Mangilal Kharwal (70) looks wistful as he recounts how land prices in Pachpadra — one of the seven Assembly segments in Rajasthan’s Barmer district — skyrocketed five years ago.
“Price of my land increased from Rs 2 lakh to Rs 20 lakh per bigha. Suddenly everybody in Pachpadra wanted to be in the real estate business,” said Kharwal, before adding, “Today that land is not even worth Rs 2 lakh and I have lost four out of five salt mines I owned, all because of this refinery.”
Ever since the foundation stone for an oil refinery was laid at Pachpadra in 2013, most residents share a similar story as Kharwal.
It all started with an expectation that the refinery would facilitate employment and business opportunities for the local people, an assumption which saw prices of land increase by many times overnight. Ten months after PM Narendra Modi addressed a public meeting in the desert town to mark ‘commencement of work’ for the refinery, the only difference from the scene that the local people saw in the past five years is a boundary wall. “Earlier, there was a foundation stone laid by Sonia Gandhi at the last lap of the previous Ashok Gehlot government. After five years and the PM’s visit, the only difference today is this boundary wall,” said Lakshman Ram, a local resident.
While the BJP has maintained that the foundation stone laying ceremony in 2013 was an election stunt by the Congress government just before the polls, the Congress has accused the BJP of stalling and hijacking the project.
“Ten months have passed since Modi Ji held that public meeting, but no person is interested in buying land here, fearing a 2013-like situation when prices of the land increased and plummeted within months,” said Dhannaram Sansi, a local resident.
Others, such as Paras Kharwal rue the fact that the 198 salt mines within the 4,813 acre land allotted for the refinery have become non-operational, resulting in destruction of livelihood for many people from Kharwal community, whose familial occupation is to make salt from such mines. “We have been extracting salt from mines in Pachpadra for hundreds of years and Kharwals, who are Rajputs, derive their names from this familial occupation. We have now lost more than half of our income,” said Mahesh Kharwal, secretary, Shree Sambhra Ashapura Namak Utpadan Kshetra Vikas Samiti. He said that even though the government approved a plan for relocation of mines by allotting separate land, the plan hasn’t been implemented at the ground level.
Minister for State, Revenue, Amra Ram, who is sitting BJP MLA from Pachpadra and the party’s candidate for this year’s election, said, “Around Rs. 450 crore has already been spent on the work. We have also provided Rs. 5.14 crore for the land.”
However, mine owners said this has not helped them. “The Rs. 5.14 crore is the disturbance charge that the government is to pay to mine owners in installments to bear with expenses once new salt mines are dug up. But since the relocation plan hasn’t been implemented till now, it doesn’t make any difference at this point of time,” said Kharwal.
“Everybody knows how the BJP stalled the work without any reason. The Congress laid the foundation stone. Despite that, they did the ceremony again. Since then, very less work has been done,” said Madan Prajapat, the Congress candidate from Pachpadra. He said no work has been done in the ground level and at this rate, the refinery won’t be completed even in the next 10 years.
The people of Pachpadra have one advice for politicians. “If political parties once again ask for support in the name of the refinery, chances are they will end up getting less votes because people are angry and don’t trust either of the parties,” said Babulal Bhil, a local resident.