Why is anybody surprised about the enduring trouble the country has faced with land acquisition? After all, the republic itself, in a manner of speaking, was built on land acquired controversially.

At the Delhi Durbar of 1911 King George V made a startling declaration. His words, widely reported since, were: “We are pleased to announce to our people that… we have decided upon the transfer of the seat of the government of India from Calcutta to the ancient capital of Delhi…"

Chaos, of course, would ensue, with officers, government staff and their families rushing from Calcutta to Delhi, a city then poorly equipped to become an imperial capital. The lucky ones packed into homes in the Civil Lines area, while many had to make do with tents that had been erected for the Durbar.

In general there appears to have been little official appreciation of the challenge facing the Indian government. Lord Hardinge, the Viceroy, expected to complete the construction of the new capital in four years. It took 20.

The King later chilled off to Nepal for a hunting trip during which he reportedly shot 21 tigers, eight rhinoceroses and a bear.

Far away in London, parliamentarians appear to have been more concerned with the second, seemingly mundane, part of King George’s declaration where he announced “the creation at as early a date as possible of a Governorship for the Presidency of Bengal, of a new Lieutenant-Governorship in Council for Behar, Chota Nagpur, and Orissa; and, finally, of a chief Commissionership of Assam…"

In the days that followed preparations for the design and construction of this new capital kicked off with urgency. A site for the new Government House was chosen in the southern side of Delhi and was shown to the Viceroy, who was not pleased. Lord Hardinge later wrote: “It would be hot; it had no views; and it had no room for expansion…"

So he mounted his horse and galloped over to a nearby hill. “From the top of the hill there was a magnificent view embracing old Delhi and all the principal monuments situated outside the town, with the river Jumna winding its way like a silver streak…"

The hill, near the village of Raisina, would become the epicentre of the new capital. By October 1912 the government initiated the legal process to acquire land. The first plots, required for the construction of what would be called Rashtrapati Bhavan, amounted to 4,000 acres.

This land straddled a number of villages, most famous of which are Raisina and Malcha, names enshrined in the topography of New Delhi, but whose provenance is frequently overlooked. Villagers, in no way consulted during this process, were informed that their lands would be taken away.

According to a splendid telling of this story by Arpit Parashar in the July 2012 issue of Fountain Ink magazine, the farmers in the region refused to take this sitting down. The British, trying to fend off trouble, asked them for a price. The farmers, Parashar writes, asked for 2,400 per acre for fertile land, and 1,920 per acre for arid.

After due consideration the British reverted with a non-negotiable counter-offer: 35 for good land, and 15 for bad. The farmers were not amused.

Oral histories suggest that the farmers of Raisina and Malcha were planning an armed stand when they were attacked by the government forces. Malcha was sacked. Several farmers were killed, and numerous families fled. Only a handful of the 300 families in the area ever claimed their compensation. Most simply fled and settled in villages elsewhere, such as Nai Nangla in Mewat district.

Construction thus resumed and the seat of the Indian government was built on land acquired in exceedingly dubious circumstances.

Thus things stood until 2004 when a descendant of one of the farmers made a startling discovery: the British had actually paid up the merger compensation to many of the families that had fled. The amounts, never withdrawn, were deposited at the Bank of Bengal.

There was just one problem—over the years many of the archives of the Bank of Bengal, which later became the State Bank of India, were lost.

What followed is unsurprising: Right to information applications and legal cases.

Under the terms of the Land Acquisition Act of 2013: “If an award has been passed five years or earlier and compensation has not been taken or physical possession has not been taken, the land acquisition proceedings shall be deemed to have lapsed."

In March The New Indian Express reported that the Delhi high court had “issued notices to Lieutenant Governor of Delhi Najeeb Jung, the Land and Building Department and the Ministry of Urban Development, seeking an explanation why this deal should not be declared null and void."

It seems unlikely that the government will simply hand Raisina Hill back to the farmers of Malcha. So some sort of arrangement will be forthcoming.

If you were a believer in the supernatural you would be forgiven for thinking that as long as Raisina Hill stands on ill-gotten, un-compensated land, the Republic will never solve its land acquisition troubles.

What if… there is a curse of Malcha?

Every week, Déjà View scours historical research and archives to make sense of current news and affairs.

Comment at views@livemint.com. To read Sidin Vadukut’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/dejaview

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