A bamboo barricade halts passage on the road constructed by Lavasa Corporation three years ago at Mugaon village, about 85 km from Pune. The barricade has been put up by 35-year-old Leelabai Margale who claims that Lavasa Corporation had forcibly built the road on land belonging to her deceased husband and his two brothers. “I have put this barricade to show the company that I am master of this land,” says Margale. The barricade seems to mock Hindustan Construction Company chairman Ajit Gulabchand, now committed to execute one of the most audacious and controversial construction projects in India.
The clock is ticking for Lavasa. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) will begin its final hearing on the Lavasa Corporation’s appeal that challenges the conditions imposed by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) from December 4 on a day-to-day basis. The construction of the project in Baramati district was held up after objections were raised in November 2010 over the ecological impact of the project by MoEF under Jairam Ramesh and several non-government organisations. In January 2011, MoEF let off the promoters with a fine. By November last year, with Jayanthi Natarajan at the helm, the ministry granted environmental clearance to the first phase of the project, subject to several pre-conditions.
Margale has a different bone to pick. In 1969, her father-in-law who belonged to the tribe of Dangar had purchased 60 acres of land from one Pasalkar. Margale has a sale deed to prove it. “However, the mutation entry on the property card that should have reflected Margale’s name was cancelled without citing any reason. Subsequently it was shown in the records that Lavasa brought the land from Pasalkar,” said Suniti S R, an activist of National Alliance for People’s Movement (NAPM), who is aiding the farmers.
Margale lost her husband Balu 10 years ago. “The company people would often put pressure on my husband to give up the possession of the land. To avoid them he would hide in the forest and sneak back for meals,” said Margale. “In his death throes, my husband took a vow from me to continue to struggle for our land,” said Margale, the sole parent of three children.
Margale claims that she remains undaunted despite the police often coming in the company’s vehicle to arrest her. If this was not enough, a year ago her house got gutted. She has lodged an FIR at the Paud police station accusing an employee of Lavasa, Pandey, who threatened to attack her house if she did not turn up for the meeting for sorting the land dispute.
Lavasa Corporation, however, admits to have constructed the road in Mugaon village, but said that the road had been originally built by the Zilla Parishad and was handed over to it for maintenance. Margale does not dispute the fact that the records of the district plan showed the road going through her land. About the FIR lodged by Margale regarding her house being torched, Lavasa said it was not aware of it.
Margale is not alone; there are several other farmers who have taken on the Lavasa Corporation because they believe their land has been usurped without their knowledge.
Before Gulabchand brought Lavasa to this place which was once a serene valley, Tumabai Walhekar, a Katkari tribal from Mugaon, did not even know who Sharad Pawar was. Today Tumabai talks of state politics. Life changed for Tumabai and her family in 1995 when Lavasa set up a stone quarry on 1.5 acres of their land. In 2007 they came to know that, according to land records, they no longer are owners of the 37.5 acres that her in-laws received from the government under the Agriculture Land Ceiling Act in 1968. “Seeking help from the government was a slow process as they seemed to be hand in glove with the company. It is our movement to oppose the project that has enabled me to cultivate our land again,” said Tumabai who effortlessly projects a ‘do not mess with me’ attitude. She too has been arrested on four occasions.
According to NAPM, the Lavasa Hill City project that spans over 25,000 acres comprises 607 hectares of land that had been given to farmers under the Agriculture Land Ceiling Act. However, ceiling land belonging to farmers can be transferred only with the approval of the district collector, while the land belonging to the tribal needs the approval of the divisional commissioner. In about 36-40 cases of land coming under Ceiling Act, the stakeholders belong to the tribal community.
At Mugaon, 165 hectares coming under the Ceiling Act has been acquired by entities other than Lavasa. However, the Pune Collector in an official correspondence to revenue department observed: “These land were bought for Lavasa company and is in the possession of the Lavasa according to report of the sub-divisional officer of Maval.”
What adds to farmers’ woes are lack of land records. Key documents have mysteriously vanished from government offices and lands have been transferred to third parties without any supporting documents. In 2002, Dnyaneshwar Shedge, now 50, was shocked to find that the ancestral land was no longer theirs. Shedge had gone to the Talati (village accountant) office after his father’s demise to have the inheritance reflected in the land records. He saw the land has been transferred in the name of Nilambari Joshi and Swati Davre on the basis of a power of attorney. “My father did not give any power of attorney and more importantly there is no trace of the power of attorney,” said Shedge. Lavasa has constructed a road through Shedge’s property that leads to the Nasa point. The NGT will begin hearing the final arguments in an appeal filed by Shedge challenging the MoEF’s environment clearance to Lavasa December 4 onwards.
Lavasa Corporation, in response to this paper’s queries, says that no farmer has been divested of his/her land by Lavasa. “We would like to clarify that all Lavasa land dealings are transparent and are carried out based on government record of rights. As a principle, we purchase land which is voluntarily offered, and after negotiations, the price is agreed upon on the current market value,” adds the corporation.