Bumpy Ride For India's Bullet Train Project?

BY: Mayank Agrawal, Mongabay

Vartika TomarVartika Tomar   28 Sep 2018 10:11 AM GMT

Bumpy Ride For Indias Bullet Train Project?

India is developing over a 500-kilometre long High Speed Railway (HSR), more popularly known as the bullet train project, between Mumbai and Ahmedabad with primary funding from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

While this is a priority project for the national government, farmers and tribal people who stand to lose their land and houses to the project are mired in confusion about the proposed alignment and are accusing the government of not consulting them properly and working in secrecy.

The farmers and tribal communities along the route are not ready to give up land and point out that there are victims to multiple projects in the area. They are also awaiting fair compensation from earlier projects and have decided to intensify their protests both on ground and inside the court.

"I was not born when my family members were displaced from their ancestral land. Till date we have not got what all was promised to us. Now they want to displace us again from our land. Where will we go? We are just starting our lives. We won't give up on our land come what may," said 18-year-old Dashrath Baraf who had a resolute look on his face as he stood with his friends of the similar age.

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Baraf, a resident of Hanuman Nagar in Palghar district of Maharashtra, is one among thousands of tribal people from Maharashtra and Gujarat who stand to lose from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's dream project – the Mumbai-Ahmedabad High Speed Railway (HSR) Corridor – popularly called the "Bullet Train" project.

The route will connect Maharashtra's capital and the country's financial centre Mumbai, with Ahmedabad, another major business centre of India. It involves a dedicated track of approximately 508 kilometres passing through Maharashtra (~156 kms), Gujarat (~351 kms) and Dadra and Nagar Haveli (two kms), including a seven-kilometre undersea tunnel in Thane Creek. A total of 12 stations are envisaged on the route – Mumbai, Thane, Virar, Boisar, Vapi, Bilimora, Surat, Bharuch, Vadodara, Anand, Ahmedabad, Sabarmati.

Though the maximum design speed is 350 km per hour the maximum operating speed is expected to be around 320 km per hour. The travel time for the whole journey between Mumbai and Ahmedabad is expected to be 2.07 hours on trains with limited stops and 2.58 hours on trains stopping at all stations, both significantly lower than the average travel time of seven to eight hours at present.

The 508.17 km route for the bullet train between Mumbai and Ahmedabad. Map by NHSRCL.

The project's cost is estimated to be in the vicinity of Rs. 1.08 trillion (Rs. 108,000 crore) and about 81 percent of the project cost (Rs. 880 billion/Rs. 88,000 crore) is being provided by Japan as a soft loan at 0.1 percent per annum with repayment period of 50 years including a grace period of 15 years.

The funding from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) has been the subject of speculation in several recent news reports. In response to a set of queries sent by Mongabay-India, regarding protests by tribal people and farmers against the project, JICA said it is aware about them and is trying to ascertain the facts.

Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay.

"As far as the protests are concerned we are aware of it through various articles, but we are currently confirming the facts with the executing agency. Land acquisition is the responsibility of the Indian Government, and land acquisition is not scheduled to be funded under the ODA (Official Development Assistance) loan," said JICA.

Shankar in Borigam village, Vapi will lose his only asset, his house, to the bullet train project. He says that there has been no discussion about compensation and fears becoming homeless. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay.

Resistance from tribals and farmers

During its entire journey, the bullet train will pass through a total of 11 districts of Gujarat and Maharashtra. It is expected to directly affect around 5,400 people. According to the Joint feasibility study for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad high-speed railway corridor: Final report by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and India's Ministry of Railways, some of the districts such as Navsari, Valsad, Surat, Bharuch, Vadodara and Thane have high to significantly high tribal population.

The joint feasibility report notes that India has the second largest concentration of tribal population in the world. The fact that the concerns of the tribal communities have not been addressed for the previous projects is reflected in the joint feasibility report. It notes that "most of the development projects failed to provide basic amenities to the displaced people, which is a critical area of concern".

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The report also notes that "given indigenous peoples' distinct cultures and identities and their frequent marginalization from the surrounding society, interventions may run the risk of imposing changes to or disruption of their culture and social organization, whether inadvertently or not".

That is why Baraf's determination and opposition to the project is not a case of empty bravado. A few months ago, when the officials involved with the bullet train project were to enter his village for survey work, the villagers stood guard at the boundaries to stop the officials from entering. The opposition was led by women. But the officials never turned up as apparently they were informed in advance of the on-ground opposition awaiting them.

Veteran tribal rights leader Kaluram Dhodade, Kaka, pointing towards an area that'll be taken under the bullet train project.

Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay.

Mongabay-India visited many such villages on the route of the proposed bullet train recently, during which it interacted with villagers who voiced their pain and anger on losing their land to multiple projects passing their area and never getting their due.

Baraf, standing with his friends and elders of his village, pointed out towards the dilapidated building of a primary health centre that has no staff – an example of the apathy of the administration towards them.

Similar is the case with other villages along the route. Bharodi, a village in Thane district of Maharashtra, is opposing the project so strongly that it is suspicious of any official entering the village. Recently, they made the officials of the National High-Speed Rail Corporation Limited (NHSRCL) apologise for entering their fields without permission. The NHSRCL, formed by the government of India, is the implementing agency of the project.

Bharadwaj L. Chaudhary, a lawyer who has lost his ancestral land to other development projects in Thane area, is still fighting for a fair compensation from them. He told Mongabay-India that the fight of villagers is not without a reason.

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"What is the point of taking fertile agricultural land that supports both landowners and landless labourers. Hundreds of tribals are employed in these farms. Moreover, the worst part is that there are multiple projects on the same route of Mumbai-Ahmedabad and farmers here stand to lose everything in them. Just a little away from the bullet train route is the route of the proposed expressway between Mumbai and Vadodara," said Bharadwaj.

"But what has miffed the farmers most is the way they are treated by the administration. The administration is not sharing any detail with the village authorities and everything is in complete secrecy," he added.

And this is exactly the case with many other tribal-dominated villages on the route of the bullet train – whether Gujarat or Maharashtra – as they are opposing any loss of land and livelihood to the bullet train project and have even passed gram sabha (village council) resolutions against the project. Many such areas along the route are Scheduled V areas that have special protection under India's Constitution since they have predominantly tribal population. In most of the places the common grouses are that the administration is not revealing all details to them in a transparent manner, it is working against them rather than with them and that they stand to lose to multiple projects between the two major cities.

A plantation in Antroli village near Surat. Many farmers and tribal communities are unwilling to let go of their land for the project mainly because they do not want to give up their livelihoods or they find the compensation plans unfair.

Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay.

Multiple proposed projects threaten survival

According to Shashi Sonawane, who is assisting the tribal communities in their resistance to the bullet train project between India's western coast and the National Highway-8 (NH 48 as per new numbering), there are multiple projects that are threatening the farmers and their land.

"The total distance from coast to NH-8 is around 25-30 km. In this, there is a proposed coastal highway, a railway line, proposed dedicated freight corridor, several transmission lines and pipelines, proposed bullet train alignment, proposed Mumbai-Vadodara expressway and then there is a plan to expand national highway itself. Where will the farmers, fisherfolk and tribals go?" asked Sonawane of the Bhumipatra Bachav Andolan.

"The claims from past projects were not settled properly. What else are tribals and farmers left to do if not protest? The most important question is that who are these multiple alignments being built for? Official records already show that even a premium train like Shatabdi between Mumbai-Ahmedabad runs on half capacity. Who will travel on the bullet train with such costly fare? Basically, farmers and tribals stand to lose with every project and few years down the line they will be sandwiched between all these projects," he added.

Last year, reports had revealed that more than 40 percent of seats on all the trains between Mumbai and Ahmedabad go vacant resulting in significant losses to Western Railway. The Shatabdi Express, a popular and premium train between the two cities saw only 50 percent occupancy. Will the bullet train project be economic viable though?

In 2016, a study by India's premier management institute, the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIM-A) had said that the bullet train will need to undertake 100 trips everyday (88,000-118,000 passengers per day) for it to be financially viable.

Raghunath, 33, of Sakhra village in Maharashtra, explained that biggest problem is trust deficit.

"Look at our land. It is lush green and very fertile. It gives crops throughout the year. It can rival any scenic place in the country. Why should we give up all this for a project which we will never use? I have never even travelled in Shatabdi. My father died when I was a teenager and since then I have stabilised my family. I am not ready to give it up," said Raghunath while standing at the corner of his farms which were lush green after monsoon rainfall a couple of days ago. He had mobilised his villagers and did not allow people coming for the survey to enter their village even when police threatened to arrest him.

"Once the land of an adivasi (tribal) is gone he is left with nothing," he added.

Meeting at Brian Lobo's office in Dahanu to decide future course of action. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay.

A meeting of the Bhumi Adhikar Andolan was recently held in Dahanu (Maharashtra) to decide the future strategy against the project. Brian Lobo of the Kashtakari Sanghatana, that works for tribal community welfare in Maharashtra, said that even the alignment of the project is still not clear. "In any case, whatever be the alignment, the villagers are dead against the Project".

Lobo informed that they had come to know that teachers in Palghar district were told by the local administration to hold meetings with parents of students to suggest measures to raise the standard of education. "Interestingly, these directions were issued only to teachers from villages along the proposed rail-line. It seems that it is a ploy to weaken the opposition to the project."

The trust deficit is so high that at many places tribal communities threw away the microchips that were installed for marking the route of the bullet train.

Sonawane said that on the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti, the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, on October 2, they will be organising a one-day fast outside the district collector's office in Palghar where they will voice their opposition to the project, highlight plight of tribal people and demand a rollback.

Veteran tribal rights leader Kaluram Dhodade, popularly known as "Kaka", of Bhoomi Sena, said displacement of tribal communities in Palghar due to earlier projects did injustice to tribal people living there. "The tribals and farmers here are completely against the bullet train project. We won't give up our land," he stressed.

Many fruit orchards at Sakhare village in Palghar are proposed to be cleared to make way for the bullet train route.

Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay.

Farmers stand to lose fertile agricultural land

In Gujarat, the landscape may not exactly be the same as in Maharashtra, but the issues remain the same. The proposed bullet train enters into Gujarat at Vapi from Palghar in Maharashtra. Till Surat, it passes through Valsad and Navsari area. The whole area is one of the most fertile areas of Gujarat and has huge fruit plantations of mangoes, chiku and others. At some places in Maharashtra and Gujarat, the farmers get multiple crops every year.

The family of Rupeshbhai Nandwana, a farmer in Borigam village in Gujarat, owns about 100 acres and employs hundreds of tribal people every year as agricultural workers for his mango orchards and sugarcane crop.

"A part of our land is expected to be lost to the bullet train project. It will divide the holding in two parts making access difficult. A lot of tribals, who live nearby or work in our fields, will lose their homes. What are we getting in return? Very poor compensation which is not in tune with market value. People whose only livelihood is their land stand to lose it. What about people who only have a house? Where will they go?" Rupeshbhai asked.

Shankar, who lives close to Rupeshbhai's fields, is set to lose his only possession – his house. "I will lose my house to the bullet train project and I have no other place to construct it. We don't want the bullet train here," he said.

Rupeshbhai Nandwana, a farmer from Borigam village in Gujarat fears the damage the bullet train network will do to his land and livelihood and also worries for the fate of the numerous people who live on these route.

Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay.

In Kathor village in Surat, about 100 houses are expected to be acquired for the project and some of the houses are 80 years old. In Vadodara, the bullet alignment is passing through the middle of some housing societies.

Bhavesh Barod, a farmer in Antroli area of Surat, whose farmland is going for the Surat station on the bullet train project, asked why are farmers not being offered land in place of land. "The compensation we are being offered will not get us land in the same area. People will need to move from this area," he said.

Rajubhai M. Patel of Kathor village said that he has been living in the area for over 50 years. "Where are we expected to go from here? We will get nothing for our house. This will be forced migration for us," Patel added.

The joint feasibility report also said that based on "interaction and consultations with the indigenous communities, it was very evident that the collective relationship that the indigenous peoples have with their lands, territories and resources is both multi-faceted and profound."

"This relationship is intergenerational and critical to the identity, economic sustainability and survival of these indigenous people as distinct cultural communities with their own worldview and spirituality. Without access to their lands, territories and resources, the physical and cultural survival of indigenous peoples can be threatened," it said.

The joint feasibility report even listed an indicative list of business options for affected communities like a shop for sale of mobile cards, grocery shop, dairy farm, domestic appliance repair shop, tailoring shop, motor mechanic and a tea stall, which involves small investments to start and can be profitable if run efficiently. But whether it will be a convincing argument for the affected population in the villages is to be seen.

The deadline for the bullet train project is 2023 but NHSRCL is trying to complete it by August 2022 – 75th year of India's Independence.

The road ahead for the project, however, is not easy with farmer and tribal organisations deciding to intensify their protest. A case against the land acquisition in Gujarat for the bullet train project is already going on in the Gujarat High Court.

Ashok Dhawale, who leads the Communist Party of India-Marxist-affiliated All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) said they are going to intensify their protest.

"In Palghar district, we will intensify the campaign in every village against both the bullet train and Mumbai-Vadodara expressway. No company or government representative will be allowed in villages to discuss anything about these two projects. No one will give any signature or thumb impression anywhere. There is no question about changing the route of the bullet train or question about the compensation as they don't want to give up the land. On October 2, on Gandhi Jayanti, the villages those have not yet passed resolutions against these two projects will pass them. Following that, all resolutions will be submitted to the government," he said.

"In the first week of October, a national convention will be organised in Delhi where we are trying to ask opposition leaders to clear their stand on bullet train project," he added.

Over 100 houses in Kathor, some of which are seven to eight decades old, are proposed to give way to the bullet train project. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay.

NHSRCL admits that there are concerns

Explaining the opposition from tribal communities and farmers, NHSRCL's Public Relations Officer Dhananjay Kumar stated that there is difference in opposition in Maharashtra and Gujarat.

"The opposition in Gujarat is not for the land. They are opposing the process of the compensation. In Maharashtra, in many villages, they are opposing stating that they have no benefit from the bullet train. There is a clear difference in opposition from people in Gujarat and Maharashtra. The allegations that we are maintaining secrecy is completely false," said Kumar.

He, however, admitted that people have many concerns but said that they are trying to resolve them.

"I can show the letters from the panchayats, the sarpanchs, the gram panchayat and the mukhiyas who told us the kind of social services they need from us (for allowing the bullet train). They are organising discussions to clear the confusion. They are losing their lands and if I am losing my land, I have a lot of questions. So it will take time to resolve those questions. We are approaching the villagers," he added.

He informed that in many internal meetings, "where there were officers of NHSRCL, JICA and the Railway Board, they (JICA) raised their concerns about reports on land acquisition issues".

"We confirmed (to JICA) that we are trying to settle these things," Kumar explained.

"The real picture is that land holders, who are going to lose their lands, have some confusion, concerns and questions. I admit it. We are approaching them through district administration and state governments," he emphasised.

Kumar, however, refused that any gram sabha resolution has been passed against the project. He said "there are no such papers with" them.

A man stands next to a marking pillar left by the NHSRCL authorities inside a residential colony. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay.

Banner Image: A farm in Antroli near Surat which is considered to be very fertile is proposed to be taken over for constructing the bullet train route. Farmers raise issues of unfair compensatory plans in return of such a loss.

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