The Bharatiya Janata Party (
) has promised a
between Kanyakumari and Chennai. While the announcement raises hopes of better connectivity, the government’s execution of the first such link between Mumbai and Ahmedabad, announced in September 2017, is yet to clear the land acquisition roadblock.
Most of the 1,414 hectares (1 hectare = 1.47 acres) needed for the Rs 1.1 lakh crore high-speed train link between the western business hubs will come from 11 districts in Maharashtra and Gujarat. Palghar will give the most — around 280 hectares — but less than a tenth has been acquired here. The government has already missed the December 2018 deadline for land acquisition. The project is scheduled to be completed by 2023.
Opposition to the project has been most strident in Palghar, a district near Mumbai. While the issue may not be big enough to swing votes in the general election in Palghar, which goes to polls on April 29, it could be a factor in the pockets affected by the path of the train.
About 140 km north of the financial capital, in Dehane village of Dahanu block of the district, around 40 people of the Warli tribe gather to articulate their resistance to the project. Rupesh Rawte, a 42-year-old farmer who has 1.5 acres, asks why they should give up their land for a train that is not for them. “We will only be looking at it as it passes by. It is not going to stop for us and we can’t afford it.”
Less than half of the people impacted by the project in Palghar have titles to their lands. Almost everyone in Dehane says the land the government wants is all they have. “Even if they increase the compensation four times, we will not give up our land,” says Soma Kothari, a 78-year-old.
The villages in the area are mostly populated by the Warlis, who depend on paddy cultivation. Dahanu is better known for its sapota orchards.
Around a third of the requisite land has been acquired, says Sushma Gaur, a spokesperson for the National High Speed Rail Corporation, which is implementing the project. The corporation has completed measurement surveys in 40 of the 79 villages in the district. “Lack of trust based on certain experiences and misconceptions about the project adversely affected the land acquisition process initially. Now, with the help of the district administration, people are coming forward and are participating in the land acquisition process.” The acquisition is based on consent and is fair and transparent, she adds.
But Gaur’s confidence does not seem to match the mood on the ground. “There is no way they can get any land,” says Pascal Dongalkar, a resident of Uplat village in Talasri, another administrative block about a half-hour drive from Dehane.
“The gram sabhas have opposed it.” Besides the bullet train, land acquisition for the Mumbai-Vadodara expressway will also be a factor in the election, he adds. BJP’s assurance of ST status to Dhangar community has also angered the Warlis as it would eat into the share of communities that are already in the ST category.
The Palghar parliamentary constituency, formed in 2008 as a result of delimitation, is one of Maharashtra’s four seats reserved for Scheduled Tribe (ST) candidates. The state has 48 Lok Sabha seats.
The constituency was won by the Bahujan Vikas Aghadi (BVA), a local outfit, in 2009, and by BJP in 2014. The death of Palghar member of Parliament Chintaman Vanaga made BJP give the byelection ticket to Rajendra Gavit. The 2018 bypoll was a prestige battle between BJP and Shiv Sena, which fought separately despite being allies at the Centre and in the state. Opposition to the bullet train was an issue even then. The Shiv Sena had opposed the project last year. But then, the party was at loggerheads with BJP on almost every issue before sealing a pre-poll alliance with its ally in February.
Gavit, who had defected from Congress, won the bypoll. But when Palghar went to Shiv Sena in the seat-sharing agreement for the general election, he joined the Shiv Sena and is now its candidate. Gavit says compensation for the bullet train project must be adequate.
“The government does not want to compel anyone to give up their land.”
The money earmarked for the bullet train would be better spent on improving the crowded Mumbai suburban rail network, says Hitendra Thakur, president of BVA. The party, which is yet to announce its candidate for the Lok Sabha polls, has the support of the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party combine, which came third in the bypoll, and of the Communist Party of India (M), which stood fourth in the byelection.
BVA will be banking on disgruntlement among local BJP workers over the seat being given to Shiv Sena and among Sena cadres over the party fielding a turncoat rather than one of its own. Given the significance of the bullet train for Modi and BJP, the opposition will hope to leverage the situation in the election.
BULLET TRAIN IN NUMBERS
Rs 1.1 lakh crore