Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Of ‘Public Purpose’, ‘Beauty’ and other Absurdities: The Curious Case of the Hyderabad Golf Club

- Vasundhara Jairath

[Note: The data presented here has been tediously collected by Forum for a Better Hyderabad, a citizens group, and the local farmers’ organization, Farmers’ Coordination Committee.]

The newest golf course in Hyderabad set in the scenic surroundings of the Qutb Shahi tombs and the Golconda Fort, set up as a joint venture of the Hyderabad Golf Association (HGA) and Andhra Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation Ltd (APTDCL), has created a bit of a controversy in the city. You wonder why the Tourism Department has taken it upon itself to develop a golf course? They will tell you the project is a public purpose project. To clarify this matter, the website of the venture states: “This facility would be accessible to all civilian residents of the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad as also visiting golfers from India and abroad”. This is of course subject to paying a paltry sum of Rs. 1,50,000 for three years temporary membership catered primarily for Non Resident Indians or Rs. 7.5 lakhs for associate membership. Add to that the criteria of knowing how to play golf. 

This article tells the tale of how the Government of Andhra Pradesh surpasses all records of arbitrariness in interpreting the phrase ‘public purpose’. However, let this not be seen as absolving the private party – HGA – of all its sins. It is common strategy to have the State do the dirty work while the private party stands apart, hands in the air, claiming innocence. 

The baffling arbitrariness of the case of the Golf Course begins right from Day 1. A government order (G.O. Ms. No. 806 Revenue (L.A.) Department) dated 21.10.1998 identified 52 acres of land within Naya Qila, a part of the Golconda Fort that was added to the original structure by Abdullah Qutb Shah and was completed in 1629, for acquisition for a public purpose – “development as a tourist spot with Birds Sanctuary”. The local farmers that cultivate the 52 acres of land under question will tell you that the wetlands in this part of the city were once home to migrant birds. A process of land acquisition was initiated the following year and land was acquired as per the urgency clause of Section 17 of the Land Acquistion Act 1 of 1894 (LAA 1894), “in view of the urgency of the case”. Accordingly, Section 5A of LAA 1894 that has a provision for accepting objections to the process of land acquisition remains nullified. It may be noted here that the emergency clause in question had been placed by the British in anticipation of situations such as this, as quoted in the law itself: “Whenever, owing to any sudden change in the channel of any navigable river or other unforeseen emergency, it becomes necessary for any Railway Administration to acquire the immediate possession of any land for the maintenance of their traffic or for the purpose of making thereon a river-side or ghat station, or of providing convenient connection with or accesses to any such station, [or the appropriate Government considers it necessary to acquire the immediate possession of any land for the purpose of maintaining any structure or system pertaining to irrigation, water supply, drainage, road communication or electricity] the Collector may immediately…enter upon and take possession of such land”. However, the urgency of the case of developing Naya Qila as a tourist spot with a Birds Sanctuary leaves much to the imagination of the citizen. 

Notifications were sent to farmers on 6.6.1999 to hand over their lands to the Revenue Development Officer (RDO) by 17.6.1999. However, despite the supposed urgency of the need for a Birds Sanctuary, the proceedings of a meeting held between state officials and representatives of the farmers on 28.3.2006 recounts, 

“The MD, AP Tourism on 18-12-1998 has made requisition for acquisition for 52 acres of land in Qila Mohammad Nagar village of Golconda mandal for development of Tourism spot and Birds Sanctuary. Subsequently Tourism Department decided to set up Golf Course. Land Acquisition proceedings were initiated and possession was handed over to AP Tourism department on 17-6-1999.” 

That is all the explanation deemed necessary it seems. 

The arbitrary and high-handedness of state officials in invoking the emergency clause for a Bird Sanctuary and then changing the purpose for which the land was in fact acquired screams out loud in this case. But even more outrageous is the arrogance of the state government in deeming the golf course a public purpose project, even while it has not been gazetted as such. The APTDCL has used the same public purpose project status to engage in several construction activities otherwise prohibited in the case of protected areas of heritage monuments, the Golconda Fort falling within this category. The Birds Sanctuary seems to have been used solely for the purpose of acquiring land under the Land Acquisition Act, only reaffirming the implausibility of deeming a golf course a public purpose project. Instead, once the land was officially ‘acquired’, state officials decided simply to change the purpose of land use, a far murkier and ambiguous legal arena. 

This case is relevant in the context of the current debate around the new proposed Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, 2011 on how far the phrase public purpose can be stretched. The simple fact of the Golf Course being a joint venture between a State Department – the APTDCL – and a private party – the HGA – does not make it a public good or a public service. It is in fact the first of its kind – a State Department engaging in private business in its official capacity! After clean air to breathe, clean drinking water, roads and electricity, the Andhra Pradesh state government would have us believe that golf, and related tourism attraction, is the next to join the list of public goods. If we could call every project that is in principle open to all, but excludes simply on the basis of the cost of its services, a public purpose project, then a Nike or Reebok showroom would well qualify as a public purpose project as well. Put one of those showrooms in a heritage building and the AP Tourism Department has another tourist centre to develop. 

The 52 acres of land under question in the case of the golf course is agricultural land that was allotted to families around 250 years ago by the Nizam’s government and in 1951 following police action and annexation of Hyderabad by the Indian state, the descendents of these families were given titles to their pattas. These farmers are constituted primarily by Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe households along with 3-4 Muslim households. Farmers cultivated 2 crops of paddy on these lands from the water that flowed in from Jamalikunta, a historical water body, through water channels that are as old. However, Jamalikunta had also become one of Hyderabad’s largest garbage dumping ground receiving the wastes of both Hyderabad and Secunderabad. The first phase of the golf course was set up at this dumping site in 1992. The method employed to clean up the area was through a private golf course project that has also reduced the historical water body to a little over a puddle. The HGA has placed a drainage pipe at a height lower than the original provision for diverting excess water so that the water level of Jamalikunta will always remain low and as per the requirements of the golf course. Consequently the farmers who were happy to no longer be living with the stench of the land fill, also had their water supply for their double-crop paddy cultivation cut-off, and have since shifted to cultivating grass that feeds cattle. The serious loss and impact on the livelihoods of farmers in the pursuit of beauty has gone completely unacknowledged by HGA as well as state authorities. Moreover, ‘beautification’ of the water body seems to have a rather odd connotation for them that involved filling up the water body with mud and grassing the resultant land. Alas, beauty was achieved, but we lost the water body. 

JCB Machines leveling the blasted rock outside the moat wall of Naya Qila

In the year 2000 in the said land acquisition case, awards were passed in 54 cases and compensation for the lands acquired was set at Rs. 80,000 per acre. At this point, thumb impressions were taken from the farmers, most of whom are illiterate, and their land documents taken from them. The compensation was, therefore, not only offered a year later, but even its exact amount was decided a year after the land had been ‘acquired’. However, the abysmally low compensation for urban fertile land was not acceptable to the farmers who have since retained possession of their lands and continue, to this date, to cultivate grass on it. The state government for its part claims the compensation has been paid as the amount has been transferred to the state treasury, even while it has not been claimed, and consider the land state land. 

On 18 December 2001, 212 acres of land, including the above mentioned 52 acres, were handed over to the APTDCL by government orders for the purpose of setting up a golf course and on 6 February 2002 a Deed of License was entered into between the APTDCL, as licensor, and HGA, as licensee. It is clear that the first 9-hole course that was built over the garbage dumping site did not require such an agreement with State authorities since it did not involve acquisition of private agricultural land or of access to the heritage monument. The Deed of License has, therefore, been necessary in order for the HGA to get free and unencumbered access to these spaces. In order for that to be done, the government acquired land for an allegedly public purpose and simply changed the purpose once ‘acquired’. 

Through the years 2004 and 2005 the local farmers’ organization, Farmers’ Coordination Committee appealed to various authorities including the Chief Minister of AP and the Chief Justice of India to intervene in the matter and demanded that they either be paid market rate as compensation that was far higher than the meager Rs. 80,000 per acre being offered, or the land be returned to them, with documents and all. Finally, in 2006 a meeting was held on 28th March between state officials led by the District Collector, Arvind Kumar, and the Farmers’ Coordination Committee. Farmers recall Arvind Kumar as a sympathetic official who was keen on resolving the matter to the satisfaction of the farmers. A decision was taken at this meeting to set up a Committee that would include state officials, people’s representatives (the local MP and MLA) and farmers’ representatives to identify alternate land that would be exchanged for the acquired land on the basis of equivalent valuation. This process was to be completed within a period of 6 months from the meeting. 

Subsequently Arvind Kumar was transferred. 

In 2008 the new District Collector, Naveen Mittal called for a meeting with the farmers, stating alternate land had been identified. The land being offered was rocky hilly land 75 km from the current location and whose government valuation was at Rs. 50,000 per acre. The offer was declined as the terms of exchange were unacceptable to the farmers as being in complete violation of the principle of equivalent valuation. However, a few farmers numbering approximately ten have decided to accept an arbitrarily higher amount and stayed away from the resistance. Most of the farmers who cultivate this land are small and marginal farmers who own 2 acres of land or less between large joint families. The same amount of land is now divided amongst larger families as generations pass. This increased pressure on land combined with the shift from paddy cultivation to grass cultivation has together made life precarious for the farmers. Fahim Khan of Qila Mohammad Nagar is the oldest of 3 brothers, two of whom are married with one child each. Their father having died while they were still young, they are uneducated and have worked on the land since they were children. Together the brothers cultivate grass and make approximately 4-500 rupees a day between the three of them. This money then has to support not only their mother and their families, but also the families of two sisters, one of whom is a widow. In such a situation while it may be surprising for some to see these farmers continue to fight for land that gives such small returns, it is the unfair exchange being proposed by the state that they are opposing. This land has provided for several generations and forms their primary source of livelihood. The undervalued monetary compensation being offered by the State does not recognize the destruction of their source of livelihood and therefore, does not take any responsibility for assuring an alternative source of livelihood, having once acquired the land. 

In 2008, another process challenging the credibility of the golf course project began when the heritage monument that is only the second most iconic monument of Hyderabad after Charminar – the Golconda Fort – was under siege in an attempt to ‘beautify’ it. APTDCL and HGA claim they are protecting the monument from encroachments and developing it as a tourist attraction. However, while the golf course that is beautifully grassed with large quantities of water (that has reduced availability of water to farmers even for grass cultivation now) is soothing to the eyes, a section of the moat wall of Naya Qila seems to have hindered the HGA’s pursuit of beauty. And so they decided to blast the wall. Article 19(1) of the Ancient and Historical Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958 (from hereon the Historical Monuments Act) prohibits any person, including the owner or occupier of a protected area, from construction of any buildings and from carrying on any excavating and blasting activities within the protected area without the permission of the Central Government. The APTDCL and HGA claim the blasting had been carried out by Hyderabad Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (HMWS&SB) for laying piplines. However, a report dated 13.11.08 of Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Hyderabad states that the HGA were making an under-passage from the existing golf course to Naya Qila near the exit way and had cut a portion of the moat wall (10’x10’) over which the road was laid for creating the under passage for players to enter the Naya Qila without crossing the road. On being approached by Forum for a Better Hyderabad (FBH) and People’s Union for Civic Action and Rights (PUCAAR) the Andhra Pradesh High Court ordered the ASI, Hyderabad to restore the moat wall within 15 days. However, this was done with much delay and dilatory tactics and resistance by HGA. More so, the ‘restoration’ was done faultily as the inside remains hollow and the original material was thrown away. One begins to wonder whether the attempt has been to beautify the fort through the medium of a golf course, or to beautify the golf course using the attractive heritage monuments as a backdrop, thereby appropriating the public heritage monument for the private access and viewing of members of the Golf Club and adjusted to their own convenience. In fact, the AP Youth Advancement, Tourism and Culture Department (YAT&C) and HGA have often stated that the golf course with all with its international standards and scenic backdrop, and not the Naya Qila, will be a great tourist attraction. 

In 2001, ASI, New Delhi gave a letter of conditional consent to APTDCL for setting up the golf course inside the Naya Qila subject to meeting eight conditions (letter no. F. No. 26/16/98-M dated 29.11.2001). However, as a booklet brought out by Forum for a Better Hyderabad reminds us, this was no letter of permission. APTDCL, however, decided to go ahead with the project. The second of the eight conditions states: “The existing access of the public to the monument including the presently unused mosques, viz., Mullah Khayali and Mustafa Khan will continue as before”. However, during my visit to the Naya Qila on 15 June 2012, I could see a gate had been fixed on the path to Mustafa Khan mosque which was kept shut and we were told by a private guard of HGA that entry was not allowed. The fourth condition of the letter states: “the golf course will develop along the existing contours of the land”. During the same visit, while we sat in the shade near the main gate of Naya Qila discussing the issue of land acquisition, a truck filled up to the brim with mud drove past us. Later when we did push our way through the inner gate to visit Mustafa Khan mosque, visibly flattened land and dumped mud right by the mosque caught our eye. The violations are endless. However, none of these would be possible without the knowing compliance of State authorities. Local farmers as well as civil society organisations have repeatedly informed APTDCL and ASI, Hyderabad of violations but these complaints have fallen on deaf ears. The eighth condition of the letter states: “The complete layout of the golf course both within the Fort walls and outside should be submitted to the ASI for its approval”. Seven years after the letter from ASI, New Delhi, HGA submitted a draft Memorandum of Understanding on 27.9.2008 forwarded through ASI, Hyderabad to ASI, New Delhi without the layout of the golf course. Next to condition number eight ASI, Hyderabad signed “no comments”. 

The Hyderabad Golf Club has also built a modern clubhouse which, as per Google maps, falls within 100 meters of the Fort walls that constitutes the protected area of the monument. In a rare case where a law has provisions for action in the case of contravention of that law, Article 19(2) of the Historical Monuments Act states that in such case as construction takes place in contravention of sub-section (1) [mentioned above] the said construction “shall be removed within a specified period and, if the person refuses or fails to comply with the order the Collector may cause the building to be removed and the person shall be liable to pay the cost of such removal.” However, no such action has been taken as yet. 

In an attempt at bulldozing their way ahead, in June 2012 State officials closed the main gates of Naya Qila after bringing in large machines that were gearing up to destroy the farmers’ crop. When farmers gathered at the gate to protest, demanding to see the orders for such an activity, the RDO retorted they were not obliged to present any such orders. An enraged as well as helpless Fahim Khan, whose only source of livelihood was the land that was about to be snatched from him, attempted self-immolation at the site, but was prevented from doing so by fellow companions and family members. It was only after that that the gates were reopened and farmers returned access to their lands. However, again in July 2012, the offensive began when JCB machines were brought in on to farmers’ lands with no prior notification to the farmers, to begin digging of their lands under police protection. The state government sees no reason to present any notification to the farmers as they claim the land belongs to the State. The premise under which this time ASI, Hyderabad has itself directed the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) to carry out this digging is of ‘water logging’ that they claim is taking place within the Fort walls, causing potential danger to historical monuments. In yet another perversion of logic, ‘water logging’ here is a reference to the Naya Qila talab, an established historical water body! Moreover, under the pretext of this order from ASI, Hyderabad, digging work is also being carried out in other parts of the Naya Qila besides the area in and around the talab. 

The case of the Hyderabad Golf Club and the umpteen violations that have been committed in its establishment is telling in the way it has bulldozed its way to appropriate both public and private resources forcibly for their private consumption. The violations and deceit that has been recorded here is not even exhaustive. Not only is it an attempt to monopolise the resources of the city for itself – its water and its heritage monuments – but it is also an attempt to grab the limited resources of poor farmers. And all so that the rich can play golf in the stunning backdrop of the Golconda Fort and the Qutb Shahi Tombs. The rhetoric of protection smacks of arrogance of the affluent that believes that in order to protect something, we must protect it from the poor. Only the rich can protect and the poor can encroach, they tell us. However, ancient water channels have remained intact and ‘protected’ for the last 250 years while the farmers engaged in agriculture. Today the monument is under siege by the golf course. Contours of the land are being changed with large scale dumping of mud, construction works are taking place within and outside the Fort walls, prohibited digging activities are taking place and ancient artefacts are being dug up by contractors instead of the designated ASI, gates and fencing is being put up inside Naya Qila restricting public access to heritage structures, and all this for developing the heritage monument, they tell us. They would have us believe a golf course is the only way the Naya Qila can be protected, much in the same way the garbage dump at Jamalikunta could only be cleaned up by the golf course. Such an argument absolves the designated departments of their duties to protect and preserve the monument and its surrounding water bodies, and instead hands over the duty to a private party – a private party that is neither interested in protecting the water body nor the heritage monument, but in playing golf at ‘international standards’.

Vasundhara Jairath is an activist with New Socialist Initiative (NSI)


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