The land of Milind’s ancestors gives beneath our feet with a crunch. This is good soil, he says, look at how black it is. He walks across his field, and over a little ridge of dirt to a large well. I ask its worth. A lot, he says. He is not thinking of money.
He ambles on languidly and I follow, watching my step. These are my first minutes here, but he’s been around Nere, a big village north of Panvel, forever. The next field has clumps of hair on it. Curly hair and straight hair, black and brown hair. There are empty plastic pouches of shampoo and shaving cream. Milind is amused at my bewilderment, and explains that this plot belongs to a barber. The barber has told him that hair nourishes the soil.
A large water pipe marks the border between this field and the next. Milind owns that field too. It has taken us a couple of minutes to walk from edge to edge. The reason for this stroll is left unsaid for the moment. He’s showing me what four hundred feet looks like. The road that will slice deliberately through his land is exactly that wide.
That road is part of development, a favoured buzzword of aspirational India; Milind’s land is being acquired. What lies at the other end of acquisition is a euphemism filled with sadness: bhoomeen. Landless.
We last met six months ago. He was at a public hearing in a bare hall that belonged to the town planner, one among a crowd of agitated villagers. The officials were at a table on an elevated platform, calm and assured behind a cordon formed by the police and Intelligence Bureau, one of whom later described the commotion as a lot of acting.
Milind had held a pillar for support and waved a bundle of papers at the bureaucrats. He screamed that they were wrong. He would turn away to compose himself, take a little walk, and then return to yell once more. His was one hoarse voice in a room of them. Everybody there was concerned about the new development proposal for the region. An airport, a commercial district, transportation corridors would come in. Builders of all kinds would come in.
How had this happened? They didn’t even know about the land survey. Now their plots were marked on a giant map that stood on one side of the room, coloured yellow, orange, and green. Someone told them everything was done by satellite, and many of them they felt their sovereignty violated. What kind of people measured private land before asking permission?
As I walk along in Milind’s wake, I look back to see where we came from, and could only see the ridges and undulations he brought us over. I will feel them for days afterward. Some distances only our feet can describe.
We stand for a while in the noon sun. He tells me about the planned highways that will box the village and bury it in the fine ash of exhaust pipes. In his mind, first goes the land, then the peace and, last, the lungs.
The jagged hills are faint in the distance. In winter they will direct cool winds in this direction. How far away are they? I realise I don’t know what a hectare looks like. Milind points to his feet first, and then a brown swell a football field’s length away. It’s two acres till there, and half an acre more makes a hectare.
The measure silences me, and fills my head with visions. I didn’t know a hectare was that large. Reliance wanted nearly 7000 hectares for a power plant in Jharkhand, and walked away when it couldn’t have that much land. An analyst called it a big positive, instead of the temper tantrum that it was. 7000 hectares. You could fit South Mumbai in there.
In passing, I ask if he has ever counted his trees. The farmers south of here whose land is marked for takeover hold on to the value in every well and every tree as an argument for the true price of it. Milind turns around and says, “What’s there to count? Is someone going to run away with them?”
Before I leave to report, I read everything I can find. There are op-eds pouring out of my ears. For several months now, economists, scholars, and activists have discussed why, whether, and how to take land. Even landowners agree that development is good. But the reasoning feels as flat as a page, absent of the texture of the dirt and grease seen from the ground. From afar, the greater good looks like a country becoming industrious.
When it is upon them, farmers say, the greater good looks a lot like a wave of dishonest bureaucrats, middle men, and developers. It sucks them in and leaves them poorer in odd ways. I meet Kiran, who lives in a home some miles away from Milind. They know each other. To get to his place you take a road lined with grass and trees. The only sound is from the motor and the wind. His house is perched above the bend of a road. A three-year-old’s upturned sandals lie outside, their soles coated with something brown that may or may not be mud.
For nearly two hours he talks about his land and his reservations. He reaches back in history to make a point. The town planner wants his fields. But the people at Uran gave up land decades ago, and they still haven’t received their money. So where does that leave him?
He pulls out two newspaper reports. One says a highway over his neighbourhood will be diverted. Another says the road will begin elsewhere. He’s heard from village elders that an official has told them an entirely different thing.
He looks at me, and I look at him. Sometimes you’re a journalist, and sometimes you’re sitting there, wondering what to say that will make this better. But there’s nothing. To the hapless Nere farmer who sunk his savings to construct a building, and who asked, “If I tell you my problem with the planner, will you ask them why they’re doing this to all of us? Will this make them do the right thing?”, I could only mumble something about writing it all down. To Kiran I say it’s useless, holding back from telling him something more.
This is how the silences go:
Can you believe this?
I know, man.
You see what we’re dealing with?
Forget it. It’s not worth it.
Then I offer him perspective. The kind I’d put down on paper back at home. This happened in this village. They wished they had read the fine print. Stuff like that. It’s repetitive. Every village has its regrets, its mistakes. And advice feels less like it’s about acquisition itself, and more about preparation for a hostile takeover of some kind. Turns out they thought the same thing. Kiran and his friends expected the planner’s bureaucrats to visit a few weeks ago. They wanted to measure his land. Kiran and his friends had prepared to welcome them with sticks and stones, and light their cars on fire. When they didn’t show, Kiran went to inquire with a government office. Nobody knew anything about the visit, and they all returned home.
This land means everything. He has a loan on the house we’re in. He saves money by growing food. Without the land, food has to be purchased. It’ll play havoc with his personal finances. Milind, whose family keeps rice grain reserves to tide them over a bad year, understands this.
Kiran turns to ask me what I think of the Navi Mumbai Airport Influence Notified Area, or NAINA, the planner that wants their land. Just get a good lawyer, I reply. Get someone who knows what the planner is supposed to do and, just as important, knows when the planner is misbehaving, like not putting promises down on paper. You could travel down the list of villages taken over, ask them their regrets, and know what to do.
Why doesn’t he leave if there’s so much uncertainty here? He bristles at the question and asks me, “Why should we go? It’s our land. You guys are making a smart city by uprooting people and letting outside people in. We have grown up here. We were born here, we die here. Why should we go?”
His upheavals may yet be in the realm of imagination. He may not have to go at all, because after last November’s public hearings, there’s been no news about NAINA. Officials come by to demolish “unauthorised constructions”, but say nothing more. They don’t communicate at all, he says. I ask if he thinks the delay is related to the land acquisition bill, whose approval by lawmakers would make acquiring land far easier than it is right now. He isn’t sure, but he thinks so. Then he definitely thinks so.
But Kiran’s one step ahead of this. He has decided to go along and give up his land. This puzzles me, but he’s working with a bad situation. The plan is to pool the land they have left so that it’s big enough to construct a building seven or eight floors tall. “Let’s see. It might happen,” he says, uncertain.
“What do you mean?” I ask. “What’s the problem?”
A couple of his friends had changed their mind about the arrangement. They were nervous about what the town planner would do after it had their land. “They think they will be cheated,” he said.
It wasn’t about money, but trust. It was about knowing their place in the world at a turbulent time. There was nobody to tell them what happens next. And so they were doing what came naturally. They were only holding on.
Off Panvel, in Navi Mumbai, planning authorities are building an airport and a planned ‘smart city’ on an area of land almost as large as New York City. It is an example of how land acquisition takes place in India today, and what it looks like from the ground. This is the second story in a series that examines how land is acquired, and what it is ultimately used for.