For more than three weeks now, scores of Indian farmers have spent their days neck-deep in the ground in Nindar village, outside Jaipur in Rajasthan state. They have half-buried themselves to protest the state government’s plans to take over 540 acres of land belonging mostly to farmers.

The land is slated for a massive housing project as part of the expansion of the city of Jaipur. But farmers have complained that they were not properly consulted and that the terms of the acquisition are unfair.

After a series of unsuccessful protests in the form of rallies, they launched this new type of protest on October 2. The semi-burials quickly got the attention of the national press, and the Jaipur Development Authority reached out to the protest leaders to negotiate. However, the negotiations have, so far, proved ineffective.

Video filmed by our Observer Nagendra Singh Shekhawat on October 24.

“If they lose their land, they lose their livelihood”

Nagendra Singh Shekhawat is a local activist from Jaipur who has joined the farmers in their protest. He is in charge of negotiating with the Jaipur Development Authority on behalf of the protesting farmers.

The farmers were offered meager compensation based on land rates in 2010, which is when the government carried out a survey. The farmers say that this survey was very poorly carried out, and that the minority of families that agreed to hand over their land felt pressured to do so. In fact many of those families are now involved in the protest.

We are asking for a fresh and transparent survey. We also demand that in this case they apply a new land acquisition law that was enacted throughout India in 2013. This takeover is being carried out under the terms of the previous law, which is very outdated – it dates back to 1894. The new law requires that more than 80 percent of residents must agree to leave in order for the government to take over the land, which is not the case under the old law. [Editors’ note: The new law also outlines compensation as four times the market value in rural areas, and twice in urban areas.]

Photo by Nagendra Singh Shekhawat.

Overall, about 2,500 families live on the threatened land – about 1,500 of which make a living from farming. These are small farms, where they grow vegetables and do animal husbandry. Many of the farmers are women. If they lose their land, they lose their livelihood. Farmers have been protesting this acquisition ever since the notice was issued in 2010. [Editor’s Note: Shekhawat joined their cause in 2013.] But in late September, we were forced to find a more drastic way to protest after the Jaipur Development Authority started sending construction crews to Nindar village. We halted the construction, and dug these holes in the earth as a symbol of how attached these farmers are to their land.

There are several dozen holes, which farmers - both men and women - occupy in shifts, day and night. During the day, they fast. They even celebrated Diwali [the Hindu festival of light] inside the holes last week.

Protesters on Diwali. Video by Nagendra Singh Shekhawat.

This protest has been successful in attracting attention and getting the Jaipur Development Authority to engage in negotiations. At first, we were hopeful. But these negotiations have led nowhere, and it seems to me that they just want to waste our time and drag this out until people stop paying attention to our cause.

The Jaipur Development Authority, meanwhile, has claimed that only 600 or so families were involved in the protest and that most of them are not farmers.

Protests over forceful government acquisitions are common throughout India, where land is a scarce resource. It is a fiercely debated topic, with many seeing takeovers as indispensable for industrial development, and others arguing that is often done at the expense of the country’s poorest citizens, who often wait years – sometimes even decades – for compensation.