Amethi: Sitting under a tree outside his humble dwelling in Amethi, frail-looking Yogendra Pathak is a picture of despair. While gossiping with neighbours who hang out at his bicycle repair shop, Yogendra thinks back to the good old days when he was a zamindar (landlord) of sorts. He was counted among the few landowners who commanded respect and awe in not just his village but in the neighbouring areas, as well. Today, he barely manages to eke out a living by fixing punctured cycle tubes.
Not far from Yogendra's shop, Lallan Pathak is perched cross-legged on a stool in his wooden kiosk and spreading choona-kattha on betel leaves, while a couple of paan-lovers and tobacco fans scratch their heads over what will happen in the Lok Sabha elections four months away. Quite like Yogendra, Lallan, too, was once a proud owner of a large piece of land on which he grew seasonal crops and made money. However, he is in dire straits at the moment.
Yogendra, 65, had surrendered 100 bighas of land in 1984. The Uttar Pradesh government had paid him Rs 5,000 per bigha as compensation and provided him a job in the manufacturing unit of Samrat Bicylces private Limited. Two years later, the factory ceased operations, and salaries were stopped. Since then, he has been living in penury.
During his heydays, Lallan, 62, used to distribute fruits and wood free of cost to his village folk, but he now runs a paan ki dukaan.
Yogendra and Lallan are just two of the 192 farmers who had pledged their lands to the Uttar Pradesh State Industrial and Development Corporation (UPSIDC) in 1984 on just one appeal from the then newly-elected Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi. Rajiv had swept to power riding on the sympathy wave in the aftermath of his mother Indira Gandhi's assassination.
The land the farmers had given up on the promise of compensation and employment was meant to set up Samrat Bicycles' manufacturing unit that would have provided employment to local residents. Though some of the farmers who had handed over their land had been given compensation and jobs, the matter slipped into oblivion as hardly any production took place at the factory and the owners stopped paying salaries.
Governments came and went; several Assembly and parliamentary elections were held. In the process, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, too, came and went, but no one bothered to listen to the grievances of the farmers. The result — whenever Rahul visits Amethi now, the Congress chief is faced with protests by farmers, especially those who were cheated in the name of land acquisition and employment. The farmers have been demanding that their lands be returned so that they can take up farming for their livelihood once again.
All that Yogendra seeks now is some ready cash so that he can set up a proper shop to earn a decent livelihood. "With no money and no regular source of income, how can I hope of a better living? I regret having surrendered my land," he said. "We have appealed to political leaders to help us get our lands back, but no one seems to be bothered about our plight."
Lallan echoes the same despair. "We now realise that surrendering our lands was a big mistake. But we had no option then, just as we have no option now," he said. "During the elections, political leaders come to seek votes and make promises, but once the elections are over, they simply forget all their promises."
According to Umashankar Pandey, an advocate and former BJP district president, there is a basic anomaly that has not been addressed by all the parties involved in the matter. "Land acquired by the government for industrial purposes should be put to industrial use only and not given to any private trust or organisation,” he pointed out.
Pandey raised the issue vociferously so many times over the years that in the 2014 parliamentary elections, he gave BJP leader Smriti Irani a stick with which to attack the Congress. To put pressure on Rahul, Irani has been drumming the issue at every rally she addresses in Amethi, but to no avail.
It may be recalled that in 1984, the state government had acquired 65.57 acres in the Kauhar industrial belt to set up a manufacturing unit of Samrat Bicycles owned by Sanjay Jain. According to documents on record, UPSIDC had registered 65.57 acres on 8 August, 1986.
Since the factory ceased operations after two years, nearly three decades later, on 24 February, 2014, the land was auctioned for Rs 20.10 crore. After the auction, the land was transferred to the Rajiv Gandhi Charitable Trust, which paid Rs 50,000 as stamp duty. Strangely, a few months later, UPSIDC declared the auction invalid and illegal, and the matter went to the Gauriganj sub-divisional magistrate's court, which ordered Samrat Bicycles to return the land to UPSIDC.
Defending the sale of land to the Rajiv Gandhi Charitable Trust, Congress district president Yogendra Misra said, "The trust lawfully bid for the land and acquired it. If at all there was any bungling or unlawful transaction, UPSIDC, the Amethi administration and Samrat Bicycles should be held liable, not the Rajiv Gandhi trust."
Calls made to Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee president Raj Babbar went unanswered. However, senior lawyer and judicial activist Krishna Kanhaiya Pal said: "I don't know why people are lingering on the issue. As per the law, if the purpose for which the land was acquired by the government becomes infructuous, the land should be restored to the original owners. In this case, if the cycle factory was set up or ceased operations after some time, the land should be returned to the farmers in keeping with the principles of natural justice."
Amid the tussle over land ownership, the issue remains that the rightful owners were deprived of their land, which is now lying unused when it could have been cultivated. The factory infrastructure, too, is in a state of neglect when some productive projects could have been set up for the benefit of the local populace.
With the Lok Sabha elections coming up, the BJP and other parties will again use this issue to corner the Congress and the Gandhi family. Just last week, when Rahul visited Amethi, farmers protested and demanded that their lands be returned to them. However, the farmers' protest did not cut much ice with the resurgent Congress president, who has his sights set on things bigger than getting embroiled in petty local matters.
Meanwhile, the Jains at the centre of the whole controversy are happily running their cycle manufacturing businesses on a pan-India scale.
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Updated Date: Jan 30, 2019 16:04:56 IST