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“Keep Your Crores, Can’t Eat Money”: Farmers Refuse To Give Up Land For Pharma City

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One simmering March morning, farmer and activist Saraswati Kavvula navigates us to Kurmidda village, somewhere in the heartland of Telangana. We drive past fields, shimmering ponds and patches of dusty, bristling scrubland to reach our destination—a small tent off the main village road. Once there, she is immediately swept into an animated chat with the 10 or so men already gathered there, all farmers from Tadiparthy, Meerkanpet, Kurmidda and surrounding villages.

Venkatesh Jakkula, who appears to be directing the gathering, welcomes us warmly. The small shamiyana gradually fills up. Villagers greet each other and catch up on household news and local gossip. A lone woman approaches hesitantly and squats beside me. I strike up a conversation.

Kalavati at the protest
Kalavati at the protest.

Furtive at first, her voice rapidly climbs the decibels when she gets to the reason she has come here, leaving her farmwork unattended for the day. “This is the only way we can right the wrongs being done to us. What will we do without our land?”

Kalavati has been coming here for the last 10 days despite constant discouragement from her son to attend a hunger strike organised by the Anti-Pharma City Committee. Her long grey dreadlocks swept into a high bun, she sits with primrod posture, protesting against what she (along with everyone gathered) characterises as the forceful acquisition of their land by the state government.

The choice they have been given—sign off your land for a nominal amount or stand and watch as it is taken away anyway.

In 2020, the State government received NIMZ (National Investment Industrial and Manufacturing Zone) clearance for a pharmaceutical industrial project that it has dubbed “Pharma City”. The brand name expresses the ambitious scale of the endeavour, which encompasses 19,333 acres of land in what will be perhaps the biggest single-industry project undertaken in South India in recent years.

More than 12,000 of those acres happen to be located in active agricultural belts in Yacharam, Kandukur and Kadthal mandals of Ranga Reddy district, just adjacent to Hyderabad.

“This Is My Native Land, These Are My People”

Possiah is another farmer at the strike. In the 63 years of his life, he says he has had no cause to consider giving up his fields—the land is so much more than just his livelihood. “This is my native land, these are my people. I was born here, I will die here. I have what I need here, and I have worked hard to earn it. I have dignity here. Who will bury me if I die elsewhere? Will I enjoy this comfort anywhere else, the comfort of being in my own village?” 

What he is protesting is the end of life itself as he knows it. Farming is what he has done, ever since he can remember. “I have sacrificed so much, I have made my bed on these rocks and worked these fields. Why would I sell my land?” he asks. The owner of 4 well-kept acres in Kurmidda, which he has tilled and tamed with his own hands, he is a true son of the soil.

Not only is he being asked to give up his land, he tells me, but he is being offered about ₹16 lakhs an acre—less than one fourth the current market price of ₹80 lakhs/acre. The Telangana Government, for its part, is ostensibly exercising a 2016 amendment (effective since 2017) to the Centre’s Land Acquisition Bill, which eased up the acquisition process in the State for “infrastructure” purposes.

This project is part of an aggressive industrial push by the TRS-led government that is overturning land-use patterns in and around Hyderabad. Over the past 6 years, the state government has overseen exponential industrial development spearheaded by the Telangana State Industrial Infrastructure Corporation (TSIIC).

Telangana Today, a newspaper run by Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao’s (KCR) media house Telangana Publications Pvt Limited, boasts of the establishment of 8,500 new industrial units, which have allegedly attracted an investment of ₹1.6 lakh crore into the State since 2014.

Hyderabad Pharma City
Digitally rendered image of Hyderabad Pharma City and its landscape. Source: Wikipedia

Pharma City, “the world’s largest industrial park”, is expected to “generate investments of about ₹64,000 crores and provide direct and indirect employment to about 5,60,000 persons,” according to KT Rama Rao (CM KCR’s son), Telangana’s Minister for IT and Industries.

Farmers Are People First, Revenue Generators Later

The demographic approach to farmers in Indian politics (and elsewhere) is to view them through the lens of economic revenue—seen through this lens, farming is nothing more than a source of income, an occupation.

Farmers make up about 55.6% of the workforce of Telangana while contributing to a mere 16% of the GDP, in a statistic that closely resembles the national-scale proportions (42% of the labour force creating 15% of the GDP) for the agriculture sector. Reducing the farming community to this language of the commodity economy has crucial implications for their rights and autonomy.

In a BBC Hard Talk segment that aired on 18 February this year, journalist Stephen Sackur interviewed Yogendra Yadav about the ongoing nationwide farmer’s protest against the proposed Farm Laws.

Commenting on the general optimism around the colossal movement that has gained international attention by now, he cannot help wondering out loud if Yadav is “overestimating the power of the farming movement to change the dynamic“, given that “farming is responsible for only about 15% of Indian GDP“.

A very hard-hitting question indeed, but one we must not turn away from in a world where revenue contribution dictates the very value of life. It almost feels like it doesn’t matter that this is one of the largest organised protests in the history of humankind.

Even without the new laws, farmers in the country are critically endangered by the serious lack of land reforms addressing the land-use transition from agricultural to non-agricultural uses. In 2012, the CPI(M), a heavyweight lobby in the movement to force the Centre to adopt an efficient land acquisition and rehabilitation legislation, claimed, “Protest against land acquisition took place in over 40 districts in 17 states in the past 3 years.”

Farmers and indigenous tribes are inevitably the prime victims, losing tens of thousands of acres. It is useful to note that in 2018, the Supreme Court flagged down the amendments made by five states, including Telangana, to the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act 2013 (LARR), the Centre’s land acquisition bill, calling them “unconstitutional” and “illegal”.

The coercive nature of acquisition processes that these amendments validate clearly favour State governments.

Chandrashekar Rao
CM Chandrashekar Rao. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This is not the first time that the Telangana government has been accused of “land grabbing”. In 2020, farmers in Vemulghat, Mutrajpally, and surrounding villages in the Siddipet district protested the loss of their land for the Kaleshwaram lift irrigation project. This was another high-profile undertaking marketed under the now-familiar bombastic identifier of the “world’s largest” project of this kind, a signature phrasing employed by the TRS government.

Resolving a litigation filed by a representative of the farmers, the Telangana High Court pointed out that the State had failed to offer adequate compensation and rehabilitation for the farmers displaced by the Ananthgiri Sagar reservoir, a component of the Kaleshwaram project.

In a particularly embarrassing showdown, CPI(M) Telangana called out CM KCR for his silence on compensation for Kudkilla farmers thrice displaced by the Palamuru Rangareddy Lift Irrigation Scheme. The Ranga Reddy district farmers’ wariness, then, is more than justified.

Industrialisation Doesn’t Equal Progress

In Telangana, the Pharma City proposal’s forecast of 5,60,000 new jobs is being offered up as compensation for stripping away the livelihood of thousands of farmers. We must ask—what kind of democracy is this that is not able to value a citizen as a human first, with inalienable rights to personal liberty, freedom (including the right to practice one’s occupation of choice) and autonomy?

There is another, more practical issue at stake here. “What job will he (the CM) give me?” farmer Jangaiah Reddy asks me. “I am 45 years old, and I barely passed my tenth-class exams.”

The Centre’s reaction to the Farm Law protests clearly exhibited the general attitude towards Indian farmers. Claims that “the farmers don’t know what is best for them” were thrown around by the public and experts alike. This infantilisation of the apparently “uneducated” farming community is a facade that the State often hides behind while passing nefarious laws that could endanger their livelihood.

The farmers I spoke with could not have been clearer—“I don’t want your jobs, I don’t want your development,” Possiah emphatically repeats. While the State has co-opted the narrative that industrialisation equals progress and is therefore desirable, these farmers do not want to give up farming.

Dirty, Dirty Development

Venkatesh Jakkula
Venkatesh Jakkula shows me a local variety of chilly growing on a farm in Yacharam.

Venkatesh Jakkula moved out of his village in his youth and took a job with the sales department of Bambino, a Hyderabad-based food manufacturer. He stayed with the company for about 10 years, but deep in his heart, he knew that he was a farmer. He quit his job in 2005 and returned to Kurmidda. He bought about 10 acres of land near his family’s farm and began to set up on his own.

“I wanted to build a life that makes me happy. The land, the clean water, the community. This is what makes me feel alive.” This is what is being wrenched away from him and hundreds of farmers in the Ranga Reddy district by the state government now.

NIMZ clearance essentially demarcates an area as a mega-manufacturing hub. Technically, this clearance, obtained under the National manufacturing policy, favours uncultivable land—given the enormous pollution and environmental degradation potential of large-scale manufacturing industries.

The Pharma City proposal leans heavily on the existing infrastructure in the state capital Hyderabad, which has already gained an international reputation as a pharmaceutical hub.

However, this is a reputation embroiled in controversy. In the past, the river in Patancheruvu, which is 20 km outside Hyderabad, infamously became the “most polluted river in the world”. Experts traced back the pollution to high levels of effluent discharge from the API (Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient) industry located there.

In 2021, Hyderabad’s lakes, rivers and other water bodies showed terrifying levels of highly virulent, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, whose presence has been linked to the unchecked discharge of active ingredients in antibiotics produced by the city’s various pharmaceutical clusters.

While it is true that the pharmaceutical industry has attracted billions in revenue, it is at a steep cost that outweighs the benefits by a large margin.

While the farmers who Pharma City will displace are being offered rehabilitation options within the industrial township, they say that this requires them to live in close quarters to a highly polluting industry that will likely contaminate any existing land and water source nearby, including the groundwater.

Given the baggage of historical precedent, the State has made sure that a zero-liquid-discharge promise accompanies the proposal. However, according to retired IICT scientist K Babu Rao, it is not within the purview of the government to give such a promise—since this will involve the development and patenting of unique and entirely new manufacturing processes that only the R&D divisions of a pharmaceutical company have the capacity to do.

“The water that we drink and the plants drink is purified by the surrounding forests,” Venkatesh tells me.

Woman taking goat herd to river for water
Woman taking goats for a drink of water at Pedda Cheruvu.

We are lounging on the edge of a pond he calls Pedda Cheruvu (big lake). He has offered to show me around the various tanks, lakes and ponds dotting the land in Yacharam. These are the villagers’ main water sources, which contribute heavily to their self-sufficiency. The afternoon is still, unstirred by noise except for the crackle of the high-tension power lines cutting the air above us.

It is almost time for the month’s fish harvest. Venkatesh is excited for the weekend, which will see the villagers come together to cast out their nets and lines. A joyous, communal moment. The fish, he tells me, will feed them and the surrounding villages. Some of it might make it to Hyderabad markets.

“My 80-year-old father walks 7 km to and from his field every day. This is because of the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink.”

I wonder if he is painting a far-too-rosy picture for me, an outsider from the city. “But isn’t farming a lifestyle that comes with its own hardships and sacrifices too?” I ask him.

My head was resounding with stories from some of the women I had spoken with, who told me such tales of aching joints, relentless work and reducing profits.

Woman farmer in field
Hamsa in her watermelon field.

I am thinking in particular of Hamsamma, a watermelon farmer who had graciously presented me with a fat melon to take home. She had been forced to sell the season’s harvest at ₹5/kg, an all-time low, criminally unequal to the cost of seed and fertiliser, the months of sleepless labour spent watching over the fields, the value from her land, and the cost of transportation.

“I am not saying that this is easy. I only ask that my hardwork not go in vain,” Venkatesh tells me. “If the government really cared about our progress, how come we are dealing with reducing profits? Do you know how expensive it is to grow rice now?”

Activist Saraswati Kavvula, for her part, is not prepared to give the authorities the benefit of the doubt in any way. “This is not about development, this is a real-estate scam,” she reiterates. The TSIIC currently holds 1,54,882-acres in its land bank, “So why are they coming for these small farmers’ land?” she wants to know.

In a quiet voice, Venkatesh claims that the majority of targeted landowners, including himself, are not just small farmers but people belonging to lower, historically oppressed castes. TRS members from his village have somehow gotten away unscathed, he alleges. There was force involved even in the acquisition that has gone ahead till date. Farmers who gave up their land have gone back to tilling it for income.”

With Kavvula’s help, a few hundred farmers have filed various cases with the Telangana high court, citing wrongful acquisition and violation of Environmental Laws.

Telangana’s 2017 amendment to the LARR is quite telling. It essentially, “Empowers the state government to privately purchase land from landowners and make a lump sum payment rather than resettling and rehabilitating project affected families,” according to Mukta Joshi, a lawyer at Land Conflict Watch.

“Even under the LARR 2013, any land acquired for a public-private partnership project (which is the nature of NIMZs) requires the consent of 70% of project affected families. Please note that this effectively means that the government is free to go ahead with the acquisition even if some people are objecting and withholding consent.”

What is even more troubling in this case is that the tenants, landless agricultural labourers and artisans who outnumber the landowning farmers in the district, have been completely left out of the proposal. This glaring gap is a legacy of the 2017 Telangana amendment to the LARR. Thousands of lives completely unaccounted for, in Yacharam tehsil alone.

When I spoke with Narasimha, an agricultural wage-labourer working near Medipally village, he was completely oblivious to the impending devastation foreshadowed by the Pharma City project. “This is how the government would prefer it to be,” as Saraswati astutely observes.

“They are relying on the fact that the villagers have little knowledge of the bureaucratic processes involved. In fact, they [the farmers] weren’t even informed about the project, which is a gross violation of their rights. The public hearings were botched and the farmers were turned away when they came to register their dissent.”

Another Kurmidda farmer, Venkat R, had already recounted to me stories of loan requests being denied by the Mandal Revenue Officer. “He asks us, the farmland doesn’t belong to you anymore, why do you need farm loans?” This fits into a pattern of threats and blatant blackmail that the farmers have accused the authorities of.

The Betrayal

Framer with his cow
Farmer Srikanth standing with his cow. Srikanth holds a degree in Management from a city college but has been forced to come back to his village and farm his mother’s land after unsuccessfully searching for a job. Widespread unemployment is a key sore point with the youngsters in the village, who blame the CM for their plight. “We can’t believe anything he says anymore.”

Sometime in 2017, Venkat R and his fellow villagers encountered a few men surveying their fields with the MRO’s permission. “We were told it was to survey the cultivated land in our village, to record what grew where, and so on. They told us that it was for insurance purposes. We didn’t know that it was for Pharma City. We were betrayed by our own sarpanch.” He is referring to Nenavath Vijaya, the Kurmidda sarpanch that they had elected as their representative.

The farming community of Telangana represents a formidable vote-bank. All too often, topical issues like this are weaponised to marshall support during elections. “Let me tell you the story of Indira Sabitha Reddy,” Saraswati gives more context.

“Back in 2016, she was a member of the Congress party. She gained a lot of following from the farmers around here because she vocally stood in their support against the proposed Pharma City project. As soon as she won the 2018 election (contesting from Maheshwaram constituency), she jumped parties and joined the TRS.”

Once the Home Minister for the Congress-led government pre-bifurcation, she currently serves as Telangana’s Minister of State for Education. She is one of Telangana’s most recognisable and popular politicians, exerting considerable influence on the CM’s decisions. This withdrawal of support dealt a huge blow to this farming community.

Chief Minister KCR himself is the proud owner of 60 acres of farmland in Gajwel, 65 km outside Hyderabad and strategically projects his identity of a farmer, albeit a progressive, prosperous one. This invocation arguably ties him to the land and is useful in confidently orchestrating a state identity for Telangana, India’s newest State.

From the beginning, KCR has consistently mobilised around the ongoing agrarian crisis, promising irrigation projects, loan waivers, increase in grants, pensions schemes and various other benefits to farmers. It is not far-fetched to say that the figure of the farmer has been central to his politics. The very fight for the formation of Telangana, which propelled him into power, was premised on a better life for its native people, of which farmers make up the majority.

Kurmidda is one of the villages he visited early in his campaign, before the 2018 elections. When I ask Kalavati if KCR has delivered anything, she sighs. “He made all kinds of promises, he even told us he’d build us houses with two bedrooms each. After winning the election, he simply climbed on his [high] horse. We got nothing.”

She echoes an almost unanimous sentiment among the farmers I speak with. “I don’t want anything from you, just don’t come for our land,” Possiah folds in hands in mock supplication.

On Autonomy

Small Dairy Farm
Most households have a dairy farm attached. This is a move towards self sufficiency.

Medipally farmer Madhukar Reddy’s disappointment is palpable. A wave of quiet anger animates him as he decries the abject hypocrisy of KCR’s “Golden Telangana”. “Why should I give up my land and depend on him for my survival?” As far as these farmers are concerned, KCR has not delivered on what he promised, so there is no question of trusting him any further.

“As it stands, if KCR or any other big minister were to visit in their helicopters now, I can feed him a sumptuous, nutritious meal. Would I have the power to do this without my land?”

In a 2017 research paper on Indian land reforms, N S Shetty points out that for farmers, “land is a basic asset for their livelihood, family identity and security”. There is “emotional, cultural, inheritance, and heritage bonding between them and the land. Losing land means losing their livelihood, way of family living and family heritage”.

For this marginalised farming community that has suffered repeatedly at the hands of careless politicians, their autonomy is all the more precious. Venkat R patiently explains to me:

“Farming for us is not about making crores of money. When I look at my fields, and the beautiful trees and animals that I have so carefully nurtured, I am filled with an indescribable sense of peace. This is the same land that my ancestors cultivated. My father single-handedly moved mighty rocks with his bare hands to shape the land. 

“How can I tell you the satisfaction of sitting in my field, with the pond on one side, the hills and forests on the other? Even my dogs drink fresh rainwater. Can you compare this wholesome life to the city?”

It is important to note that an industrial project of this scale will have repercussions on the surrounding ecosystems. Pranay Juvvadi, a wildlife biologist working in the area, points out that several reserved forests abutting the site boundary will be degraded. The ecosystems and biodiversity supported by these habitats (including the farmland ecosystems) are central to the lives of animals and people alike. There is no going back once the precarious balance is disrupted.

“Keep your crores, I cannot eat money,” Possiah declares. “I might be uneducated, and I might not have the advantage of language, but I have to have my land, it is all I ask.”

Venkatesh adds encouragingly, “You don’t need any fancy language, your dissent is the right language.” His fellow villagers nod in approval.

Featured image shows farmers at the hunger strike
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