Noida: “First, they cut our electricity supply in the month of jeth (around June), and then they demolished our home,” said 45-year-old Hajra, who goes by her first name. “I pleaded with the officials, but they destroyed everything. There was nothing to do but sit and cry.”
A farmer who grew wheat, jowar and rice on 7 acres of fertile land in Dayanatpur village in western Uttar Pradesh (UP), Hajra was left without a home or farm land when the state government acquired about half the residential and agricultural lands in her village.
The land was required to build what Prime Minister Narendra Modi falsely claimed on 25 November 2021 would be Asia’s largest airport and the world’s fourth largest, the Noida International Airport, sprawling over 5,000 hectares of land in western UP’s Jewar, more than twice the size of Delhi’s international airport.
Since June, Hajra’s family of eight has lived in a tent on the land where their home once stood, which Modi said was acquired with “complete transparency”. Her family had yet to receive the monetary compensation guaranteed by law. Having lost the land they tilled over three generations, they now look for work as agricultural labourers.
Months ahead of assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, when Modi laid the foundation stone for the Noida International Airport, he claimed that under earlier governments, such projects were “marred by the problems of compensation”.
Hajra, who belongs to one of about 10 affected families that still live in Dayanatpur, said they have nowhere to go while they continue to struggle for fair compensation for their land. “Where should we go? What should we do?” she said.
When we visited in the last week of November 2021, we found at least 30 families living in makeshift shelters where their homes once stood in a cluster of villages partially displaced by the airport. Most recounted similar stories: the government first disconnected their electricity supply and then demolished their homes during the monsoon, with no notice.
Nanak, 30, an agricultural worker who belongs to a scheduled caste, said that he lost not only his house in the demolition drive but also his daily income, for the farms he worked on were now gone.
“We cannot afford to rent a place in the nearby village,” said Nanak.
His children, like those of other families still living in Dayanatpur, who were still to resume school after it was shuttered for the pandemic in March 2020, dropped out altogether. “The village school was demolished, and the nearest school now is over 12 km away,” said Nanak.
Jewar Banger, a village on the outskirts of Jewar town (less than 10 km from the demolished villages), is home to a rehabilitation site for nearly 3,000 families who lost their homes to the first phase of land acquisition for the airport.
The rough streets were lined with bricks and building materials, the air was dusty, and construction noise was everywhere. Those who could afford to were constructing homes. Others lived in tents.
The Prime Minister may have presented the Noida airport project as a model for land acquisition “in the interest of farmers”, but Land Conflict Watch (LCW) found many protests and litigation by landowners demanding higher compensation for their land. These farmers have accused the government of chief minister Yogi Adityanath of forced evictions, miscalculation of their compensation package and inadequate rehabilitation.
Key policy decisions by the UP government also prevented landowners from getting fair remuneration under the law that governs the takeover of private land for public projects.
Fact & Fiction Around The Greenfield Airport
The Noida International Airport is being developed by Yamuna International Airport Private Limited (YIAPL), a wholly owned subsidiary of Zurich Airport International AG, a Swiss company, in partnership with the union and UP governments.
Modi, in his speech at the foundation-laying ceremony, said the airport will boost tourism in the state and become India’s first “integrated multi-modal cargo hub”, a logistics node offering different modes of cargo transport, including airways.
The project is estimated to cost Rs 30,000 crore and the new airport’s economic output, through investments and employment generation in aviation-associated sectors and supply chain opportunities, was pegged at Rs 3.5 lakh crore by a project feasibility report commissioned by the YIAPL to a consortium led by PricewaterhouseCoopers in December 2020. There is, however, no independent study to suggest how much of those economic benefits would accrue to people who live in the region.
In September 2019, farmers laid siege to a toll plaza on the expressway leading to the proposed airport, demanding higher compensation for their lands acquired for the airport. Police arrested 47 farmers.
It was not a one-off protest.
In the first phase of the project, the state government acquired 1,239.1 hectares from 3,976 affected families.
When the acquisition of another 1,310.5 hectares from six more villages began, farmers in Jewar organised a mahapanchayat on 26 December to demand “four times the existing circle rate” in monetary compensation and resettlement elsewhere.
How Farmers Lost The Compensation Game
In the first phase, the state government acquired land from eight villages in Jewar block: Dayanatpur, Rohi, Parohi, Ranhera, Kishorepur, Banwariwas, Shivara (Mukimpur) and Ramner.
Minutes of an internal review meeting on 18 June 2020 helmed by the UP chief secretary, accessed through the Right to Information Act, 2005, noted that 3,976 families would be directly affected during the first phase of land acquisition.
The district administration’s record, however, shows that of the 1,239.1 hectares of private land being acquired, farmers owning 1,085 hectares gave their consent. Owners of 153 hectares rejected the compensation offered, approximately 200 families.
Many of the affected households are marginal or small farmers—33.9% of families owned less than one bigha (about 0.25 hectare in UP) of land, and 39.6% owned between 0.25 to 2.5 hectares of land. These families belong to various communities, including Muslims, scheduled castes and other backward castes.
On 18 December 2015, nearly three years before the proposed acquisition was approved, the state government issued a notification changing the status of 80 villages in the Gautam Buddha Nagar district from rural to urban, by declaring them as being part of an industrial township. The government-commissioned social impact assessment (SIA) report in November 2021, however, assessed 85% of the region’s income as generated by agriculture .
The villages were recategorised as ‘urban’, but the circle rates for land were not upwardly revised. The circle rate is the minimum designated price at which land/property transfer deeds may be registered. These are fixed for every locality by the district administration, and usually revised annually. These 80 villages’ circle rates were not revised at the time of the reclassification, and have continued to remain unchanged.
Farmers said the change of classification was a ploy to ensure that landowners get less than their due upon their land being acquired.
The Right to Fair Compensation And Transparency In Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 (LARR Act) dictates how much compensation the government should pay when acquiring lands. The compensation payable under the LARR Act in UP is two times the market value for urban areas, and four times the market value for rural areas (including the amount to be paid as a solatium).
The district collector determines the market value by considering the market value cited in registration of sale documents under the Indian Stamp Act, 1899 (the ‘circle rate’), the average sale price for similar land situated in the nearest village, and sum consented to by affected families—the highest of these is to be applied, by law.
Balram Singh, the additional district magistrate (land acquisition) of Gautam Buddha Nagar, said the Noida airport-affected families’ compensation was calculated as per the LARR Act. “The market value consented to by families, Rs 1,150 per square metre, was greater than both the circle rate, Rs 900 per square metre, and average market value of the sale deed agreements in the three years before acquisition was notified,” he said. “So, we awarded the highest amount as per the Act.”
The villages had been notified as an ‘urban area’. Accordingly, the compensation offered was two times the determined market value, which amounted to Rs 2,300 per sq metre.
Had the government not changed the land classification, landowners would have received at least four times the prevailing circle rate, which amounted to at least Rs 3,600 per sq metre.
Even reclassified as urban, the villagers’ land should have fetched a higher compensation.
“It is a standard practice to revise the circle rates of land prior to acquisition regardless of change in status,” said an expert who was involved in the social impact assessment carried out by YEIDA under the LARR Act. He did not wish to be named.
The circle rate in the affected villages is Rs 900 per sq metre, unchanged since 2013. “The non-revision of circle rate goes against the spirit of the LARR Act, which is to rely on the prevailing value of the land,” the expert said.
Two months before the land acquisition was notified on 30 October 2018, circle rates in Jewar town ranged from Rs 2,500 per square metre to Rs 15,000 per square metre. The acquired villages are located just five kilometres from Jewar town, but the affected farmers’ land failed to appreciate in value despite the new urban status of their villages.
At even Rs 5,000 per sq metre, landowners would have received a 117% higher compensation package than what is currently on offer.
“The market value was determined arbitrarily,” argued Deepak Pandey, a counsel representing landowners before the Allahabad High Court. He said the government deliberately tried to give a lower amount as compensation by reclassifying the villages as urban areas and then not revising their circle rates.
Since 2017, until the Covid-19 pandemic, about 800 farmers along with their family members participated in a sit-in protest against the project, in Dayanatpur. Now, about 200 farmers’ families remain, awaiting some relief from the high court.On 25 August 2020, a senior bureaucrat with the state government wrote to the Gautam Buddha Nagar district magistrate, directing the local administration to revise decisions on resettlement and rehabilitation for the airport project by taking into consideration the definition of “rural population” as per the Uttar Pradesh Land Revenue Code, 2006.
The letter was issued by Surendra Singh, special secretary to the UP government, in response to representations from farmers challenging the reclassification of 80 villages as urban areas. Despite this communication, the final calculation of compensation was not revised.
The SIA study for the first phase of the airport, conducted by Gautam Buddha University in June 2018, found a common set of demands across the villages facing displacement. They were mostly about circle rate revision, restoration of rural status, employment opportunities at the upcoming airport and disbursement of monetary compensation.
Even though most concerns remain unaddressed, the government went ahead, claiming in September 2018 that it had consent from over 70% of the families affected by the first phase of land acquisition.
Churamani Pradhan, the 65-year-old former sarpanch of Kishoregarh village and a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh pracharak, claimed that officials cherry-picked farmers who were in favour of the compensation sum being offered. These selected farmers were invited to public hearings, said Pradhan. Farmers claimed that not everybody who was affected attended the public hearings.
The district administration then unilaterally announced in October 2018 that they had obtained consent of the majority of landowners.
Pradhan, who refused to vacate his 20 bigha (5.02 hectares) of agricultural land, said he and his sons have received threats to consent to the acquisition.
Conflicts rooted in land acquisition troubles are not new to UP. Of 23 land acquisition conflicts in the state, according to the LCW database, there are numerous instances of controversial land acquisition by the state government, with compensation-related demands in nearly 70% of cases.
In May 2011, farmers’ protests against forcible land acquisition by the Bahujan Samaj Party government turned into a violent face-off between the police and villagers of Bhatta-Parsaul, two adjacent villages not far from the proposed Jewar airport. Four people were killed in the violence. The protest famously saw Congress leader Rahul Gandhi conducting a ‘padyatra’ or march to the site of the acquisition, in a show of solidarity with farmers.
Taking a dig at previous governments, CM Adityanath said in early December that the Noida airport is being built on the same land of Bhatta-Parsaul and that “the farmers of Bhatta-Parsaul happily gave their land to the government… that too only on twice the compensation rather than four times.”
Samajwadi Party spokesperson Naved Siddiqui accused the UP government of “betraying” farmers.
“On one hand, the BJP has been on a spree of privatising airports so that its corporate allies benefit,” said Siddique. “But in Jewar, for the construction of an international airport, the state government failed our farmers,” says Siddiqui.
LCW also sought comment from the UP chief secretary, YIAPL, and its parent company Flughafen Zurich AG on the forced evictions, lack of adequate rehabilitation, and other violations. We will update this story if they respond.
Dhirendra Singh, the BJP MLA from Jewar constituency, could not be reached for comment despite repeated phone calls over three weeks in December.
Forced Out Of Home
From 4 June to 18 August 2021, farmers recalled, their houses, cattle sheds, religious structures and schools were razed, under police protection. This was done even as the rehabilitation and resettlement site was under construction.
Forty-year-old Saroj Devi, who lost her house in the demolition drive, has moved to a rented house with her family in a village nearby.
“Our house, a 100 sq m area in Dayanatpur, was demolished and only a 50 square metre plot was allotted at the rehabilitation site. The house is still under construction,” she said. Her family is to be relocated to a plot with no space for cattle, their main source of income. A distressed Devi said she accepted the compensation offer.
“Cattle rearing is the main source of income for a majority of the affected families, especially landless labourers,” said Ajay Pratap Singh, president of the Jewar Airport Kisan Sangharsh Samiti. The lack of space for cattle rearing and grazing in the resettlement colony has compelled many farmers to sell their cattle at throwaway prices after their villages were razed down, he said.
The LARR Act is clear on the issue of displacement of affected people and the losses or inconvenience they may incur. Under section 38(2) of the law, the district collector is duty-bound to ensure that various aspects of the rehabilitation and resettlement process are completed before affected families are evicted. This includes the provision of amenities and infrastructure at the site of their resettlement .
The situation on the ground, however, tells a different story.
As per the LARR Act, provisions for rehabilitation of affected families include a constructed home for a house that is lost, as per Indira Awas Yojana specifications in rural areas, or equal monetary compensation. In the case of an urban area, a 50 square metre-house is to be provided, or a minimum of Rs 1,50,000 for construction of a house.
In the case of the rehabilitation site for households affected by the airport project, even a cursory glance exposes violations of the law.
School buildings in the project-affected villages were demolished, but there is no functioning school at the rehabilitation site. There are no provisions for hospitals, clinics, cremation grounds or graveyards, all mandatory facilities to be provided under the third schedule of the LARR Act.
A Legal Battle Looms
Distressed with the irregularities in acquisition, various groups of farmers approached the Allahabad High Court with writ petitions and public interest litigations (PILs).
In February 2019, a writ petition filed by farmers claimed a violation of the LARR Act’s clause requiring 70% consent, and violations of the food security-related provisions of both, the LARR Act and the Uttar Pradesh Industrial Area Development Act, 1976. These provisions restrict the area of multi-cropped land that can be acquired to a percentage of the total area of multi-cropped land in the district.
The court, however, decided in favour of the government. Relying on the state’s submissions, it found the legal requirements to have been fulfilled, effectively green-lighting the acquisition.
At least three more petitions challenging different aspects of the acquisition have been filed since then: in May, October and November 2019.
Petitions were filed challenging the validity of the government notification that changed the nature of the land from rural to urban, and to seek better compensation. Most recently, in December, a PIL was filed in the Allahabad High Court, claiming that rehabilitation measures mandated by the LARR Act were violated.
The Acquisition Ploughs On
Through the end of 2021, a sense of fear resonated among families whose lands were demarcated for further expansion.
In April 2021, the state government issued a notification for the acquisition of an additional 1,310.5 hectares of land, to be carved out of six more villages, also for the airport and allied activities. The villages include Birampur, Dayanatpur, Ranhera, Mundrah, Kureb and Karauli Banger. Partial acquisition of Dayanatpur and Ranhera has already taken place in the first phase.
Another study, on the second phase of acquisition, found a direct impact on 6,839 families who inhabit land primarily – about 85 percent – used for agriculture. The remaining is utilised for livestock shelters and residential structures.
From 1 to 11 November, public hearings were conducted in the six villages but the number of people willing to part with their land remained unclear. The concerns raised were the same as those of the farmers whose lands were lost in the first round of acquisition.
The report acknowledged that the families demanded revision of circle rates to the market value, and that the compensation be decided based on the new circle rate. “They categorically mentioned that the acceptable revised rate should be above Rs 4,000 per square metre,” the study observed.
The mahapanchayat on 26 December was another attempt by farmers to reassert their demands for fair compensation and to warn those who will lose their land in the next phase. They resolved to organise more protests while the district administration planned to seek consent for further land acquisition from 7 January.
The farmers were hopeful of receiving relief from the high court. Kisan Sangharsh Samiti president Ajay Pratap Singh said he is certain their demands will be fulfilled. “I am ready to fight this legal battle till the very end,” he said.
(Mukta is a legal associate and Prudhviraj is a land & forest governance researcher with Land Conflict Watch, an independent network of researchers studying land conflicts, climate change and natural resource governance in India.)