Photo: Aarefa Johari
The Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti (PSS) of Vadodara, Gujarat has written a letter dated August 3, to the Prime Minister of India regarding the rampant land acquisition being undertaken for the Mumbai Ahmedabad Bullet train project during the lockdown. The letter has also been addressed to the Managing Director of National High Speed Rail Corporation Limited (NHSRCL); the President of Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) as well as the Chief Ministers of Gujarat and Maharashtra.
The Bullet train project between the two cities, also known as the Mumbai-Ahmedabad High-Speed Rail (MAHSR) Project, is a work in progress and the process of the land that needs to be acquired for the same is also ongoing. The Gujarat government, on June 22, issued a public notice inviting objections for compulsory land acquisition for the project, to be submitted within 60 days. The letter states, “This Notice has been issued whilst the Covid-19 Pandemic cases are rising in the country and state, when it is difficult to assemble required information for submission by the affected parties as administration and working of all offices are stressed and sluggish”.
The letter further highlights the fact that many areas in south and central Gujarat have been visited by officials of NHSRCL, some forest officers and land surveyors without any intimation. “It is only then that these owners were informed that their properties are being “acquired” for the “national project” and they have lost all their right to sell/rent it to anyone else now and would have to vacate,” states the letter.
These sudden visits have fed the financial insecurity and livelihood crisis resulting in depression, stress, and uncertainty amongst the people. It further states that the proposed acquisitions will only add to the stress and anxiety among people already prevalent due to the Covid-19 pandemic and will expose people who will be displaced to greater health risks. The letter also emphasizes that since the lockdown is in place in many areas, there is restriction on movement and also access to legal help is limited and so is access to justice due to limited functioning of the courts. The letter states that undertaking land acquisition when there is restriction on people, snatches their right to “adequately communicate their suggestions, objections, or opposition to the acquisition and the project or take any legal action to protect their rights”.
On one hand the government has asked people to stay home and maintain social distancing and on the other hand a public notice dated June 30, of the Gujarat government states that holders of lands should not stop surveyors from entering and surveying the property. The many problems being faced by the country include the pandemic Covid-19 of which there are more than 1.7 million cases; 1.4 million Indians have lost their jobs; more than 45% households across the nation have reported a sudden and unexpected drop in income levels; many industries have cut salaries of its employees.
In the letter, PSS argues that the Covid-19 crisis is akin to a financial emergency in the country and in such times when people with no income need assistance, the government is spending money on extravagant projects such as this one.
The letter states, “The Mumbai-Ahmedabad High-Speed Rail (MAHSR) Project is not a vital service that is required in such a sudden and severe crisis. The Indian Government, in collaboration with Japan, is planning to spend more than one lakh crore rupees for this project. The Government can and should put on hold this project that, in turn, will save the government time and resources required for the nation at this stage.”
The project has allegedly violated some guidelines laid out by JICA which are to be followed for international projects funded by JICA. PSS has written previously to JICA in December 2018, raising the issue of flouting of guidelines and then again in June 2019. As per the June 2019 letter, some representatives of JICA had sought some documents from PSS regarding their concerns and then had submitted a detailed report with inputs from the project affected people and local stakeholders as well as PSS. Further, in a letter of July 2019 to JICA, PSS asked for a copy of this detailed report and stated that JICA is “legally and morally responsible for thoroughly reviewing all the procedures and address the concerns”. It was further highlighted that the project is not following the recognised Prior Informed Consent principles and is not even offering appropriate and adequate compensation to farmers liable to lose land.
The letter now states that the government needs to “rethink development as well as development priorities and not to use the pandemic as a chance to hasten an unsustainable, opportunistic, and destructive development agenda.”
The PSS has demanded that the government stops all activities related to the project, withdraws all notices pertaining to the same and that all previous acquisitions for the project where compensation is still being considered, should be put on hold and the land owners should be allowed to enjoy the land for routine use.
The complete letter may be read here.