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The Mavlas of Mulshi: Displacement's earliest victims

Anosh Malekar

In June 1919, the farmers of Mulshi near Pune, Maharashtra, were served notices for the acquisition of their lands to construct a dam. A satyagraha led by Senapati Bapat was launched. Close on a century later, the descendants of what is arguably the oldest development-displaced community in India are still hoping for compensation

Historically, Mulshi in Pune district in the western Indian state of Maharashtra was part of the Bara Mavals (12 Mavals), which simply meant 'the west'. The area has been called this since the 16th century; the name is derived from the Marathi verb mavalane -- 'the setting of the sun, or end of the day'. Today, for Pune or Mumbai city-dwellers, the Maval belt, about 25 miles wide and 70 miles long north to south, and barely an hour's drive from Pune or Lonavala, means much more than the land of the setting sun.

The Bara Mavals are narrow fertile river valleys enclosed between the many spurs that run east from the summit crest of the biodiversity-rich Western Ghats to end just short of Pune city. It's the perfect getaway to nature, with a glimpse into the region's history. It was here that Shivaji first established the powerbase of the Maratha kingdom and the locals, hardy mountain people, who formed his guerrilla force and raiding parties came to be known as Mavlas.

The Mavlas from Mulshi take great pride in narrating past battles fought with the Deccan sultanates and the Mughals. But talk of their present status and the men seem to cower -- they know here they are fighting a losing battle. The one thing the Mavlas fear most is the prospect of being dispossessed from their ancestral land.

"The fear dates back nearly 100 years when the British and the Tatas drove away our ancestors from the villages with little except the clothes they wore. They took refuge in the nearby forests," says 52-year-old Baban Gopal Owhal, a second-generation displaced person from the resettled Barpe Budruk village located upstream of Mulshi dam.

This major dam is also known as the Tata dam as it was constructed by the Tata Power Company for irrigation as well as hydroelectric power supplied mostly to the city of Mumbai.

The Mulshi Mavlas' saga of displacement began in 1918 when the Tatas, with the support of the British government, began implementing their ambitious plan at the confluence of the Nila and Mula rivers at Mulshi Peta. Some 10,000 peasants had to move out and farmers had to give up land that would be submerged.

"I remember my grandfather narrating how the British officers ordered boiling water to be thrown on the hundreds of peasants who were protesting at the dam site," says Owhal.

While most of the displaced people later migrated to Pune and Mumbai to eke out a living as cheap labour, there are still around 1,000 individuals hoping for rehabilitation and payment of compensation -- descendants of those displaced by the construction of six dams by the Tata Power Company in the valleys, since divided into Maval and Mulshi tehsils. The six dams are at Walvan, Bhushi, Shirwata, Somwadi, Thokalwadi and Mulshi Peta.

Leading an agitation under the Tata Dharangrastha Kruti Samiti (Tata dam-affected action committee) banner, activist Medha Patkar, in May 2007, described their case as "the oldest case of forcible land acquisition in the history of the country".

The problem of these 1,000-odd individuals is unique because most of them were tenants tilling the land in the absence of landlords at the time of displacement. "When compensation was paid by the Tatas through the government, it went into the pockets of the absentee landlords while the tenants got displaced from the land on which they subsisted. Unfortunately, the law did not recognise the tenant's rights then," says Lonavala-based activist Rajaram Sable.

Sable claims that, in some cases, land that was outside the ambit of the accord between the Tatas and the then Bombay government was taken away; the 7/12 extracts still carry the names of the people originally displaced and so should be restored to their descendants.

However, it is difficult to prove the number of such cases in the absence of verifiable documentary evidence. Pune district collector Prabhakar Deshmukh says verification of the descendants' claims can be done only after they file individual applications, backed by 7/12 extracts, with the tehsildars.

On January 1, 2008, Deshmukh says, Mulshi was a private dam with contracts dating back to pre-Independence times. "The Tatas, through the government, paid compensation but there are still some claims being made by the descendants, which we are looking into. However, there was no provision for rehabilitation of persons affected by projects prior to the enactment of the Maharashtra Resettlement of Project-Displaced Persons Act, 1976," he explains.

The fact remains however that this was indeed a case of forced land acquisition. Historian Y D Phadke, in his book Senapati Bapat, Portrait of a Revolutionary, writes: "In June 1919, the farmers in Mulshi Peta were served with notices under Section 4 of the Land Acquisition Act but they refused to surrender their land. They were not willing to accept compensation for their submerged land. Neither were they attracted by the promise of the company which offered to employ them while the dam was under construction."

Phadke mentions how even before the land was legally acquired, the Tatas were allowed to commence their operations, affecting around 54 villages: "Once, an angry farmer prevented Mr White, an officer of the company, from doing his work. Mr White pulled out a revolver from his pocket and threatened to use it."

A satyagraha was launched on April 16, 1921, under the leadership of Senapati Bapat. Hundreds of Mavla peasants marched in procession towards the site of the proposed dam, holding a traditional saffron-coloured flag. The officers of the company decided to throw hot water to disperse them, but the satyagrahis refused to budge.

On June 22, 1921, Bapat and his associates removed the rails being laid by the company as part of the project. They were held guilty by the court and, on October 19, 1921, sentenced to six months simple imprisonment.

Meanwhile, the text of the government's agreement with the Tatas was published in the newspapers, according to which Rs 500 per acre was to be paid to each farmer whose land had been acquired for public purposes. "The moneylenders in Mulshi Peta were in favour of accepting this offer and completely lost interest in continuation of the satyagraha... The Tata company opened a special office to promptly pay the compensation to every farmer," says Phadke in his book.

Bapat continued the struggle after his release from jail and, on December 9, 1924, he and his associates tried to prevent the movement of a train that carried workers of the company from Chinchwad. Bapat fired a revolver and injured the train driver leading to his re-arrest and the imposition of seven years rigorous imprisonment. The Mulshi satyagraha died a natural death.

Phadke says in his book: "It would be wrong to ignore or belittle its significance. For the first time, peasants peacefully resisted the formidable combination of the Indian capitalists who controlled the Tata company, the Western capitalists who controlled the railway companies and the British rulers of India. That it failed to achieve its objectives was not a matter of surprise."

After his release, Bapat addressed a public meeting in Pune on May 27, 1931, praising the excellent work done by the engineers. However, with tears in his eyes and his voice choked with emotion, he reminded the audience of the fate of the hundreds of poor farmers whose land had been submerged and who had had to leave their villages. He stressed that industrial development should not be achieved at the cost of poor farmers, and that the problem of rehabilitation of displaced farmers was equally important.

Acknowledging Bapat's contribution in organising the country's first peaceful resistance to displacement, Baba Adhav, general secretary of the Maharashtra Rajya Dharan Prakalp Grahasta Shetkari Parishad and a prominent social activist based in Pune, says: "Rehabilitation cannot be a matter of choice. Even if we accept that there was no concept of rehabilitation in the British era, what is stopping the Indian government from making amends in case of the Mulshi dam oustees? We have been demanding a national rehabilitation law that covers all the displaced in this country before or after Independence."

Regarding the district administration's defence that the peasants of Mulshi did not have proper land records to back their claims, Adhav demands that the revenue, irrigation and forest officials take the initiative to settle their claims. "Land records in Mulshi are a subject for serious research with all kinds of land deals happening in the past. Fortunately, the peasants are on the electoral rolls and hence cannot be done away with lock, stock and barrel by the administration," he adds.

"If we do not resist the government's moves, the Mavlas of Mulshi will be forced to leave the valley in the near future," says Adhav, referring to controversial land deals being struck by people with money, including film stars from Mumbai and Pune, in the Mulshi and Maval areas. This land grab, most of which is happening through benami deals, has only accelerated the longstanding crisis faced by the already displaced peasants of Mulshi and the surrounding areas, he says.

Adhav's fears are confirmed by the farmers. "We will be wiped out of this valley except for a lucky few doing odd jobs for the 'Party'. The sun will set on Mulshi in 10-12 years, never to rise again," says Chintamani Rambhau More, a septuagenarian peasant from Tiskari gram panchayat.

The 'Party' More is referring to constitute the rich and famous from Mumbai and Pune. They are commonly referred to as the "Party" by the Mulshi peasants who admit being lured by the wads of notes held out to them in exchange for their fertile lands.

More sold 13 acres near his village, Barpe Budruk, to actor Alok Nath around 18 years ago. "I sold it for Rs 8,000 an acre and am left with 2.5 acres now. My son is employed with Sahara's Amby Valley as a security guard and my grandson drives a private taxi mostly hired by the 'Party'. Both do not want to till the land due to the poor returns," he says.

Life is tough for the 1.30 lakh populace in Mulshi taluka. The villagers say their area remains what it was when the British left. "The roads arrived with big projects like Amby Valley, but we hardly benefit from them. Our villages still lack proper approach roads," says Ranu Dhondu Khanekar from Vandre village.

What's more, roads are no longer the practical solution with the Mulshi reservoir virtually cutting off some villages while requiring the inhabitants of others to cover longer distances, especially during the monsoons. "Though the Tatas have provided launches, the zilla parishad-appointed launch operators are not regular. We have a difficult time, especially when medical emergencies occur," says Laxman Bapu Kadam of Barpe Budruk.

In keeping with the terms of their contract with the government for the dam project, the Tatas continue to contribute to education, healthcare, roads, water supply, transport and other civic amenities for the affected villages.

However, a visit to half-a-dozen affected villages reveals that maintenance by the zilla parishad administration leaves a lot to be desired -- very few schemes for water supply were operational, the only primary health centre for the 52 relocated villages was some distance away, at Ambawane village, while secondary school education facilities existed in only two villages, Male and Pomgaon.

Despite heavy rains and a huge water reservoir, the peasants of Mulshi remain subsistence paddy farmers. After nearly two decades of selling their lands cheap, their individual holdings have been reduced to barely two-five acres. The 'Party' is eyeing this too, offering Rs 3-4 lakh an acre, they say.

Deshmukh refuses to comment on the land grab, saying, "it is not possible without the consent, in whatever form, of the original land title holder". District officials routinely dismiss such allegations as frustration on the part of the farmers at having sold off their land at low prices, following which real estate rates have skyrocketed.

Deshmukh claims, in fact, that the district administration was involved in spreading awareness among the peasants about the importance of proper land records and other official documents like ration cards and caste certificates. These measures may have been a little too late to benefit the Mulshi Mavlas.

As Maruti Ramji Shinde, an elderly peasant from Vandre village, puts it: "How long can poor, illiterate peasants resist the temptation of money? Besides, there is always a marriage or a medical emergency in the household. Ultimately we will end up selling every inch of our land and migrating to the cities to earn a living."

InfoChange News & Features, July 2008