On 21 July 2012, around 2,000 angry farmers blocked National Highway 8 at the village of Asalwas in Haryana, fifty kilometers south-east of Gurgaon. They were protesting the government’s decision to acquire 3,300 acres of land in twenty-one villages in the surrounding areas to develop the Western Corridor, a highway project linking Delhi to Mumbai. When the district administration didn’t respond by the 1 pm ultimatum they had been given, the protests erupted into violence, with the farmers torching buses and other vehicles, and a police post. Police charged with lathis and opened fire to disperse them. In retaliation, the farmers briefly held eight policemen captive. Five farmers were arrested and at least sixty people were seriously injured that day.
When Haryana’s chief minister, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, finally invited them for talks that evening, the farmers chose as their representative Yogendra Yadav, an activist with roots in the Rewari region. The talks continued for more than five hours in Haryana Bhawan in Delhi, with Yadav frequently emerging to consult the farmers who had accompanied him. At around 9 pm, the farmers called off the blockade after Hooda assured them that the land would only be acquired after the passage of a new Land Acquisition Bill, intended to ensure fair compensation, rehabilitation and resettlement.
Yadav has been involved in similar protests over land use in the region, in the Rojka Meo village in Mewat in 2011, and other villages, including Gadholi Khurd and Narsinghpur, in 2013. Earlier this year, when Yadav began campaigning from the Gurgaon constituency in his latest avatar, as a leader of the Aam Aadmi Party, the issue found a significant place in his manifesto. He vowed to dismantle the nexus between builders and politicians and end the “builder raj.” “The biggest problem of Haryana is land being brokered away,” he said during his campaign. “The game is to take the land from the farmers and gift it away to the big businessmen and capitalists. It feels like the government is not for the common man but it is being run by the builders, for the builders.”
Yadav’s decision to highlight the issue of land use is significant in a region where a wide cross-section of the population has been adversely affected by the corrupt nexus between politicians and builders. When I met him on 9 April, a day before elections in Gurgaon, I asked him about the electoral impact of the issue. “There are two constituencies severely affected by this for very different reasons: the urban residents and farmers,” he said. “The residents, about 1.5 lakh, are small in number. The farmers, though large in numbers, are not organised at all.” He admitted that it was “difficult to bring both of them together for elections. That’s how the ruling class keeps the opposition dispersed and this issue from flaring up.”
Indeed, various kinds of land litigation are common in the region, including cases by farmers, relating to land acquisition, and cases by upper-class residents, fed up with builders’ malpractices and lack of basic amenities in their homes. Though candidates have occasionally raised the issue of farmers’ land ahead of the elections, there has been a conspicuous silence about the malpractices of builders. This is unsurprising if you consider candidates’ links with the builder lobby—for example, Rao Dharampal, the Congress candidate, has invested in the builder Tulip Infratech in the past, and continues to maintain close connections with various builders and brokers. (When I was reporting for a long-form piece on Gurgaon last year, one broker interrupted my interview to call Dharampal and consult him on a minor matter of business.) Meanwhile, Rao Inderjit Singh, a two-time Congress MP from the region, who is contesting on a BJP ticket, has been accused by chief minister Hooda of having “collaborated with Unitech and got a colony licence for 83 acres of his land in Gurgaon.”
But Hooda himself has played a key role in the murky success of the area’s builders. Since 1981, when the developer DLF obtained the first permission to develop land in Gurgaon, licenses have been given to private builders to develop more than 50,000 acres in Haryana—a bulk of this land in Gurgaon. Since Hooda came to power in 2005, the government has approved 150 percent more development licenses than the previous 23 years combined; it has also revised the Master Plans for Gurgaon thrice in the past six years.
While some other candidates have paid lip service to the concerns of farmers, Yadav named the problem as one of a chain of corruption—one that begins with compromised policies, and extends to shoddy building projects. “The first challenge for us would be to take on the builder lobby, which appropriates land from the farmers with the help of the government and then sells it at a very high premium to the homebuyers,” he said in an interview to the weekly, Friday Gurgaon. “The buyers are also exploited, as they are not given what has been promised, infrastructure is not created, maintenance is negligible and everywhere it is the interests of builders that are uppermost.”
At least some upper-class home owners and residents of urban Gurgaon paid attention to Yadav’s message. Ahead of the elections, the residents of Aralias and Magnolias, two of the most expensive apartment complexes in Gurgaon, hosted fund-raising dinners for the AAP, collecting Rs 28 lakh for the party. “If you go by a conservative estimate, DLF is looking at making Rs 5 lakh crore from DLF Phase V area in the next ten, fifteen years,” said Amit Jain, Director General of the pan-Indian Federation of Apartment Owners Association. “The builders have a great stake and they can do anything to save that and stop AAP from winning.” Jain was a member of the Belaire Owners Association, which filed a case against DLF with the Competition Commission of India, for violations of buyers’ agreements, which resulted in a fine of Rs 630 crore on the builder. Jain believes the AAP can bring change. “The centre of all power and corruption is the Directorate of Town and Country Planning,” he said. “They manage the entire revenue and planning of Haryana and if somebody can fix that, Gurgaon will truly become the Millenium city. AAP can clean up the stables.”
“More than anything else, if AAP can put the spotlight on the erring builders that will be good enough,” said Sanjay Sharma, the managing director of Qubrex, a brokerage firm. “The builders are already feeling the heat with the business not doing well. They could use all the help they will get. AAP’s disruptive politics is not good for them.” Of course, opposing builder malpractice is only one part of Yadav’s stand on land issues—his core position is against the deeper malaise of unjust land acquisition. “Taking away land imposing the eminent domain principle”—the power to acquire private property for public use—“to build golf courses is a travesty,” Yadav said when I met him. And yet much of urban Gurgaon, where Yadav also sought votes and funds, was built on the back of such policies.
Yadav did not prioritise the issue of land in the last, crucial phase of his campaign, when he focused on the Muslim-populated backward Mewat region, where a local Meo Muslim candidate, Zakir Hussain of Indian National Lok Dal is the frontrunner. Here, apart from speaking generally about the region’s neglect, Yadav raised the issue of secularism and the spectre of Narendra Modi, whom he evoked in his speeches as a grave threat to unity and peace. His campaign posters for the region read “Modi nahin to Zakir kyun? Hain to donon ek saath.” (Why Zakir when we don’t want Modi, after all they are together.) Sidelining his concerns over land, Yadav, too began to throw punches on the issue dominating these elections—communalism.
When I asked Yadav how much electoral resonance he, as a psephologist, felt his issue of the “builder raj” had, he was circumspect. “It’s tough to say because in our country psephology looks only at macro issues,” he said. He wasn’t sure “if we have reached the last man in every village or every RWA [resident welfare association] with our message against the builder lobby.” He added: “We have to take stock and think about it seriously.” To the question of whether he knew how many villages had been affected by land acquisition, he answered that nobody had compiled a number. Despite it being a major point of his agenda, it appeared the party had not conducted any focused research to target these affected villages. The state’s most pressing issue has receded into the background for yet another election.
Correction: Though the INLD has indicated that it will support the BJP at the centre, the two parties have not entered a formal pre-poll alliance, as was suggested earlier in the story. We regret the error.
Praveen Donthi is a Staff Writer at The Caravan. He is trained as a researcher in modern Indian history and became a journalist by accident. He has previously worked for Tehelka, Hindustan Times and Deccan Herald.