The National High Speed Rail Corporation (NHSRC), which has begun its meetings with “stakeholders” to assess the social impact and damage from the ambitious Ahmedabad-Mumbai “bullet train” project, is facing protests from farmers and environment activists over the lack of time and clarity in the discussions. Farmers and activists, who have jointly raised the issue with NHSRC say that they were given “no time” to prepare for the meetings nor are the railway officials presenting the report of impact assessment.
On Monday, a few days after its first meeting in Nadiad, the NHSRC officials held a similar meeting in Vadodara and Bharuch districts. A group of about 80 farmers and activists who gathered at the Gandhi Nagar Gruh in Vadodara demanded to see the report of the Social Impact Assessment (SIA) as well as an explanation on why the meetings were being held in a “disorganised” manner. Krishnakant, a member of the Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, who was joined by farmers, who travelled from as far as Surat to attend the meeting in Vadodara, said, “The NHSRC is attempting an eyewash by calling it a stakeholders’ meeting. All they are trying to do is to record that they had held a meeting. In reality, there is no publicity of the meeting so that farmers can attend. All they did was print a small newspaper advertisement in a single newspaper that carried just three sentences, one day before the meeting was scheduled. We have made representations and asked them to hold fair discussions and allow farmers to attend the meetings.”
Ramesh Patel, a farmer who travelled from Surat to Vadodara to attend the meeting, said that he could not attend the Surat meeting on Sunday evening as he did not know about it. Patel said, “I travelled all the way to Vadodara as I had missed the meeting in Surat on Sunday evening. No information was circulated about it. This is unfair. The discussion is supposed to be about our opinions and understanding the project but officials are directly coming to the point of compensation and telling us that it will be decided by the collectors as per the jantri rate. We all know that the market value of our lands is much higher than the jantri rates that the government will offer. For every infrastructure project, it is the farmers who get a raw deal.”
Members of the Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti as well as Khedut Samaj organisations of central and south Gujarat have submitted a joint memorandum to district collectors of affected districts as well as the chairman of the NHSRC, seeking cancellation of such “sudden” meetings and demanded a fresh consultation with the stakeholders. “We are shocked that at the shortest possible notice period, i.e., one day, as well as by its size and place in the newspaper (of the announcement of the meeting). It is clear that the intent of the notice is not to well-publicise the public consultation for stakeholders, but to merely dispense with a formality. In practical terms, the attempt has been to ensure that the ‘notice’ is not noticed by stakeholders. This is not only unfair, immoral, open to legal challenge, but also displays a shocking state of affairs,” the memorandum stated.
According to railway officials, the meeting is not just about discussion of compensation but in fact, the farmers are being given handouts of the project that explain the design as well as allay their fears.
“We are seeking land only for the elevated corridor, which will be above the ground. For the 21-km underground tunnel, we do not need to acquire any land. We are trying to explain the project to the farmers across the districts about the design of the project. Unlike development projects in the past, the bullet train will have minimum impact only. But the farmers are being misguided to believe that they will lose the entire piece of land that they own. The meetings are an attempt to make them understand that the land we will acquire will also fetch them a handsome compensation as the Union government does not want to delay the projects due to litigations in matters of land acquisition,” a railway official said.
According to the officials, the district collectors will offer compensation based on the existing market rate.
Railway officials have assured the farmers that throughout the route of the elevated corridor of the bullet train, about 17.5 metre of land will be acquired. This will include 13 metre of land for railway trade and 4 metres for right of way (ROW). According to the project design, the elevated corridor will go about 7 metre above the ground level, with only the piers of the corridor occupying space in the ground at regular intervals. All the stations will also be on the elevated platform, except the one terminating station in Mumbai.
“The design of the elevated corridor has been made, keeping in mind that fact that there should be a minimum impact on land and also to ensure the longevity of the project; since it will be elevated, it will also be out of reach of miscreants and natural damage. We have also made it clear that any buildings or homes that come in the way of the project will be preserved as far as possible, unless it is an encroachment. There are also proposals to see if the stations can be turned into mini-commercial hubs in order to facilitate public utility space in parts that are not needed for the main project,” an official said.
On Sunday, farmers and activists of Gujarat and Maharashtra held a joint meeting in Surat to oppose the bullet train project. The meeting, organized under the banner of Khedut Samaj (Gujarat) saw attendance of farmer leaders from Surat, neighbouring Navsari and Valsad districts along with tribal right activist Ulka Mahajan, Brian Lobo from Shetkari organisation and Soumya Dutta from Maharashtra. Sajjan Kumar from Rajasthan, who works for environment protection committee and Madhuresh from National Alliance for People Movement (NAPM), were also present at the meeting along with activists Rohit Prajapati and Krishnakant.
Khedut Samaj (Gujarat) president Jayesh Patel said that a total of 192 villages of Gujarat and around 120 villages in Maharashtra will be affected by the bullet train project.
“In 2016, the Gujarat government had made certain changes in the land acquisition law and came up with new Act in which consent of farmers was no more required and land could be forcibly acquired. In contrast, land will be acquired in Maharashtra only after negotiation with farmers. For a single project, the two state governments are working on different laws for land acquisition. The livelihood of the farmers will be snatched away by the government. The state government had started process of measuring the land in different villages in Valsad and Navsari and local farmers are opposing it,” Jayesh Patel said.
“The bullet train is a burden forcibly put on the heads of our coming generations. At present, the project cost is around Rs 1.08 lakh crore with Japan International Cooperation Agency bearing Rs 88,000 crore and the rest to be bored by Government of India and two state governments — Maharashtra and Gujarat. We have called for all party meeting on June 3 at a place between border of Gujarat and Maharashtra. We will seek their support and their consent for the bullet train project,” he added.
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