Indian farmers and activists take part in an anti-nuclear protest at Jaspara-Mithi Virdi village in Bhavnagar, 260km from Ahmedabad, in March 2013. The protest was held to oppose a 6,000 MW nuclear plant proposed at the coastal site. The current protest is against a lignite power plant planned on the same land. Photo: AFP/ Sam Panthaky

More than 5,000 people have been protesting for about a month in the Indian state of Gujarat over the acquisition of land by the state power utility – saying they want permission from the authorities to die.

Narendrasinh Gohil, the protest leader and a member of Gujarat Khedut Samaj, an organisation fighting for farmer’s rights, said: “A total of 5,259 people, comprising farmers and their family members from 12 affected villages, have sought “icchha mrityu” (the right to die) as the land they cultivate is being forcibly snatched by the state government and Gujarat Power Corporation Ltd or GPCL.”

He said that letters, signed by the affected farmers and their kin, have been sent to the president, the prime minister, plus the chief minister of Gujarat. Indeed, Bhavnagar district collector Harshad Patel has confirmed that letters have been received from the farmers seeking ‘right to die’.

2013 law ‘annuls buy-up of land in late 90s’

The Gujarat Power Corporation (GPCL) acquired 3,377 acres of farmland from 1,250 farmers about 20 years ago. Although the land was acquired in the late 90s, the farmers allege that the land was still held by the people cultivating it. Hence, “as per the Land Acquisition Act, 2013, a company cannot take possession of a piece of land which it acquired more than five years ago. To possess such land, it would have to initiate the process of acquisition afresh,” Gohil said.

In a press conference earlier this month, the district collector Patel said: “GPCL and Bhavnagar Electricity Corporation Ltd (BECL) are government companies and the lignite proposed to be mined from the said site is to be used by a BECL plant for generating electricity… So, the projects are for the larger public good and they will also generate employment opportunities.

“So far as the issue of land is concerned, GPCL had done demarcation, prepared a map and thus had already taken possession of the land. It was only that the company allowed some people to continue to stay on the land till the time the actual mining activity started. But this does not mean it had not claimed possession of land,” he said.

Meanwhile, the farmers have also accused state government officials of manhandling them. “On two occasions, the police have fired teargas on a peaceful gathering of farmers. We are being threatened and bullied by the government,” Gohil alleged. The district administration had also imposed section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which prohibits unlawful assembly, in 12 villages for over a month.

“GPCL and Gujarat government want to usurp our land, despite the land legally belonging to the farmers. What shall we do in such a situation? If we do not have cultivable land, we shall be as good as dead,” the farmers’ letter says.

‘So, my last wish is to be killed’

“We wish for this because we have been made to feel like terrorists by the authorities. So my last wish is to be killed at the hands of the army.”

The farmers also filed a petition earlier in the Gujarat High Court under section 24 (2) of the Land Acquisition Act-2013. A leading Gujarat High Court lawyer Anand Yagnik said, “The High Court has completed the hearing but not passed the order, as the Supreme Court recently asked courts not to pass an order until inconsistent judgments in matters are settled by its constitutional bench. No interim relief was granted to us in the matter,” according to a report in The Hindu.

Meanwhile, Hardik Patel, leader of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (a group set up to help the ethnic Patidars), said: “I feel the farmers’ pain and promise to fight for justice. It’s a shameful situation when farmers decide to end their lives after losing their farming land.” He will visit the farmers in Bhavnagar on Thursday to decide the next plan of action, the Ahmedabad Mirror reported.

A delegation from Congress, the opposition party, also met with the farmers on Monday and were due to meet them again on Wednesday. “The BJP-ruled state government is working in the interests of companies rather than farmers. They have committed atrocities on them earlier, so the farmers are compelled to take the extreme step,” Gujarat Pradesh Congress committee president Amit Chavda said.