NIDAMARRU, India – Jayamma Bactulla cut a striking figure at the public meeting in Lingayapalem, a village in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. The 52-year-old jasmine grower sat in a plastic chair, wiping away sweat from her forehead with the end of her saree. She was the only woman farmer in the venue.
The meeting took place in February 2017 on disputed land, carved out by the state government to house a brand new state capital. Bactulla and her neighbors were there to stop that happening – their farmland sits right where the government wants to build.
“We have lived and grew here; we are attached to the soil. Why should we suddenly leave all this?” she told News Deeply.
Bactulla is somewhat of a trailblazer in the region. For women of higher castes and financial strata in this part of India, staying home is the expectation. Bactulla herself didn’t study beyond the fifth grade. Yet she’s worked to become one of the prominent jasmine growers in the area and has inspired several other women to come out and farm. Now she’s leading her village’s fight against land acquisition.
After the meeting, she would return to her village, Nidamarru, and inform others about what she had learned at the meeting. That the chief guest, P.M. Kamalamma – the former chief of the National Commission of Scheduled Castes, responsible for protecting the rights of marginalized castes in India – suggested uniting all fronts and putting up a joint resistance.
That this show of unity and power is important because the region – divided by caste, religion, livelihoods and economy – is nonetheless united against land aggregation.
Andhrah Pradesh’s New Capital
In 2014, the state of Andhra Pradesh was split in two. Hyderabad, the capital of the erstwhile state, went to the newly formed state of Telangana. Downsized Andhra Pradesh was left to build its own capital.
The state was given 10 years to build a new city, and in September 2014, the state government announced its plan to build a riverfront capital between the twin cities of Vijayawada and Guntur.
British architecture firm Foster + Partners, which designed Berlin’s refurbished Reichstag building, the British Museum’s Great Court and London’s Millennium Bridge, was awarded the contract to design the city’s masterplan in January this year.
But the proposed site, which will be known as Amaravati, sits on one of the most fertile stretches of agricultural land in the country, right on the floodplains of the river Krishna.
More than 110 different crops grow on this land, thanks to its rich soil. These farmers are some of the wealthiest in the country. Neither they nor their ancestors have ever seen a drought.
In December 2014, the government launched its land-pooling scheme to acquire space for the building of Amaravati. It announced four different kinds of compensatory packages determined on the basis of ownership and the fertility of the land.
For an acre of extremely fertile, semi-urban land in private ownership, for example, the government is offering 1,000 square yards of residential plots and 450 square yards of commercial plots elsewhere in exchange for the land on the capital site. For similar dry land, 1,000 square yards of residential plot and 250 square yards of commercial plots will be returned for every acre, and so on. Nidamarru farmers are eligible for all four kinds of compensation depending on their location in the village.
While followers of the ruling Telugu Desham Party, along with city-based owners of farmlands, and those who own land away from the river, where the soil isn’t so fertile, have started giving up their land, farmers in the stretches of land by the river vehemently refuse.
The government has announced that farmers who don’t participate in pooling will have their land forcibly acquired.
Jasmine Farming in Nidamarru
Bactulla’s village of Nidamarru is one of those which is refusing to pool land. Comprising nearly 1,900 households on 2,700 acres of farmland, Nidamarru grows a main crop of jasmine, though farmers also grow marigolds and crossandra. Banana, cotton, various kinds of gourds, root vegetables, and chilies, okra and turmeric supplement the cash crops.
Bactulla and her family have been farming the land for decades.
“Initially, we had two acres of land where my parents grew paddy [rice]. They worked hard in the fields themselves from dawn to dusk.”
“When I was still very young, maybe still in my pre-teens, my father had traveled to another part of the Guntur district and saw somebody growing jasmine. He learned that it gives high profits and doesn’t easily perish. We decided to try. That’s how we started sowing jasmine in our fields,” Jayamma recalls.
Bactulla was married when she was 15. After her wedding, she returned to her family farm and, with her husband, helped her brother take care of the fields.
“Since I was very young, I used to carry food for my parents and laborers working on the farms. I would supervise the laborers, talk about their well-being, maintain the records, advise on their daily problems. Later, as our earnings grew, we bought adjacent land, piece by piece and employed more labor,” she says.
Seeing the high profits Bactulla and her family were earning, more people took up jasmine farming in Nidamarru. Now the entire village supplies flowers to the wholesale market in Vijayawada from where the flowers travel to homes, temples and perfume factories in different parts of south India.
After her mother died in 2006, Bactulla started leasing out her land to tenant farmers, who now do all the work on the fields, selling the flowers and keeping the profits, while paying her 100,000 rupees (US$1,550) per year for every acre as rent.
Today she owns 28 acres, a rare feat in a part of the country where women are usually not encouraged to live and work in full public view.
On the other end of the scale, the laborers who work in the fields are mostly women. Their regular earnings from the field allow them to educate their children and find marriages for their daughters. A potential loss of livelihood from land acquisition will hit these women hardest. Unlike landowners, there is no compensation available to tenant farmers. Bactulla says she is fighting this battle for them, too.
A Village United
Bactulla isn’t the only one standing up against land acquisition. For 25 years, Krishna Kumari and her husband ran the Newton Public School in Nidamarru. But they finally sold it four months ago, exhausted from the tussle with the government, which wanted to pool the school ground. Kumari has shifted to farming full-time on her seven acres of land, and she doesn’t intend to leave.
“Working at the school is strenuous. In two hours of flower picking, [I] can collect 2-3 kilograms (4.5-6.5 pounds) of flowers. Different varieties of jasmine fetches different prices ranging from 40 to 80 rupees ($0.60–$1.20) per kilogram. We get more money and enough peace of mind,” she said.
On the threats of land acquisition, she said: “We are in this together. Jayamma is here. We will fight.”
Nagi Reddy, a former schoolteacher, shows the environmental and social impact assessments undertaken before the government may acquire lands.
“These people earn a minimum of 100,000 rupees ($1,550) annually from every acre of land,” he says. “The government offered them 30,000 rupees as compensation and only a proportion of land in a different location. Why would they agree to this deal?”
He says that neighboring villages have started growing jasmine in anticipation of the loss of land in Nidamarru, hoping to fill the gap in the market.
Taking the Fight to Court
A handful of environmentalists have been fighting the government’s plans to build its capital in this ecologically frail and agriculturally precious region. In 2015, activist Pandalaneni Srimannarayana filed a petition at the National Green Tribunal, the highest environmental court in India, in an attempt to prevent damage to the fields and floodplains.
The verdict came on November 17, 2017, allowing the construction of the new capital, and finding that the land pooling scheme was “neither arbitrary nor against the interest of the farmers.” Yet construction was only given the go-ahead subject to restrictions stating that construction should not affect the water bodies and the floodplains in the region. The tribunal has ordered the formation of a supervisory committee to take stock of the situation every three months.
When I visited Bactulla in October, she was dispirited. She said she was not even going into the fields anymore.
“The stress that we have been going through over the last three years has gotten to us. Everybody is falling sick – either diabetes or high blood pressure or something else,” she said, with an air of resignation.
But when we met in November, after the tribunal verdict, she was reinvigorated.
“There’s a battle to fight. While the [tribunal] didn’t order stopping the construction as we had hoped, it had given us hope too. It has instructed that river flows cannot be changed and the floodplains have to be protected,” she said, with Reddy by her side, agreeing enthusiastically.
Later, along with other farmers, they went to meet a retired supreme court judge in the city, to seek his advice. Justice V. Gopala Gowda suggested that the farmers can and should go to court over any injustice meted out to them, especially if it affects the environment adversely.
Based on his advice, Bactulla and the Nidamarru villagers are working on filing a new lawsuit to protect their lands. They are not ready to give up yet.