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Above: Modi and Japan PM Shinzo Abe at the function in Ahmedabad to launch the project/Photo: UNI

The overwhelming state power notwithstanding, farmers whose lands are being acquired for the Modi government’s dream project have no plans to give up the fight

By RK Misra in Ahmedabad

Foundation stones laid by Prime Minister Narendra Modi litter India’s cities, towns and villages but there are few projects which he has pursued with such perseverance and tenacity as the Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train one. The project, estimated to cost Rs 1.10 lakh crore, is being built with assistance of Rs 88,087 crore from Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) through a 50-year loan at an interest rate of 0.1 per cent. The  remaining cost is being borne by the Gujarat and Maharashtra governments.

The foundation stone of the project was formally laid in Ahmedabad on September 14, 2017, in the presence of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Originally, the first train was to run by March 2023 but for reasons unstated, the prime minister has advanced the date to 2022 to coincide with 75 years of Independence.

Many would say that the target set is impossible to achieve. The assumption is not due to technical reasons. The project has been mired in legal tangles almost from day one. It may have got a shot in the arm when the Gujarat High Court last month ruled against farmers challenging the land acquisition process and demanding higher compensation, but the verdict has only set the stage for a final slugfest in the Supreme Court.

The Court on September 19 dismissed the pleas of over 120 farmers and upheld the validity of the Land Acquisition Act that was amended by the Gujarat government in 2016. “We are of the considered opinion that the challenge to validity of Section 10A read with Section 2(1) of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement [Gujarat Amendment] Act, 2016 cannot be accepted and held to be unconstitutional or illegal,” the Court said. The farmers had challenged the state amendment that had altered the central law of 2013.

The Court also dismissed the claims of farmers that the state government lacked competence to issue a land acquisition notice as the project was being shared between Gujarat and Maharashtra. It also held as valid the issuing of a notification on land acquisition without taking into consideration the social impact assessment as well as rehabilitation and resettlement issues as mandated under the central law.

Well-known environmentalist and human rights activist Rohit Prajapati has, however, gone on record to term the judgment “bad in law, spirit and undesirable”. “It almost reads like a recording of the proceeding and at the end, opinion of the court and not like a well-conceived comprehensive judicial order,” he said.

Prajapati, who heads the Vadodara-based environmental organisation, Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti—which alongside other farmer set-ups has been at the forefront of the stir—stated that the “crucial principles of the law of the land, legal and other issues raised therein have not been addressed within the proper legal framework. A critical and complex matter has been narrowed down to simple opinion by the Court without a sound basis, critical examination of all facts, factors, democratic process of decision-making as well as social and environmental impacts”.

According to Prajapati, the judgment not only set a bad precedent but will also lead to severe and grave short as well as long-term consequences for the project-affected people, justice and the environment.

Farmers and affected landowners also expressed their disappointment with the High Court judgment. “My present land holding is worth about Rs 1.5 crore according to the current market rate but the government is only giving me Rs 8 lakh as compensation,” said an affected farmer in Kamrej taluka of Surat. Another farmer in adjoining Navsari district terms the order anti-farmer. “We are demanding compensation for our land at market value and will now knock on the doors of the apex court,” he said.

Anand Yagnik, the counsel for some of the petitioners, put it succinctly. He said that the farmers were not against the project and all they wanted was fair compensation for their land. The state government is offering land as per the 2011 jantri rate. The jantri is the rate of land fixed by the state government for a particular area on the basis of which stamp duty is decided. “This cannot be the benchmark when the market rates, at places, are now over 10 times the rate,” he contended.

The farmers aver that not only should their land be acquired at the rate at which the state government had sold its land for other projects, but the rehabilitation and resettlement should be as mandated under the Central Land Acquisition Act, 2013.

Interestingly the Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG) report of March 2018 points towards massive loss to the public exchequer due to irregularities in the calculation and use of jantri rates which have not been revised since 2011. “According to instructions from the High Court, the state government had planned an annual review of jantri rates but failed to apply them from 2012 to 2017 and due to this non-compliance lost huge sums of money,” the report says.

The opposition Congress has put the loss at Rs 25,000 crore. It is this non-revision of jantri rates which is at the core of the dispute with the farmers.

The High Court bench of Justices AS Dave and Biren A Vaishnav, which rejected the pleas of over 120 farmers, told the petitioners to seek higher compensation for their land from the concerned authorities. The Court also said that the farmers may highlight instances where a higher compensation was provided by the National Highways Authority of India or any other body in terms of land acquisition.

Following the judgment, the farmers have decided to approach the Supreme Court. Their contention remains that the compensation being provided to them is on the basis of the 2011 jantri rates and acquisition cannot be initiated without revising the land prices as provided for under the Land Acquisition Act, 2013.

The 508.17-km-long bullet train corridor incorporates 348.04 km in Gujarat, 155.76 km in Maharashtra and 4.3 km in Dadra and Nagar Haveli. Expected to feature 12 stations with two depots at either end of the corridor, the train is expected to run at a speed of 320 kmph and should cover the Ahmedabad-Mumbai distance in three hours. Most of the corridor will be elevated except for a 21-km underground tunnel between Thane and Virar of which seven km will be under the sea.

According to the National High Speed Rail Corporation Ltd (NHSRCL), the implementing agency, the train is tentatively projected to make 70 trips, 35 each way between 6 am and midnight every day, and passengers will be charged a fare of around Rs 3,000.

According to an estimate by NHSRCL, the bullet train will consume 40 per cent more electricity than the entire Delhi Metro network requires at present. It will take 1,100 million units per year to power the train and its stations. Operating the train will require 350 km of transmission lines and high-voltage cabling.

The Delhi Metro, which runs on eight lines spanning 350 km, serves 236 stations and connects the cities of Gurugram, Noida and Faridabad with the capital, consumes 850 million units per annum.

Meanwhile, the NHSRCL has issued a third tender for a part of the project. It includes design and civil works for the double-line high-speed, 90-km railway between Ahmedabad and Vadodara. The tender closes on November 28 and the selected set-up will have 1,370 days to complete the project. With this, it claims to have invited bids for the construction of an alignment of 348 km out of the total 508 km.

The ambitious timeline, however, has only one flaw—stiff resistance from farmers both in Maharash­tra and Gujarat. Nearly 6,900 farmers are impacted by it and 60 per cent of them have already raised objections to the acquisition process. Last year, the state government had doubled the compensation for farmers whose land in urban areas will be acquired for the project with an additional bonus of 25 per cent on the compensation amount.

In fact, the opposition to the project encompasses two key areas: Farmers fighting for adequate compensation, and activists and social organisations raising the issues pertaining to environmental and social impact of the project. And it seems that there has been blatant violation of norms in both areas. According to the 2015 Joint Feasibility Study report on the bullet train corridor, published by the Ministry of Railways and JICA, the environmental and social impact assessment of the project was done way back in 2010. The Gujarat government’s amendment to the Act was used to bypass the assessment which is vital.

“It is not the linear infrastructure of the bullet train alone. In the same area, there are other projects coming up like the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, the Western Dedicated Freight Corridor and the Vadodara-Mumbai expressway. These call for cumulative environmental and social impact studies afresh and not the thinly veiled obfuscation of issues as is being practiced at the official level today,” a study by activist organisations pointed out.

Well-publicised consultation meetings with the project-affected people are mandatory under the law as well as the JICA guidelines. The study notes that “most of such meetings conducted in the first half of October by NHSRC were a sham. Besides these were not consultations but evasive powerpoint presentations by a hired firm largely centred around monetary compensations”. The might of the state power notwithstanding, those standing up to be counted are not prepared to duck a fight.

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