Rage, fear in India’s Azamgarh over land acquisition for airport | Protests News

Azamgarh, India – Holding a toddler in one hand, Arti Sharma adjusted her saree with the other as she picked up a sign that reads: “Zameen nahi denge, jaan bhi nahi denge [We will neither give our land nor our lives].”

That’s the sign her husband, Deepak Sharma made, a few days before he died of a heart attack at the age of 31.

Unaware of reality, the boy tried to wipe his mother’s tears as she marched to Khiria Bagh in Azamgarh district of Uttar Pradesh state, where a protest against land acquisition for airport expansion took place. for many months.

Arti hugged the sign to her chest. She told Al Jazeera: “It kept our struggle warm with his memories.

Arti, wife of the late Deepak Sharma, with son holding a plaque [Astha Savyasachi/Al Jazeera]

Tens of thousands of people residing in Azamgarh’s eight villages called their protest a “battle for survival” and it was like that. On January 26, as India celebrated the 74th Republic Day marking the adoption of its 1950 constitution, hundreds of villagers demonstrated at Khiria Bagh park.

A 90-year-old man, whose weak legs trembled from the cold, held in his hand a small tri-color flag – the national flag – declaring: “We will fight to the last breath. We won’t move until they bring bulldozers and roll over us.”

There was a desperate atmosphere in the park. A man in his thirties drags his wheelchair with a tricolor rope tied to the handle. A woman holding a placard runs barefoot in the damp mud. A handful of coins were tucked into the wall of the rusty tin box used to raise money for the protest – meager savings from the meals that were skipped to feed the movement.

Children truant from school, women leaving their jobs unfinished, workers earning monthly wages without them, farmers forced to postpone weeding – all stood under a sea of ​​tricolor flags waving overhead to protest against land acquisition for their land. proposed international airport at Azamgarh.

A 90-year-old man joins a protest at Khiria Bagh . park [Astha Savyasachi/Al Jazeera]

‘What caste are you from?’

In 2004, an airstrip was built in the eastern district of Uttar Pradesh. It was left unused until November 2018 when State Premier Yogi Adityanath announced the expansion and construction of an international airport under an ambitious plan to upgrade India’s underserved air routes. .

A budget of nearly $2.4 million was allocated the following year for the proposed airport. As stated by Vishal Bharadwaj, Azamgarh district judge, about 270 hectares (670 acres) of land has been acquired from eight villages – Gadanpur, Hichchanpatti, Jigna Karmanpur, Jamua Hariram, Jamua Jolha, Hasanpur, Kadipur Harikesh, Jehra Pipri , Manduri and Baldev Manduri – for the project.

Of the residents displaced by the project, an overwhelming 90 percent belong to Dalit and other backward communities (OBCs) with an average family of five earning less than $1,200 annually. The Dalits, the former “untouchables,” and the OBC sit at the bottom of India’s complex caste hierarchy and have historically been marginalized.

The area is also the basin of the Tamsa River and is known for its diverse crops, including mangoes, high-quality beans, jackfruit, potatoes, and pigeon peas.

Women stand in line before launching the march on January 26 [Astha Savyasachi/Al Jazeera]

India’s Land Acquisition Act, 2013 recommends a social impact assessment before the government acquires any land. After the local government approves the project, the notice of the acquisition is published in the official gazette and at least two local newspapers.

Elected members of the local village council are then notified of the proposed buyout, and at least 60 days are given to residents to voice their objections. After a site survey, complaints regarding the acquisition are resolved and a report is submitted to the government.

But the Azamgarh government ignored all these formalities on 12 October last year when district officials, along with armed police, stormed into one of the villages without any prior notice to the villagers. Village chief and activist Rajiv Yadav of local NGO Rihai Manch told Al Jazeera.

Since then, the area has simmered.

Sunita Bharti, a 22-year-old resident of the Jamua Hariram village protesting in Khiria Bagh, recalled the horror.

“They claimed that they came to check the quality of the crop. When I asked why they were carrying chains and measuring tapes, the district magistrate shouted at me: ‘What caste are you?’”

Bharti, the only person in eight villages to have graduated from university, said she has stood her ground.

“I said ‘I’m chamaar, sir’,” she recalls, referring to a social group within the Dalits who were also known as Jatav.

“To this he replied, ‘As a chamaar, do you have the courage to talk to me?’ I was dragged into a police car, threatened and abused. Today I want to remind him that it was a Dalit who gave India the constitution.”

India’s first law minister, Bhimrao Ambedkar, who was born a Dalit but converted to Buddhism in his last days in protest of the caste system, was hailed as the architect of the constitution. this country.

‘Flagrant abuse of power’

Kismatti, 46, from the village of Jigna Karmanpur, said villagers were beaten by police when they protested the measurement of their land.

“They broke the arm of a 65-year-old man and the leg of another man. four pradhans [village heads] was arrested and charged with drug consumption,” she alleged.

Kismatti, left, with other women in the protest [Astha Savyasachi/Al Jazeera]

Vikas, a high school student in Hasanpur, said he has a message for the district judge. “You must have read the constitution. If you really believed it, you wouldn’t do this to us.

“The district judge said the survey was conducted through drones and official land records. This is completely illegal,” activist Yadav told Al Jazeera.

District Judge Bharadwaj denied the charges, calling them “fabricated”.

“People are making all these allegations without any proof. It’s something they could have come up with by now. The survey was made just to find out how much, by whom and what kind of land is needed according to the master plan of the airport authority,” he told Al Jazeera.

“We have made it very clear that we will not take away anyone’s land or property without their consent. People don’t need to get excited.”

The Azamgarh protests have seen a number of prominent Indian activists, including farmer leader Rakesh Tikait, major anti-dam crusader Medha Patkar and Ramon Magsaysay awardee Sandeep Pandey , extending their support.

“This is vinash [destruction] in the name of vikas [development]. Patkar told Al Jazeera that it was a blatant abuse of power by the government to steal land from poor farmers.

“Although there are two or three international airports near Azamgarh, this project is being forced by the people… Why is there such a sudden need for an international airport?” she asked.

Azamgarh is about 260 km (160 mi) from the Uttar Pradesh capital Lucknow and nearly 800 km (500 mi) from the national capital New Delhi.

Yadav said activist Pandey was detained on December 24 during a march from Varanasi, a spiritual city in the state, to Azamgarh.

“When we returned from Varanasi, my brother and I went down for a drink near Cholapur station. Some plainclothes people attacked us, snatched our cell phones and dragged us into a white Tata Sumo with no license plates. They shouted, ‘Where’s your pistol? Who sponsors you?’” he said.

“On the way, the kidnappers received a call with the name ‘SSP Azamgarh’. We later learned that they were from Task Force, Crime Branch. I was taken to Kandhrapur police station late at night,” he added.

On February 2, two Purvanchal Farmers’ Union activists were attacked by thugs pointing guns at them. “They say, ‘You’re the farm leader. We will kill you,’” the activists said.

So far, three rounds of negotiations with the authorities have yet to result. In addition, the police did not register any reports against the attackers.

‘We will be forced to beg’

In a speech on November 22, local MP Dinesh Lal Yadav “Nirahua”, of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said the people of Azamgarh “have lost their minds”.

“There are only three ways to deal with them: break their knees, jail or kill them,” he allegedly said.

Arti recalls her husband Deepak listening to the speech and trying to control his anxiety about losing his land. “He used to say if they took our land, where would we go? We will be forced to beg,” she said.

Devi (name changed), Deepak’s neighbor, added: ‘When he went to bed, he felt terrible chest pain. He could not move his limbs. We rushed him to the hospital but he went missing on the way.”

“Today, the family depends on Deepak’s father’s meager 1,000 rupees pension. [$12]. All they have is 2.5 biswa [0.07748 acres] of land. If the government takes it, they will all starve.”

Residents said at least 20 people from eight villages, including seven women, have succumbed to the shock and pain of losing their land and livelihood since October.

“We will die if they take our land. Then why not die fighting for it? We are farmers. Land is our first love. They are asking us, the poorest of the poor, to sacrifice our land. How dare they?” Devi said.

As dusk fell at Khiria Bagh, Bharti, a graduate student, was seen drawing another placard that reads: “Naari shakti aayi hai, nayi roshni laayi hai [The woman power is here, it has brought a new light].”

“Because I was at the forefront of the protest, my mother was worried about my marriage,” she said. “I am not interested in marriage. I have to save my land, my rights, and most importantly, my people.”

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