Ahmedabad: At 92, Chunibhai Vaidya’s frail figure hides an infectious and unflagging energy. Unmindful of the presence of the President of India at last year’s Jamnalal Bajaj Awards for Gandhian work, Vaidya launched into a tirade on how villagers should have a say in deciding how village resources, including land, are used. When he asked the Gujarat government to redistribute land to the landless, he was turned down. Instead, the government seemed to have all the land to give away to industry at subsidized rates, he said. 

Vaidya is the force behind several agitations against land acquisition for large projects in a state known for being industry friendly and more successful than others at acquiring land. Gujarat has been one of the fastest-growing states partly because it has been able to attract big business by giving it land at subsidised rates. It gets around the problem faced by other states by giving companies wasteland or paying farmers market rates for their land.

The state’s industry minister Saurabh Patel says that Gujarat does not procure land for private purposes, that the land it does acquire, for the state-owned industrial development company, is done with the consent of farmers, and that it pays market rates. It also only sells wasteland or grazing land because the district collector has the authority to override panchayats and acquire and sell this land. “It is between companies and farmers. The government is not involved," he says, referring to the way companies acquire land and to the failure of some companies to do so.

This approach, once seen as a rare policy solution to a vexed national problem is now meeting resistance from villagers who say either that they do not want to sell fertile farmland at any price or that wasteland being given to industry is actually a lifeline for grazing or irrigation in their village. 

So, Vaidya’s moment is now. From his spartan office, opposite Ahmedabad’s Sabarmati Ashram, he has helped villagers mount a scrappy, ingenious and non-violent battle so they can retain their land and traditional livelihoods. Some, he asks to squat on their land to block construction. Others, he asks to file a court case till he can think of something better. And still others, he asks to persevere with peaceful protests. One of his biggest victories came when the ministry of environment and forests issued a show cause notice on Saturday to washing powder maker Nirma Ltd to stop work at its proposed cement plant. Villagers, backed by Vaidya, sat at a satyagrah chavni for two years in front of the cement plant that has come up within a lake that was created by building dam walls, known as bandharas, in Bhavnagar district’s coastal village of Mahuva. The bandharas stopped fresh water from flowing into the sea and created four such lakes that now irrigate surrounding villages.

This land was sold by the government to Nirma because it was once wasteland. Now, it is a lake that has created an agricultural miracle in Mahuva. Villagers, who filed a case against the project in the Gujarat high court two years ago, say all of this will be lost if washing powder maker Nirma Ltd, which is building the plant, goes ahead and does limestone mining in the surrounding area to feed the plant. Nirma declined to comment for this story, but has refused to follow the Centre’s directive to stop work.

In a letter to the ministry, V. N. Desai, vice-president Nirma Ltd, called the show-cause notice “illegal and unjust" and said the government “could not or should not have issued it" ahead of the Supreme Court hearing on 18 March.

A lifetime of agitations

For Vaidya, the agitations are the culmination of his lifelong involvement with land rights issues, Gandhian causes and Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan movement.  Starting out as an assistant who managed correspondence at Delhi’s Gandhi Smarak Nidhi, Vaidya was looking for a way to get involved with Bhave. The opportunity came, in 1951, when Bhave started the Bhoodan movement, where he walked across the country asking landowners to donate land to the landless. Vaidya would select sentences from Bhave’s speeches, translate them into Gujarati and send them out to Gujarati newspapers. This became very popular and he later pledged to dedicate his life to such social movements, known as sarvodaya. He did not marry and now lives with his adopted daughter. For many decades, he edited the movement’s newspaper in Gujarat and its publications in Varanasi and Assam. While he broke with Bhave to oppose the emergency and spent a year in jail for writing against it, Vaidya says he has held on to his mentor’s advice to always be connected with land rights issues. “We didn’t know then that land rights issues would become so important in a very different context, now," says Prakash Shah, a journalist who was in jail with Vaidya during the emergency. 

Several years ago, Vaidya asked the state government for land to be distributed among Gujarat’s landless. The government gave 20,000 acres for 7,000 families. But he then realized some was unirrigated and there wasn’t enough for all. He asked for more land but was turned down. He points out, with obvious relish, that the government did sell large tracts of land, at subsidized rates, to companies. That is when he began to push for villagers to have a right over village land and got increasingly involved with such movements.     

Vaidya’s involvement seems to amplify the agitations. He has a gift for explaining complex ideas of development to these often illiterate villagers. His slogans, including Gaon ki zameen gaon ki, nahi kisi sarkar ki (village land belongs to the village not the government) and Lakshmi chanchal, bhoomi sanatan (money is temporary but land is forever), are now being stencilled on village walls to help farmers resist the temptation of money for their land.

For now, his mantra is working. In Surendranagar’s Wadhvan village farmers mounted a large public rally to stop the government from acquiring 3,700 acres for Gujarat Industrial Development Corp. (GIDC).

His cause, strangely enough, received some unintended support from Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi who, at a recent public meeting not far from Wadhvan asked farmers to not sell their land because their long wait for Narmada water would end soon, very seriously.  “This is our wealth," says Virsanbhai Limbod, who would have lost all of his 25-acre farm. “Will I sell it (to a company) so that my son can become a security guard on his own land?"

Vaidya says such sentiments are what keep him going. He is now trying to ratchet up the intensity of protests; he addressed public rallies in Bhavnagar and Surendranagar last week. A padyatra from Mahuva to the state capital, Gandhinagar, is underway and Vaidya and the farmers hope to meet the chief minister and other ministers to push their case.

A turning tide

Gujarat has had a relatively painless record of land acquisition so far because it has acquired wasteland without displacing villages as other states have done, says Ajay Dandekar, professor at the Institute of Rural Management, Anand. “But Central and state governments will have to look at issues of livelihood and rehabilitation even where land has been sold by mutual negotiation," he says. 

 While it treats the agitations as minor irritants, the state government drafted a new land acquisition policy, in December, following a high court judgement asking it to do so. “Some NGOs (non governmental organizations) have taken up these issues and blown them out of proportion," says Saurabh Patel. The new policy says 1% of the land acquired is to be given back to farmers for commercial use to help them earn a living, he adds.

The protesters want something else—land.

In turn, the state doesn’t seem to have much time for protesters.

Last year, when Vaidya organized a rally at Sabarmati Ashram where protesters would gather and submit a petition against the Nirma plant with 11,111 signatures in blood, more than 5,500 protesters, including Vaidya were arrested before the event.

 Having spent his life in such movements, Vaidya relishes a good fight. At the end of a hard day, he sometimes says “mazaa aa gaya," (this was fun) but this is also because he says he is convinced that he is fighting for the right cause.

The protesters do have something to show for their efforts. Villagers in Jaspara and Mithivirdi have blocked attempts to survey their land to be acquired for a nuclear plant.

In Mahuva, Nirma has not been able to buy land from farmers for limestone quarrying. In Mundra, the prolonged protest by fishermen alleging that fishing would be affected by the cutting of mangroves and construction along the coast for a large port project led to a visit by a team from the environment ministry. The ministry subsequently issued a show-cause notice to the Adani group, which is building the port, last month.

In a written response, an Adani spokesperson said, “The work carried out at Mundra port is in compliance with all the clearances. We disagree with the allegations made. Operations are normal at Mundra port."

Vaidya, who often wears two sweaters, a cap and socks in Ahmedabad’s balmy weather, says he is not against development. He believes in the Gandhian ideal that it should begin at the village level rather than be imposed by the state because that disrupts people’s lives. “Society is the owner of natural resources," he says. “The government only manages them for the people. We want political and economic decentralization at the village level."

It’s a call that has given him boundless energy to keep going. Asked if he feels the need to slow or finds it hard to manage a movement meant at his age, he says, “Never, because what I say is true."

After his fiery acceptance speech at the Jamnalal Bajaj Awards his friends say they now tease him about his spirit. “We use a Gujarati phrase, Ladh, nai te ladhnaar (fight, or find me someone to fight) and he laughs," says Hasmukh Patel, an old associate.