversity and food security.

All the farmers in this case had small landholdings, ranging from 1.4 acres to 5-6 acres. Only two had more than 15 acres. Without knowing what to do after the crop failure, the farmers were easy prey to be persuaded to lease their land with a hope of a long-term income.

Some time later, some farmers were asked to come to execute deeds in favour of the companies. They were asked to come at night, to sign the deeds. Soon they realised that the companies had taken their land by playing fraud upon the farmers. The company prevented those who protested from entering their land. Immediately after this, Lingaraj become mentally ill. All the purchases of land in Lingaraj’s Ghumer village were made through 11 sale deeds, all dated 4 October 2005.

In 2006, Vasundhara and Adhar, local NGOs working on environment, land and forest rights conducted a fact-finding mission. Subsequently, the farmers’ group and the NGOs held a district level consultation on the issue. They informed the administration, asking for proper intervention and shared their findings with the Revenue Secretary. The administration failed to do anything, and the companies succeeded in purchasing the land.

In August 2007, the then Revenue Secretary Mr GVV Sharma, upon directions from the Chief Minister of Orissa, instructed the Revenue Divisional Commissioner (RDC) Mr Madhusudan Padhi to conduct an inquiry into the matte. The inquiry report discovered gross irregularities and violations of law and procedure. However, the administration refused to share the report with civil society and the farmers until August 2011. The government shared the inquiry report only when forced to by way of a right to information application filed in May 2011. The report is available here.

The sale deeds were executed between October 2005 and March 2007. The sales stopped only upon the directive of the District Collector of Balangir, when the media reported the issue. In India, the sale of an immovable property, valued above Rs 100, can be executed only by way of a registered document. It is at the Sub-Registrar’s office or District Sub-Registrar’s office where such registrations are executed under the Registration Act 1908, the Orissa Registration Rules 1988, for which the government should be paid stamp duties as under the Indian Stamp Act 1899 and the Orissa Stamp Rules 1952. Transfer of immovable property is also subject to the land sealing as applicable under the land reforms Act applicable in various states, in this case the Orissa Land Reforms Act 1960. In every case of sale, the Registrar, recording and registering the sale has to satisfy for himself that the seller has absolute right to sell the property and that no fraud is played upon the person who is executing the sale deed. At the minimum, the process to be followed by the Registrar is: (1) to ask the person executing the sale deed that whether she/he is aware that by signing the document that the person is executing a sale deed in favour of the buyer; (2) verify the description of the property with the seller and the buyer; and (3) to ask whether the seller has absolute right to sell the property. However, as the report reveals the Registrar has not carried out any of these duties. This has caused serious suffering and injustice to the farmers. It is suspected that the companies have bribed the Registrar who registered the sale deeds.

In October 2010, the Board of Revenue issued a notice to the affected farmers to be present at a hearing on December 20, 2010 at the Board of Revenue Office. The farmers came for the hearing but the board members did not. Only after Lingaraj’s death on September 10, 2011, did the Revenue Minister ask the Collector to initiate action against the concerned officials and others involved in the case. Due to the loss of their land, most of the farmers have been resorting to migrant labour. The Agriculture Secretary Mr R S Gopalan and the Revenue Secretary of Orissa have taken the case to the Chief Secretary of Orissa.

On the other hand, the RDC report recommends that it is not adequate to ensure restoration of land to the original owner; rather, in accordance with the Registration Law, the Collector shoul
d intervene to assess the market value and make the purchasers pay additional amount to the tenure. However, it is the RDC, an official body under the Revenue and Disaster Management Department, who failed to protect the poor farmers from the fraudulent company and that has resulted in two deaths.

At present, the government has directed the State Vigilance Department to conduct an investigation into the case while the civil society is going to file a lawsuit to restore lands to the farmers.

ADDITIONAL COMMENT:

Access to land is a core resource to realise the right to adequate food in rural areas. It is recognised under Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). India is a state party to both; and yet, it has high numbers of child malnutrition and hunger, mostly caused by the denial of access to land among the rural poor.

The UN Special Rapporteur in his report A/65/281 before the sixty-fifth session of the General Assembly emphasised the state obligation to strengthen such access or make it possible pointing out that in India, the average landholding size fell from 2.6 hectares in 1960 to 1.4 hectares in 2000, and continues to decline. He further points to the risk farmers may face by the government policy to promote biofuel, leading to poorer groups losing access to the land on which they depend.

This case clearly shows that the government fails to ensure the security of tenure or to improve it. It fails to respect and protect the right to food and land of small-scale farmers.

SUGGESTED ACTION:
Please write a letter to the concerned government agencies to bring justice and food security to the 70 farmers and their families who lost their land.

ASIAN HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION – HUNGER ALERT PROGRAMME

Hunger Alert Case: AHRC-HAC-009-2011