Bullet train project

Trust deficit

Print edition : March 01, 2019

Representatives of the JICA agency in discussion with residents of a village in Palghar district. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Despite the best efforts of the rail authorities and Japan’s JICA agency, local residents in Maharashtra are firmly against Narendra Modi’s pet bullet train project.

“If you get the details of the route, where the train will be stopping, etc. …what do you think… [would that be of some help]?” asks a Japanese representative of the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in a short video clip. A local man from Maharashtra’s Palghar district begins to respond by saying, “We do not want any destruction”, but he is interrupted by a woman who boldly steps forward and categorically states: “We don’t want to give our land, so details of the route are irrelevant to us. We wish to make it clear that any details of this train that you wish to give us are like an irrelevant story in our lives. We do not want to give our land—that is all.”

The feelings of the local people cannot get any clearer than what was said in the video clip featuring villagers who interacted with JICA representatives on January 22 and 23. JICA is the funding agency for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project, which is to be executed by National High Speed Rail Corporation Limited. The project cost is Rs.1.10 lakh crore, of which Rs.88,000 crore would come as a loan from Japan via JICA. The 530-kilometre-long train route will cut the travel time between the two cities from seven hours to less than three. The bullet train is expected to cover the distance at a maximum speed of 320 km per hour. During peak hours, the 10-coach train will depart every 20 minutes.

From the administration’s point of view, such efficiencies are integral to the economic growth of the country. But for the small farmers and tribal people in Maharashtra who will be affected by the project, the bullet train is nothing more than a dangerous disruption to their lives and livelihoods. They have categorically stated that they are not interested in selling their land. They have also said that offers of alternative land will not be entertained as that will tear apart the social and emotional fabric of their lives since villages will be separated. Fully aware that once they sell their land they will have no other source of income, they have decided to band together and protest against the acquisition of their land by the rail corporation.

Their protest has been local but consistent over 14 months, and now JICA has been forced to acknowledge it. For two days in January, a team comprising JICA India chief representative Katsuo Matsumoto, senior representative Kengo Akamine and principal development specialist Mihir Sorti met with the local people in Palghar; earlier, another team met with affected villagers in Gujarat.

Brian Lobo of the Kashtakari Sanghatana said that the JICA team met farmers from Bharodi in Bhiwandi taluk and then proceeded to Mhatardi village, where the Thane bullet train station was proposed. They then met local people in Kotbi in Dahanu taluk and Dhamangaon and Amgaon in Talasari. The next day, the team interacted with farmers in Hanuman Nagar and Kalale villages in Palghar. Lobo said that the villagers “repeatedly said they will lose their only means of survival. They stated they were being forced to give up their lands, without their free, informed and prior consent.”

Mobilising the anti-bullet train movement are groups such as the Kashtakari Sanghatana, the All India Kisan Sabha, the Bhumi Adhikari Andolan, the Bhoomi Sena, the Adivasi Ekta Parishad and the Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti. They say that in promoting his pet project, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has violated the Panchayat Extensions to Scheduled Areas Act, 1996, which was enacted to ensure self-governance through traditional gram sabhas for people living in Scheduled Areas in the country.

Palghar is a Scheduled Area, and most of those who will be displaced by the project in Palghar and Thane are tribal people and small farmers. The activists said the project also violated the United Nations Charter of Indigenous Peoples. Further, environmental rules will also be violated, especially in Mhatardi village, where mangrove wetlands will be destroyed during the laying of the rail lines.

After meeting with the villagers, the JICA team said they understood the concerns and found them “reasonable” and that a report based on the “actual ground reality regarding the bullet train” would be submitted to the governments of India and Japan.

Opposition to the bullet train began as soon as it was announced. In September 2017, when Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were laying the foundation stone for the project in Ahmedabad’s Sabarmati, tribal organisations held a black flag demonstration in Palghar. Since then, villagers have steadily refused to part with their land and it is only of late that the administration has changed its tactics.

Instead of a public declaration of the rates that will be paid for land, they have started individually approaching landowners.

On January 17, before the JICA visit, a parcel of private land was acquired by the Palghar district administration. A mere 0.4 hectare, the acquired piece was still symbolic of the battle that had been fought and the battle that lay ahead. The price at which it was acquired, Rs.34.69 lakh, was acceptable to the owner Shrikant Ram Vilas Pande of Bilalpada village. Activists and those opposed to the sale of land are concerned because the hefty amount may tempt others.

“Hearing the actual price of their land is far more persuasive than knowing the general rate that is being offered per acre. It is a common practice to do this to persuade people to sell,” said a retired bureaucrat experienced in project-related land acquisition. The state seems to have pressed the right psychological buttons because it is understood that other farmers have approached the administration expressing curiosity about what they might expect for their land.

Of the 530-km-long track, 108 km lies in Palghar for which 302.53 hectares are required. Some 221 hectares are privately owned. The rest is state and forest land, which will likely be cleared swiftly. Seventy-three villages in Palghar and 31 in Thane districts will be affected by the train’s route.

JICA and the rail corporation have networked extensively among the villages, but the residents are largely unmoved. In fact, one attempt at networking by the rail corporation aroused the ire of the local people. The rail corporation has been trying health and drinking water outreach programmes.

A clinic was opened in Palghar last November, but local people forcibly shut it down saying that they could not be hoodwinked this way to sell their land. It was only a brief victory for them as the survey work continued unabated even though landowners persisted in rejecting purchase offers and even tried to prevent surveyors from entering their land.

The project enjoys the backing of both State governments and has the blessings of Modi. Surveyors have been given police protection and allowed to carry out their work and, in effect, enter private land.

Palghar has so far been the hotbed of protests. Residents here have a better knowledge of land acquisition and resettlement than others. Some were resettled here after their homes and lands were taken over for a canal irrigation project of the Surya river about 30 years ago. These people are vociferous in their protests. They say they will be doubly displaced if the bullet train project takes away their land.

Interacting with villagers via an interpreter, the JICA team asked them why there was such mistrust of the government. According to Lobo, the people retorted saying that they could not trust a government that had not fulfilled its promises to other project-affected persons who had “been left high and dry even 40 years later”.

Some families in Hanuman Nagar were displaced by the Surya canal project and still do not have their names on the land records despite land having been officially allotted to them.

Trust, clearly, is not something the bullet train’s promoters can expect.