Critics argue that the scheme would displace the urban poor in the name of giving them land
Massive resources from the Andhra Pradesh government machinery have been deployed to make this year’s Ugadi - Telugu new year day - a festival of house-site pattas distribution.
Despite the scheme being seen as one of chief minister Jaganmohan Reddy's most ambitious schemes, it has run into rough weather with critics, experts and Opposition.
While reviewing the arrangement for the “Pedalandariki Illu” (housing for poor) scheme on Tuesday, chief minister Jaganmohan Reddy instructed officials to ensure that this Ugadi, which falls on March 25, should go down in history of the state as a Red Letter Day.
The government proposes to distribute 25 lakh house-site pattas to the poor in one go on Ugadi, a record of sorts. The scheme is in line with the various welfare schemes launched by Jagan (as he is referred to in the state) ever since he assumed office. Some of the major welfare schemes launched include those designed for school students, college students, weavers, auto drivers and poor Brahmins.
The housing scheme offers each homeless family a house site measuring 48 square yards (one cent). As per the plan 25 lakh poor families will be given house-site pattas. He has set March 01 as deadline for the acquisition of land and marking of the plot for the “Pedalandariki Illu” scheme.
Experts say the scheme mainly targets the urban poor, who have migrated from rural Andhra Pradesh because of the crisis in the farm sector.
The migrants mostly end up as construction workers, cleaners in hotels, domestic maids, rickshaw pullers, auto-rickshaw drivers, carpenters, electricians or hawkers. Although these services are keeping urban and suburban Andhra Pradesh on the move, these workers live in temporary settlements amid squalor. The distribution of 25 lakh pattas, is being projected as a game changer for these workers and their families.
However, on the ground, the way it is being implemented is drawing flak not only from opposition parties but also from some neutral observers.
The questions that are being raised include, where is the land for the scheme? How is it being acquired? How is it affecting poor farmers who have been tilling government land for ages?
Doubts are also being raised about the actual motive behind the scheme. Some experts question if the scheme is being launched to indirectly benefit vested interests in some cities including Vizag, the proposed executive capital of the state. They question whether the plan is to drive away from the poor labourers from their existing settlements and ask if the house site is a bait to evacuate the poor from their ‘bastis’.
The spotlight has also been on allegations of agricultural land being forcibly taken by the officials on the pretext that it was illegal possession.
On 06 November 2019, the state government issued an order (GO MS 463) apparently with the intent of regularising the lands (maximum of 300 sq yards) occupied by Below Poverty Line (BPL) and Above Poverty Line (APL) families. Many argue that the conditions laid out in the Government Order defeats the very purpose it has been issued for. No parcel of land would become eligible for regularisation as per the Para 15 of the government order, which effectively means beneficiaries of the land in urban centres like Vizag can be driven out of city calling them 'encroachers'.
Para 15 of the GO MS 463 sets five conditions under which the occupant of government land (max 300 sq yards) are not eligible for regularisation. They are:
a) Sites affected under the alignment of Master Plan/Zonal Development Plan/Road Development Plan.
b) Constructions which have come up in open spaces of approved layouts.
c) Constructions made on the alignment of Water bodies, Grave Yards, Foreshore or FTL areas of drinking water tanks/ Irrigation tanks and treatment areas.
d) Areas earmarked for treatment plants, Green belts, buffer zone etc.
e) Sites falling under MFL of rivers.
f) Sites required for a public purpose.
g) Lands, which are in the opinion of the Committee are highly valuable and cannot be considered for the transfer of Rights.
h) Public footpaths.
“In the name of the scheme, officials are forcefully taking the agricultural lands which have been a livelihood for poor for decades,” former agriculture minister and rural affairs expert Vadde Sobhanadreeswara Rao told The Lede citing what happened in Thotlavallur village at Krishna district as an example.
“(In Thotlavallur village) some Dalit families have been cultivating 9.90 acres for over 44 years. A sane government, if it is committed to the welfare of the poor, would issue them pattas and make them legal owners. But, in the name of the scheme, the government officials snatched their land, rendered them landless now. What sort of welfare is this?” Rao asked.
According to Sobhanadreeswara Rao, the government is taking back agricultural land from the poor to circumvent the Land Acquisition Act-2013. “The Act prescribes heavy compensation for the landowners, even if it is 'assigned land'. The government has no money. So the government has instructed District Collectors to “pool” all government land for the scheme including lands given to educational institutes and Dalits,” Rao said.
Rao also objected to the allocation of about 1200 acres of Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA) lands for the distribution of house-site pattas.
Incidentally, the Amaravati Parirakshana Joint Action Committee organised a protest rally on 25 February, the day the CRDA GO was issued and demanded that it be withdrawn. The JAC said the farmers offered the land for the construction of the capital, not for distribution in the form house-sites to the poor.
Former MP from Rajahmundry, Vundavalli Arun Kumar also raised objection to the taking back of the lands given to Telugu University, at Rajahmundry.
Vundavallli wondered as to how the government plans to strip the prestigious Telugu University of its lands for the “Pedalandariki Illu”.
The university, with three campuses, at Rajahmundry, Srisailam and Hyderabad was set up by NT Ramarao in 1989 in an endeavour to promote Telugu language and culture. The Rajahmundry campus was allotted 45 acres and now the Collector issued orders to take back 20 acres for the housing program.
“The order of the collector goes against the spirit of the Andhra Pradesh Reorganization Act 2014. The university is not yet bifurcated. It is a common property of two Telugu states,” the former MP told reporters in Rajahmundry on 23 February.
Voicing his protest against the move, he said it would permanently close the future expansion of the university. In a letter dated 19 February, he urged chief minister YS Jaganmohan Reddy to revoke the decision.
Another scathing letter was written by EAS Sarma former Energy Secretary of the Government of India, an advocate of rights for urban poor. While praising the objective of the chief minister’s scheme “Pedalandariki Illu”, Sarma warned the CM of its negative consequences. Objecting to the GO Sarma asked how it would benefit the poor.
“Homeless people in cities like Vizag are victims of agrarian crisis, those affected by major projects and those who have lost livelihoods in their home towns. They migrate to cities to work as domestic workers, electricians, construction laborers, auto drivers and as hawkers. They raise huts in areas nearer to railway stations and bus stands. Cities' Master Plans are seldom drawn keeping their requirements in mind. So, their settlements come in the way of implementing the Master Plans and can be easily classified as valuable urban lands under encroachment. The conditions laid out in the GO MS 436 invariably make them ineligible for regularisation,” Sarma said in a letter written to the chief minister.
Stating that they are the people who make life easier in cities, removing them to far off places in the name of rehabilitation, would rob them of their livelihood, Sarma said.
“The rich who encroached on lands and built mansions near the lakes and CRZ areas, river-fronts are able to influence the officials and get their lands regularised. As the unfortunate poor cannot do this they would become 'encroachers' under the new GO and they will have to be evacuated. What type of justice is this,” asked Sarma.
Supreme Court advocate K Sharvan Kumar sees a possible link between the Government Order for the housing project and cash-starved AP government’s plan to resource mobilisation by selling away urban lands.
Talking to The Lede, Sharvan said if the government were to implement the scheme, thousands of acres of urban land will be freed from the occupation of the poor and it may be sold later.
“Selling government lands is not the solution. The government has to explore avenues to recover the unused lands from SEZs and industries. Thousands of acres of unused land is lying with corporate companies. They should be taken back as it was done in the case of Krishnapatnam SEZ. The house-site distribution is a noble cause but the urban poor should be rehabilitated in pucca houses where now there are now living. They should not be sent out of the city in the name of rehabilitation,” says Shravan, who has represented many housing project-affected people from Andhra Pradesh.