A housewife’s crusade
MISSION STATEMENT: I want this antiquated, inhuman law [Land Acquisition Act of 1894] overhauled. I don’t want anyone else to suffer the way I have.
Mary Francis knows pretty well that hers is a losing battle. But the 60-year-old housewife is standing to draw attention to what she sees as a life-and-death issue for thousands of people from Nandigram to the Narmada Valley — displacement in the name of development. Ms. Francis understands their pain well.
In February last year, her home and the carpentry workshop run by her husband on a quarter of an acre property on the tiny emerald island of Moolampally in the Kochi backwaters were demolished. The bulldozers, sent out by the Ernakulam district administration, were making way for a road to the Vallarpadam project — a Rs. 3,000-crore international container transhipment terminal of the Cochin Port Trust being constructed by India Gateway Terminals Limited on a build-operate-transfer basis.
Along with Ms. Francis, nine other families were forcibly evicted. Overnight, they turned homeless. The Land Acquisition Act of 1894, a law of colonial vintage which permits acquiring the houses and properties of citizens for a ‘public purpose’, was applied to evict them.
“I want this antiquated, inhuman law overhauled,” she says. “I don’t want anyone else to suffer the way I have.” The best way to do it, in her view, is to make it an electoral issue.
“I am contesting the Lok Sabha election from Ernakulam to raise the issue in Parliament and get the law overhauled by incorporating safeguards as well as provisions for the total rehabilitation of people before they are evicted.”
Appropriately, her electoral symbol is the tent. According to C.R. Neelakantan, her campaign committee chairman and a senior functionary of the Moolampally Agitation Coordination Committee that has fielded Ms. Francis, it is the ‘symbol of evictees and homeless people.’ Five of the 10 evicted families still live in plastic tents, he points out.
The coordination committee has relentlessly fought for the 326 families whose properties have been acquired for the Vallarpadam project. Kadamakkudy panchayat, which comprises a string of islands that includes Moolampally, is less than 20 km from Kochi city but is accessible only by boat.
The Moolampally agitation has the support of Medha Patkar, Mahasweta Devi and a host of national-level activists and intellectuals. The coordination committee’s 45-day agitation helped the 10 families to get Rs. 60,000 each to find alternative housing for 10 months and a better compensation package than initially offered. They have been offered house plots in lieu of the acquired properties, though that is yet to come through.
Francis Kalathil, convener of the coordination committee, said that the Central government should immediately amend the Land Acquisition Act by incorporating strict provisions for rehabilitation and compensation at market rate. “We are contesting this election for the right to rehabilitation before eviction,” a determined Ms. Francis asserts.
source: The Hindu 6 April 2009 http://www.hindu.com/2009/04/05/stories/2009040559191400.htm