The Telangana High Court recently pulled up the state’s attempt to bypass the national land acquisition act of 2013 by using its government orders to directly purchase land from farmers. The Telangana government had purchased the agricultural land of people in Kochhaguttapalli village of Telengana’s Siddipet district in 2016 for a reservoir in its large-scale Kaleshwaram Lift Irrigation Scheme, instead of acquiring their land under the land acquisition of act of 2013.
In its strongly worded common order on 10 July 2020, the division bench led by Justice M.S. Ramachandra Rao and Justice K. Lakshman declared the sales contracts between people and the state null and void, describing them as “unconscionable contracts between parties with unequal bargaining power.”
The order establishes the key provision of the 2013 act that people cannot be dispossessed without payment and provides a commentary on ‘voluntary acquisitions’ that many states adopted by amending the 2013 act.
The affected people had filed a writ petition in the Telangana High Court in February 2019 to challenge the purchase of their agricultural lands by the state and another writ petition in April 2019 to challenge the acquisition of their houses. However, on 18 April 2020, the state released water into the reservoir and on 19 April, state officials including the Revenue Department and police forcibly evicted the petitioners from their houses.
The bench held that the state had used “coercion and threats” to purchase the land, that its actions while using police force to evict people were possibly in violation of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, that it had shown no evidence that its compensation was higher than what was mandated by the 2013 land acquisition act, and that it had blocked its own compensation cheques to the petitioners.
Telangana had used a government order of 2015 to purchase the agricultural land of the petitioners in Kochaguttapally. The order has a provision to establish “willingness of the land owners for sale of land and property thereon.” But, the High Court order notes that instead of establishing consent first, the state issued a notification to acquire the lands and then told the petitioners that they “had no option but to surrender their lands for the rate of Rs 6 lakh per acre.” The respondents did not produce any material to show that the petitioners voluntarily gave consent.
The court also held that “there has been arbitrary fixation of price” of the land in question and ordered the state to instead compensate the people as per the 2013 land acquisition act within three months. It also asked the state to rehabilitate the petitioners as per the 2013 act.
Telangana government acquired the houses of the petitioners in 2017 using the 2013 land acquisition act after amending it for the state by replacing the rehabilitation and resettlement provision with higher lump sum compensation.
The court found gaps in its implementation. It was “appalled” that the state blocked the compensation cheques for the houses, and directed the state to pay the petitioners separate compensation for the houses properties again within three months of receipt of the order. It also ruled that unmarried adult males are entitled to compensation as a separate family.
The houses of the petitioners were in the submergence area of the Ananthagiri reservoir of the Kaleshwaram Lift Irrigation Scheme. On 6 December 2019, the Telangana High Court had issued a stay order to the Telangana government preventing it from releasing water into the reservoir until the court gave it permission to do so. This stay was extended until June 2020.
However, the state released water into the reservoir on 18 April 2020 in violation of the stay order and sent police to forcibly evict the petitioners, which Article 14 reported about. The court said the very act of releasing water into the reservoir was “wilful disobedience” and was an act amounting to contempt of court.
The court rejected the state's contention that people had consented to vacating their houses, calling it “highly improbable” that they “would meekly and without protest, vacate their houses, that too in the middle of the night.”
The court also instructed the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes to begin an enquiry into the actions of Siddipet district officials including the collector and police commissioner because their actions could amount to violations of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.