For the past four months, local residents have been staging a round-the-clock sit-in at Khiria Bagh in Azamgarh district of Uttar Pradesh against acquisition of land for the proposed Manduri international airport. The protesters have had three rounds of talks with the district magistrate, but they have all been fruitless. The locals say that they will not part with their land at any cost.
What is the Manduri airport project
The expansion of the Manduri airstrip in Azamgarh district is one of the pet projects of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. It is coming up near Manduri Baldev village. Initially, an airport that can handle 32-seater aircraft has been proposed. Manduri Baldev already has an airstrip. During the run-up to the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly Elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had visited Azamgarh and promised an airport for the district. In August 2018, he laid the foundation stone for the project. The plan is for the Manduri airport to be developed into an international airport in the future.
There are reports that even amid protests, beginning next month, Big Charter Private Ltd is going to launch a flight to Lucknow from this airport.
The local administration plans to acquire around 670 acres of land for the expansion of the airport. In the first phase, 360 acres of land has been surveyed. Another 310 acres will be surveyed in the second phase. The state government has provided to the district administration a new list of villages where the survey has to be carried out. Some villages like Suara, Saatu, Kandharapur, Madhuban, and Kuwadevchand Patti have been removed from this new list while some new ones like Manduri, Jamua Hariram, Gadanpur Hichhan Patti, Kadipur, Jamua Jolha and Jigna Karmanpur have been added. If the state government goes ahead with its plan, the farmers of the villages in the new list stand to lose their land.
People don’t want to part with their land
The villagers allege that the administration has started taking measurements of land for acquisition without even conducting a survey. They say that they won’t part with their land at any cost. The protesters also say that the government is not following the law that mandates obtaining consent of at least 80 per cent landholders for acquisition.
Efforts are on to dismiss the protests by the locals as the handiwork of urban naxals. The Varanasi edition of Amar Ujala, on 15 January 2023, carried a story quoting security agencies who alleged that the Khiria Bagh movement was being run at the behest of and with the help of urban naxals, and that these elements were active in Benaras. The story said that the security agencies pegged the number of such “naxals” at 130 and believed that they had infiltrated into the Benaras Hindu University.
Earlier, on 21 November 2022, Dinesh Lal Nirhua, the BJP MP from Azamgarh, had termed the Khiria Bagh protesters as “manbadhu” (audacious or brash in the Awadhi dialect), adding that if Azamgarh had to progress, “manbadhi” would have to end. Threatening the agitators, he said that there were only two ways to end “manbadhi” – either send them to jail or “seedhe upar” (straight up). In Benaras and the rest of eastern Uttar Pradesh, sending someone “seedhe upar” means murdering them. Continuing with his call for violence, he said that the limbs of the “manbadhis” must be broken.
Aborted attempt to abduct the movement’s leader
Even as the protest was underway, on 2 February 2023, an attempt was made to abduct Rajiv Yadav, the leader of the movement. When Rajiv, along with Virendra Yadav, was returning from the third round of talks with the district magistrate, two motorcyclists stopped them near Bhanwar Nath at about 2.45 pm, and tried to abduct Yadav. According to Yadav, the bike riders were armed.
Earlier, on 24 December, Rajiv Yadav and lawyer Vinod Yadav were taken into custody by the STF (Crime branch) of the Uttar Pradesh police in Benaras and beaten up.
Question marks on the administration
Rajiv Yadav says that the main issue was the surveys being carried out. The administration conducted two surveys. The second survey was in contravention of the provisions of the Land Acquisition Act. When asked about it, the administration had no answer. The administration started collecting affidavits from the people while the acquisition was still only being considered by the government. Now, the administration is saying that the first survey should be ignored. Yadav says that the district magistrate flew off the handle when asked why.
Midnight police swoop
There are more instances of high-handedness by the administration. On the midnight of 13 October 2022, a survey team led by Ratan Singh, the Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) of Sagri Tehsil, reached Jamua Hariram. He was accompanied by two trucks carrying personnel of the Uttar Pradesh police and employees of the Tehsil office. The team wanted to take possession of land. The villagers protested when the administration began a survey in the dead of the night without prior notice. Their protest was met with threats that they would be booked under the National Security Act (NSA) and they were roughed up by the police.
Ram Nayan Yadav of Hasanpura village, who is the convener of the Zameen Makaan Bachao Samyukta Morcha, says that the SDM and those accompanying him first threatened the villagers, and then abused them and eventually started beating them up. They misbehaved with women and children. The villagers were thrashed by the personnel of the Uttar Pradesh Police and the Provincial Armed Constabulary. Many women, including Savitri and Sunita Bharti, were also thrashed.
Joint front of all castes
Sunita Bharti of Jamua village says that all the eight villages in question are densely populated, and asks where the inhabitants will go if they are evicted – Jamua alone has 4,000 houses. She says that people from all castes have made common cause in saving their land. The land owners include Thakurs, Brahmins, Bhumihars, Chamars, Nishads, Yadavs and Paswans, and none of them wants to part with their land.
Recalling that 25 years ago, he had launched an agitation demanding homes for the homeless, Ram Nayan Yadav says that at the time, the government had said that it didn’t have land to settle the homeless. Now, he says, the government wants to uproot 40,000 people. “Where will we go? Where is the land for rehabilitating us?” he asks.
(Translated from the original Hindi by Amrish Herdenia)
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