Several thousand acres of land belonging to poor tribal farmers in Sonebhadra were usurped by land mafia in an unholy nexus with bureaucrats. Wednesday's carnage in Sonebhadra's Ghorawal tehsil, in which 10 tribal farmers were killed, was the outcome of one such case where revenue records were fudged by an IAS officer at the behest of the local land mafia to claim more than 600 bighas of land worth over Rs 48 crore.
An insight into the frauds committed by revenue officers in Uttar Pradesh’s tribal land reveals that Sonebhadra has of late become the most sought-after place for corrupt bureaucrats, politicians and mafia dons to buy land at throwaway prices.
Just a few hundred yards from the spot of Wednesday’s killings in Village Umbha, another big chunk of land measuring 600 bighas in village Vishambri, was usurped by senior officials of the Chakbandi department of the UP government.
“The tribals had approached me to file a case to unravel the racket. On the instructions of the court, a subsequent enquiry revealed that Chakbandi officials had fudged revenue records in which the owner of the land was shown as a dead person. When the real owner (a tribal) was produced in court, the conspiracy was unmasked resulting in an FIR registered against 27 Chakbandi officials,” said Vikas Shakya, a prominent lawyer practising in the District Court, Sonebhadra.
According to Shakya, in yet another case of fraud, records relating to 14 bighas of land on the highway (near Ultratech Cement factory) were fudged by a Kanoongo (lower rung officer of the revenue department). “The kanoongo tampered revenue records and registered the land in the name of his two sons (in backdate), who were not even born on the date of registry,” Shakya said over the phone from Sonebhadra.
In fact, officials who were supposed to enforce the Forest Rights Acts (FRA) and Survey Settlement in favour of tribals, blatantly cheated the poor farmers for years. Former BJP MP, Chote Lal Kharwar, said that behind Wednesday’s killings over a land dispute, a corrupt lobby of bureaucrats played a key role.
Kharwar identified the IAS officer (name withheld), who allegedly bribed the revenue officers and got the land in the name of his family members. The IAS officer later sold the land to Gram Pradhan Yagdutt, the prime accused in the killing of 10 tribal farmers.
The former MP said that a few months back in February 2019, Yagdutt had attempted to take forcible possession of the land from tribal farmers. However, the local administration and police slept over the complaint of the tribal farmers.
Over a hundred civil suits relating to fudged revenue records are pending in different courts of Sonebhadra. Social activist and Hindi writer Vijay Shankar Chaturvedi said one of the reasons why Maoists got a foothold in the hills of Sonebhadra was land disputes where tribals felt cheated by local officials.
“During Settlement Survey initiated by the Supreme Court in the mid-80s, fraudulent entries were made into revenue records in favour of local mafia and government officials. Instead of giving possession to tribals, as per the survey, the land was sold at throwaway prices…somewhere around Rs 1000 per bigha to bureaucrats, politicians, corporate houses and mafia dons. At present the price per bigha ranges from Rs 5 lakh to Rs 7 lakh per bigha, depending on the location of the plot,” said Chaturvedi, who has penned two books on Naxal activities in the region.
According to him, tribals have been cheated repeatedly by civil and forests officials. Successive governments had done nothing substantial in breaking the nexus of bureaucrats and land mafia.
“Let me tell you, when Pandit Nehru came here in 1954 he was spellbound by the natural beauty of Sonebhadra and had said that this place should be called the Switzerland of India. However, as years passed by, this place has now turned into a den of corruption,” said Vijay Shankar Chaturvedi.
Meanwhile, UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath assured the State Assembly that a high-level committee had been formed to probe into the revenue records and ascertain forged entries made to usurp the land of the tribals. The Chief Minister said that any bureaucrat or politician found involved in the racket would be brought to book.
The bloody clashes that left 10 persons dead in Murtiya village in Sonebhadra now seem like a scene straight out of a Bollywood film.
According to reports, the village head and the main accused in the massacre, Yagya Dutt, had brought about 200 men on 32 tractor trolleys to take possession of the disputed land.
After the tribals who were tilling the land, opposed his attempt to take possession of the land, Yagya Dutt’s men fired at them for over half-an-hour.
“They just started firing. Once people started falling to the ground, they began hitting them with lathis. It was plain horror,” said an eyewitness.
The shootout continued for nearly half-an-hour.
The eye witness said: “We did not know they had come armed with guns. When they started firing, we ran here and there to save ourselves and kept calling the police which came an hour later.”
The dispute between the villagers and the village chief pertains to a piece of 36-acre land. Initial investigation reveals that the tribals have tilled the land for generations, but they do not have its ownership titles, which they have been demanding for decades.
The main accused claimed he had bought the land 10 years ago from a prominent local family.
In 1955, a huge chunk of land, including the area covered by the village, was transferred to a cooperative society formed by a family, under a government scheme, the probe reveals.
In 1966, the scheme was abolished but the land was not returned to the government.
In 1989, the land was transferred to individuals in the same family, including the relatives of an IAS officer. This family sold a chunk of this land to the village chief in 2010.
“The tribals here have been appealing to government officers for decades. They raised an objection to the sale. This land should rightfully belong to the local gram sabha (village assembly). But no one listened to them,” said Chhote Lal, a BJP leader.
Twenty four people have been arrested so far in connection with the shootout. (IANS)