INDIA: Farmers in border areas must be allowed access
INDIA: Farmers in border areas must be allowed access to their lands
The border regions of India are manned by members of the Border Security Force (BSF) personnel, who are always heavily armed, and wield significant power over the residents of these border villages. Recent events have demonstrated the highhandedness of these personnel in dealing with civilians. The primary occupation of the residents of the village is agriculture, and many of them own small tracts of land in the area. According to information received by MASUM, AHRC’s partner organisation in the region, on 9th October 2017, a complaint was submitted to the Sub-Divisional Officer at Mekhliganj, signed by 152 farmers representing about 150 families residing in Bagdogra village. These farmers own homesteads near Gates no.1 and 34 which are under Bagdogra BSF BOP of Battalion – 45, and their farming lands which amount to about 100 acres in totality, are located on the other side of the border fence guarded by the BSF. The substance of the complaint relates to the arbitrary behaviour of the BSF personnel, which has resulted in farmers being prevented from tending to their land. Notably, despite the filing of a written complaint over one month ago, no action has been taken by the Sub-Divisional Officer.
Since the erection of a border fence in the region, farmers are not permitted to freely access their fields, being that about 100 acres of land belonging to villagers lies beyond the border fence, but still within the territory of India. According to information received by MASUM,farmers are allowed to enter their fields only when the doors of Gates no. 1 and 34 are opened. The gates open three times a day for one hour at a time: at 7 a.m., 12 p.m., and 4 p.m. It is alleged that the BSF personnel purposely waste about 10-15 minutes of this allotted time opening the gate, and then permit egress only after identity verification, deposit of photo identity proof, and entry in the registrar, a process which takes place at snail’s pace. Therefore, very few people can access their farming lands through these gates, and many people who have waited in line for an entire day are prevented from carrying out their essential daily farming activities.
MASUM states that there are days on which the gate remains shut throughout, and farmers who question this are threatened by the BSF with adverse consequences. Apart from this, the BSF has also arbitrarily prevented farmers from carrying ploughs, fertilizers, tractors, and power tillers to their farming land, and has verbally ordered farmers to cultivate crops which are less than 3 feet high. Farmers also cannot cultivate rice, jute, and corn on these lands. Since they cannot install any machines for irrigation either, they face even greater loss due to insufficient and irregular water supply.
Incidents of this type are prevalent in other border regions, including on the Indo-Pakistan borders, particularly when tensions have escalated between both sides. Farmers in the Amritsari border region complained that the BSF prevented them from accessing their lands last year, in the aftermath of the surgical strike on Pakistan. This was despite directions being issued to the BSF from the Home Ministry, ordering them to allow farmers to till the land without any hassle. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has also documented many instances of abuse of power and misuse of force by BSF personnel against hapless citizens, this is yet another instance in which their arbitrary behaviour has violated the fundamental rights of citizens. The specific issue of farmer woes at the Indo-Bangladesh border was also covered by Reuters almost a decade ago.
In an Inquiry report(No.15011/20/2011-HR-II) based on a complaint filed by MASUM, from April, 2011, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) issued certain recommendations/instructions, one of which states that “the BSF as a Border Guarding Force should not be involved in regulating movement of rice and other grocery items purchased by persons in border areas either for their consumption or for local trade”. While there are no specific provisions on farmer’s rights, they are entitled to the same protection of law as any citizen of India. In particular, the State is obliged not to prevent any person from carrying out any occupation, trade or business, under Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution. Article 38 and 39 under the Directive Principles of State Policy also declare that the State must endeavour to promote the welfare of people, and provide them the means to obtain an adequate livelihood. In the context of the right to work in particular, it has been held that. “The right to work, the right to free choice of employment, the right to just and favourable conditions of work, the right to protection against unemployment…and the right to security of work are some of the rights which have to be ensured by appropriate legislative and executive measures… of those rights the question of security of work is of utmost importance.” The Court has thus recognized that even if there is no explicit right to work, the State is at least bound to guarantee security of work, and ensure that it does create a hostile working environment for people engaged in legitimate work.
The right to work is additionally protected by foundational instruments of international law. Article 23(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and Article 6 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) safeguards the right of a person to work in just and favourable conditions. General Comment 18 to the ICESCR additionally states that no one should be unfairly deprived of employment. The International Court of Justice has also opined in the Advisory Opinion on the Legal Consequences of a Wall in Occupied Palestinian Territory that denying a group of people the right to access their farmland, among other things, would violate the liberty of movement guaranteed by the ICCPR, and rights to livelihood and work under the ICESCR. It is therefore incumbent upon the State to ensure that such rights are not violated, as this would constitute an egregious violation of international law.
It appears that the BSF personnel in the region are wilfully violating the rights of these farmers, and depriving them and their families of a right to livelihood and associated rights. Information received earlier shows widespread torture and unlawful killings by the BSF is common in the region, along with an excessive use of force upon civilians. Civilians in the region must be assured of the protection of their right to earn their livelihood, and that they may lead their lives without undue interference from security personnel. It is also essential that human rights bodies, including the National Human Rights Commission and the West Bengal State Human Rights Commission, actively monitor the compliance of BSF personnel with any such instructions. Agriculture continues to be the primary occupation of the majority of people in India but with due regard for security considerations, the State should at least provide proper infrastructure for these farmers in border areas who have limited access to their own lands.
 P&T Department v Union of India and Ors  ILLJ 370 SC,