Gujarat farmers, stung by poor compensation for PM's pet projects, are fighting state govt in court

Gujarat farmers are protesting poor compensation for their land and alleged irregularities in the state government's acquisition process.

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Gandhinagar: In Gujarat, over 6,000 farmers and their families are facing the prospect of displacement and losing their fertile land to development projects. Over 5,000 hectares of fertile farmland is slated to be acquired for government projects, affecting farmers in south Gujarat. But farmers aren't going quietly. Rather, they're protesting poor compensation for their land and alleged irregularities in the state government's acquisition process.

The big-ticket projects include the Dedicated Freight Corridor (DFC), the Vadodara Mumbai Expressway (VME), the bullet train project and the proposed Bharatmala project.

In 2010, Prakashchandra Desai lost about a quarter acre of his farm to the National Highway 48, which passes near his farm in Amodpore village in Navsari district. Now, he's about to lose a similar amount of land, in the middle of his farm to the bullet train — the pet project of Prime Minister Narendra Modi — the first of many high-speed rail projects in the country. "The bullet train map shows my farm in the route. The project officials have tried to visit my farm several times to take measurements, but I've not allowed them in. I want to know about the land compensation first. I am surprised that after almost two years of the project being launched, they are yet to decide on land compensation," said Desai.

He and around 40 farmers in eight villages of Navsari have not allowed government officials to survey their land, but officials from the National High-Speed Rail Corporation (NHSRC) managed to gain access to some farms in other villages through the district administration.

Modi and the Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe laid the foundation for the Rs 1.1 lakh crore bullet train project in Sabarmati, Ahmedabad on 14 September, 2017. The high-speed train will ferry passengers between Ahmedabad and Mumbai in a record two hours, travelling at 320 kmph. The project is scheduled to be completed by 2022 and was made possible through a soft loan of Rs 88,000 crore from the Japan International Co-operation Agency (JICA). The rest of the cost of the project has to be borne by Gujarat and Maharashtra.

This home in Surat district's Kathor village is set to be razed. Amit Cowper

This home in Surat district's Kathor village is set to be razed. Amit Cowper

The 508 kilometre rail route will cut through over 1,000 hectares of land in Gujarat, Maharashtra and the Union Territory of Dadra and Nagar Haveli. Around 350 kilometres of the corridor passes through eight districts in Gujarat: Ahmedabad, Kheda, Anand, Vadodara, Bharuch, Surat, Navsari and Valsad. According to the NHSRC, the total land to be acquired for the project is 1002.6 hectares in Gujarat alone.

The corporation acquired the first parcel of land in rural Vadodara in the last week of November 2018 from Savitaben, a Gujarati NRI based in Germany. The deadline set by the NHSRC to acquire land for the project was 31 December, 2018, but due to farmer protests in south Gujarat and Maharashtra, this process is yet to be completed.

For land acquisition, the NHSRC has taken into account the provisions of the central government’s Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, and Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Gujarat Amendment) Act, 2016.

According to the Act, any land acquisition process by the State must begin with a Social Impact Assessment (SIA) of the project and have the consent of at least 70 percent of the affected population. Gujarat’s 2016 amendment to the Act did away with the clauses on consent and mandatory SIA for certain types of projects, including those relating to social infrastructure and industrial corridors.

The NHSRC started the land acquisition process under the amended Act by serving notices to project-affected persons in all districts. Under the Act, once a notice is published in the official gazette, two local newspapers and in the offices of the panchayats or municipalities, land-owners must be given at least 60 days to file any objections to the acquisition of their plots.

"We notified 196 villages of the SIA exemption under the amendment of 2016 and these villages have also been given preliminary notification under the 10-11(A) of the Act. We have issued a final notification to 121 villages for the land acquisition," said a revenue department official.

According to the official, 71,40,722 hectares of land needs to be acquired in 197 villages in Gujarat. However, the NHSRC spokesperson Sushma Gaur said the total land to be acquired in Gujarat is 1002.6 hectares. "Of the total land required, so far 434.79 hectares has been acquired, that is 35 percent," said Gaur.

According to JICA guidelines for any project to receive loans, a proper procedure of land survey, SIA and Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) need to be carried out. "No such procedures have been followed. Such provisions are also present in the 2013 Act, but the 2016 amendment by the Gujarat government did away with that. We have challenged this amendment in the Gujarat High Court," said Jayesh Patel, president, Khedut Samaj Gujarat (KSG).

The stump erected in the middle of a farm in Vadodara district's Handod village marks the spot through which the proposed bullet train will pass. Amit Cowper

The stump erected in the middle of a farm in Vadodara district's Handod village marks the spot through which the proposed bullet train will pass. Amit Cowper

Through KSG, 250 farmers have filed petitions in the Gujarat High Court with more than 1,100 affidavits opposing the land acquisition. The KSG, in coordination with Adivasi Ekta Parishad and Maharashtra's Kastakari Sangaathan and Shetkari Sangathan, is protesting against the bullet train project's land acquisition. "The final hearing on the case was in February-end and now the court's decision is awaited," said Patel. "The decision was expected in March. I wonder why the court has not come out with it yet.''

According to Patel, around 2,500 families will be affected by this project. Prafull Bhatt, a farmer in Karjan Block in Vadodara, stands to lose land in all of the above mentioned development projects. "I've lost a little less than two acres in the VME project and a little over an acre for the DFC one. The bullet train project will take away another piece of my land," he said.

Bhatt owns three farms in Handod village and Karjan tehsil of Vadodara. "There are vast differences in the compensation given despite my farms being located a few hundred metres apart. The DFC paid me Rs 36,000 per bigha and a total of Rs 60,000 for the land acquired, while the expressway is paying a little more. The maximum rates being offered is for the bullet train project. One thing's for certain, farmers are being exploited," Bhat said.

The DFC stretch of 60 to 70 metres runs parallel to the NHSR route and is just 500 metres away. Bhatt claimed that when Modi was the chief minister, he sold government wastelands (infertile land) at Rs 400 per square metre: that's Rs 10 lakh per bigha to the DFC. The DFC Corporation India Ltd, which is responsible for the project, acquired 2,121.66 hectares of private land in Gujarat for the corridor between Mumbai and Delhi. "The government has fixed different rates for themselves and for the farmers. The government land rates are exceedingly high, nearly 500 times or a thousand-fold of the Jantri rates. These rates are decided by the evaluation committee comprising the district collector, deputy collector, agriculture experts and government officials," explained Patel.

"In 2009-2010, in Lakhtana village, the government sold its own land at the rate of Rs 1.23 lakh per bigha to the DFC, while in the same village, farmers were paid at the prevailing Jantri rates of Rs 2,200 per bigha by the DFC. That too because the land was near an urban area, otherwise they would have not been offered even that. We have obtained all this data from the Gujarat government through RTI and have submitted this information to the Gujarat High Court in our affidavit," added Patel.

There are discrepancies even in the data regarding how many trees would be felled as part of the bullet train project. The NHSRC data places the figure at 37,394 trees on the 508 kilometre stretch, of which 25,270 trees are on private land between Mumbai and Ahmedabad. The KSG group disputes this claim. "We did a survey of the trees that would be felled as part of the land acquisition and found that in just two districts, Navsari and Valsad, there were over 1.5 lakh mango and chickoo trees, apart from other kinds. We have shared this with the high court, " said Darshan Naik, a panchayat member in Surat, and an advocate working with KSG.

Besides farming, several families are faced with the prospect of displacement due to the bullet train project. Of the 14,884 affected households, around 35 percent fall in the vulnerable category. Of the vulnerable 5,262 households, 39 percent are from the Schedule Tribe (ST) community, 17 percent are women-headed households and 17 percent are from the Scheduled Caste (SC) community. Around 14 percent are Below Poverty Line (BPL) households.

Parvatiben Jaisinghbhai Makwana's house is one of the six or seven homes (or Falia, a group of houses of the Scheduled Caste communities) in Amodpore village in Navsari that would be razed for this project. She claimed that the project caused the death of her husband Jaisinghbhai Makwana, a BJP panchayat member. She said, "My husband died due to the tension of losing our house to the project. My husband worked in Kuwait to build this house. With him gone, at this age, where will I go?"

Another affected villager, Kamleshkumar Dashadiya, from Kathor, Surat shared that he built his house two years ago using money lent by friends and relatives. "We spent around Rs 22 to 25 lakh to renovate our house and now we are being told this house will be razed for the bullet train project. We don't want to go anywhere," Dashadiya said.

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Dashadiya's family is dependent on the income earned by his son, Rachit (25), who runs a shop, which will also be razed, as it falls in the route of the train project. "JICA guidelines for Resettlement and Rehabilitation (R&R) have been ignored by the NHSRC and the government. None of the procedures have been followed. While in their report, the NHSRC shows that there is no gap between what is being done by the government and what is outlined by JICA, which is totally bogus," claimed Siddharth Desai, a farmer leading the KSG protest in Navsari.

JICA guidelines state that involuntary resettlement should be avoided and compensation or assistance should be provided prior to any displacement. A Resettlement Action Plan (RAP) should be prepared for large-scale involuntary resettlement and this should be communicated to affected persons and they need to be consulted in the planning, implementing and monitoring phases of the resettlement plan. It also stipulates the need for an appropriate and accessible Grievance Redressal mechanism.

For now, farmers in Gujarat and Maharashtra are waiting for the Gujarat High Court ruling.

The author is a Gandhinagar-based freelance-writer and a member of 101Reporters


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