The mood in Vemulaghat, a village in Telangana’s Medak district, 85 km to the north of Hyderabad, is grim. More than 20 policemen have set up camp in the village – home to 600 families – for over a month now.
They are there because of an agitation against the state government’s plan to build a reservoir that would displace over 30,000 people in 14 villages in the district. Visibly exhausted women have been on a relay hunger strike for more than 90 days even as the administration imposed restrictions on public gatherings.
The Komuravelli Mallanna Sagar Reservoir is designed to store 50 thousand million cubic feet of water that will irrigate 12 lakh acres of land in Telangana’s drought-prone Medak, Nalgonda and Nizamabad districts.
Nearly 21,000 acres of land are being acquired for the project, which will leave the 14 villages submerged. This has provoked farmers from these villages to organise protests against the land acquisition since December 2015.
While many of them are against the reservoir itself, others want higher compensation. Some have accepted the government’s offer, but the striking women are standing firm.
Tensions build up
Things took an ugly turn on July 24 when the police used batons and teargas on residents of Vemulaghat as they tried to block the Karimnagar-Hyderabad highway. Over 25 villagers were injured.
Soon after, in August, section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code – which prohibits unlawful assembly – and section 30 – which regulates public assemblies and processions – were enforced in the village.
“The sections were invoked due to law and order issues in Vemulaghat,” said S Chandrasekhar Reddy, Medak’s superintendent of police. “Outsiders trying to enter the village with regard to Mallanna Sagar will not be allowed.”
The administration has made no announcement of when the restrictions will be lifted. But the villagers said “this will continue till a majority of us sign the consent forms”.
Controversial government order
The consent forms in question are Form 1 and Form 2 under GO 123, an order issued by the Telangana Rashtra Samithi government on July 30, 2015, to enable easy and quick acquisition of land for public projects.
GO 123 “allows landowners to participate in the development process by willingly selling their land and properties”.
Form 1 is an agreement between the “owner” and the “procuring agency” for “selling land voluntarily”, while Form 2 is an agreement that owners will not lay “claim for payment of higher consideration in any court of law”.
The deal is similar to private transactions, except that the government promises amenities wherever the villagers are relocated. In the case of Mallanna Sagar, the government is offering a “two-bedroom house or compensation”.
But on August 3, the high court in Hyderabad quashed GO 123, calling it “illegal, arbitrary, unconstitutional and against the concept of welfare State”. Despite this, the Telangana government managed to get an interim stay on this order.