As politicians across party lines gathered on stage together in Palghar on Sunday calling for the ambitious Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project to be cancelled, they repeatedly cited the word ‘vikas’, qualifying it with the kind of progress they said the majority of citizens want to witness.
Addressing a gathering of a few hundred, mostly tribal cultivators from across Palghar district, Shiv Sena legislator Neelam Gorhe and Nationalist Congress Party spokesperson Nawab Malik echoed the comments of Left and Congress leaders in saying the proposed investment of Rs 1.08 lakh crore on a train system to be used by a marginal percentage of commuters appears tone deaf in the face of the crumbling railway and other infrastructure in the tribal dominated region of Palghar-Dahanu.
Of the 1,400 hectares of land to be acquired for the high-speed corridor, 353 hectares is to be acquired in Maharashtra, in the Dahanu-Palghar-Bhiwandi belt. Nearly 108 villages in the Thane and Palghar districts are set to be affected, and nearly 70 have already adopted Gram Sabha resolutions opposing any land acquisition for the project.
Sena leader Gorhe said she rode a high-speed railway system on a recent visit to China. “And every moment of that ride, my thoughts were with the women and others who have to either hang out of our local trains on their daily commute or be nearly crushed in the crowds,” she said, calling for development with a “human face, or a woman’s face, happy, nurturing and progressing”. Gore promised that Sena legislators would together demand a detailed discussion on the project in the coming monsoon session of the state Assembly. Alongside the Nanar refinery and Jaitapur nuclear power projects in Konkan, the bullet train project would be one of the things the Sena continues to oppose even while being part of the government, she said.
The bullet train project, planned after discussions between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe, is being built with a Rs 88,000-crore soft loan from Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Last month, the Japanese Consul General in Mumbai, speaking in Ahmedabad, said India must immediately solve the land acquisition hurdles in the project. Until now, the National High-Speed Rail Corporation (NHSRC) has acquired only 0.9 hectares in Bandra Kurla Complex, where the Mumbai station will be built.
“The Union government appears to have taken the stand that land may be acquired by force for one of the Modi government’s poll promises. But have all other poll promises been fulfilled already?” asked Malik. Other speakers at Sunday’s event organised by the Bullet Train Virodhi Manch included local Kisan Sabha president Dr Ashok Dhawale, other Left leaders, Congress leaders, three Sena legislators from the district, Shrinivas Wanga who lost the recent bypoll on a Shiv Sena ticket and local MNS leaders.
Many spoke on ticket prices on the train that would be prohibitively expensive for all but the rich, on the unclear terms of land acquisition through direct negotiation with tribal land-owners, on the lack of transparency on social impact and environmental impact assessment studies and on the repayment schedule for the loan from JICA. Vadodara resident Hasmukh Bhat of the Ekta Gramin Praja Vichar Manch, which is opposing the project in Gujarat, said project affected people in the neighbouring state would support the Palghar locals’ resistance to the project.