India farmers stake claim to Delhi land

A group of farmers is suing the Indian government for taking away the land of their ancestors to build the country’s capital, New Delhi, 100 years ago.The farmers say that the government’s most important buildings, including the parliament, the president’s house, the Supreme Court and India Gate – the country’s main war memorial – were constructed on their fields by India’s then British rulers, who also destroyed their homes.They claim that most of their families received no compensation, and that they have lived in poverty in a village 40km (25 miles) outside Delhi ever since.

Their lawyers say that they are taking the Indian government to court because it assumed the liabilities of the British after independence in 1947.But if their case fails, they say they will consider taking up the matter in London.”Our forefathers hardly got any money for their land. We want our dignity back. India is now a democracy and we want justice,” community leader Satish Kumar said.”We request the president and the prime minister to listen to our woes.”

None of the farmers were born at the time, but they do remember what their parents told them about their old homes.”My family used to live by what is today the parliament,” Pershu Ram said. “I remember my father telling me he had a farm there but then he was thrown out. The British threatened everyone with guns. They had no choice, they had to leave.”

Today the only surviving trace of the villages are their names.Malcha now exists as Malcha Marg (street) in the diplomatic area and Raisina is still the name of the small hill on which the president’s house and the defence, foreign and home ministries sit.”My father said we were the landowners there. We used to live like kings,” Surjit Singh said.

“We had cattle and fields for crops. Our families were happy, but then we lost it all and ended up in a slum.”According to Radhe Shyam, their parents were mostly illiterate and were not aware of their rights.The British did pay compensation into a bank account for them, but he says that they were not told about it and so the money was left unclaimed.

They want this money paid to them now, at current rates, as well as some vacant land that was never built on.Radhe Shyam and his lawyers say they have tracked down the original paperwork to prove their case, and are acting on behalf of more than 350 families.”This is not about the money. We want to be recognised as true Delhi-ites,” he told the BBC.Move to Delhi

In all, 13 villages were razed to make way for the new capital, whose grandest buildings were designed by the British architect Edward Lutyens.A huge area was also cleared to build homes for the colonial elite and government workers.The British capital was previously in the eastern port city of Calcutta, but following political unrest there, it was decided to move it to Delhi, the seat of the Mughal Empire.King George V inaugurated New Delhi as the capital at a ceremony in 1911.

The idea was to project Britain’s imperial power at a time when its grip was beginning to weaken.But the plan failed, and only 36 years later New Delhi’s monumental buildings were handed over to the government of independent India.The British influence has not entirely disappeared, though, because many of their laws are still in place today. The government is often accused of acting like the colonialists.

One of the most controversial of these surviving laws is the same one used to evict the farmers from New Delhi.The Land Acquisition Act of 1894 is still employed whenever the government wants to purchase land for public projects.The number of these has soared in recent years because of the growing economy. There is greater demand than ever for new roads, housing, factories, mines and power plants.But just as the original farmers of New Delhi complained that they were not properly compensated, so Indians today often protest when the government decides to buy their land.

This year the government has finally proposed changes to the law, increasing compensation for farmers. It is under intense pressure to modernise.”If India is to develop at a fast pace, set up new industries, build infrastructure, it has to put in place systems which would restore the trust that ordinary people have towards the government, when it comes to buying land for public purpose,” says economist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta. – BBC