December 2018 is the official deadline for the land acquisition for the bullet train project but till now not even one percent of the required land is acquired. A court case is already going on in the Gujarat High Court against the land acquisition process undertaken by the Gujarat government.
Despite documents showing that the project has the potential to cause social conflict and have adverse environmental impacts, the complete and final social and environmental impact assessment reports are yet to be made public. The lack of transparency by the administration is one of the main grouses of the communities affected by this project.
With 2019 elections less than one year away, the farmer and tribal rights groups protesting against the project are asking political parties to clarify their stand on the project. They state that they may not vote for the political parties supporting the project.
The much-publicised “bullet train” is estimated to speed through the Mumbai-Ahmedabad corridor in about two hours. But its development is cutting through decades of work by Mother Nature and its protectors.
The Mumbai-Ahmedabad High-Speed Railway (HSR) Corridor project, popularly known as the “bullet train project” is a category-A project as per guidelines by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the primary funder of the project. A proposed project is classified under category-A if it is likely to have significant adverse impacts on the environment and society. Projects with complicated or unprecedented impacts that are difficult to assess or projects with a wide range of impacts or irreversible impacts are also classified as category A.
During its complete stretch, the bullet train route passes through agricultural land, barren land, hills, rivers, hotels, apartments, slums, residential societies, building blocks, markets, commercial areas, fruit orchards, tribal areas, hilly tracts, forest land, hilly areas, rivers, backwaters, marshy land, godowns and more.
According to the draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Assessment (S-EIA) report of April 2018 by the National High-Speed Rail Corporation Limited (NHSRCL), the implementing agency of the project, the rise in sea level is anticipated during the project life cycle of 100 years at seven coastal regulation zones along the alignment. The route also passes through sensitive locations such as temples, mosques, churches, educational institutions and hospitals. Mongabay-India has accessed the summary of the draft S-EIA document.
The 2015 feasibility report had also noted that there are four important bird areas in the vicinity of the proposed route but there is no possibility of modification by this project because they are away from the planned HSR route.
The 2015 report had also noted that that the alignment passes through the eco-sensitive zones of three protected areas – the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary and Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary (where it is underground). While Thane Creek is famous as a visiting place for migratory birds such as flamingos, the Sanjay Gandhi National Park is known for its leopard population.
An environmental management plan is in the works for minimisation, mitigation and control of residual impacts, for both, construction and operation phases. A series of mitigation measures have been planned by NHSRCL, but experts are convinced that the project will have a negative effect on the environment.
“The project will spell doom for Thane creek as well as poor people,” said Girish Salgaoncar, a social activist in Thane area working for the welfare of Koli community.
“Such projects are nothing but a result of political whims and fancies. It also seems to be imposed by the foreign lenders. It is not really required especially with so many environmental and social hazards. It was not pushed or planned ever before but suddenly everyone is pushing for it. Who is going to compensate for this permanent loss?” said Professor Sanjay M.G., an energy expert and an activist who works with the National Alliance of People’s Movements.
Though unconfirmed, estimates have pegged that about 80,000 trees will be cut due to the project, which NHSRCL calls “baseless”.
“This is totally baseless. As per first assessment, it was that 50,000 trees will be cut but that was when the track was on the ground but now it is elevated. The actualnumber of trees will come later once the full survey is done. But it can be half of 50,000. This is not clear as of now. We are also looking at not cutting those trees and looking at translocation,” said NHRSRCL’s public relations officer Dhananjay Kumar.
“Wherever mangroves are getting affected, we will be replanting them,” he added.
Interestingly, the NHSRCL’s draft EIA report notes that 37,384 trees will be cut for the project. The 2015 joint feasibility study had identified that a total of 80,347 fruit bearing and timber trees will be affected by the project.
Environment/social impact reports yet to be made public
One of the prime points of protest by the communities that will be affected by the project is the lack of transparency and the administration not sharing project details with the village authorities.
In the same vein, the complete social impact assessment (SIA) and the environmental impact assessment (EIA) report of the mega bullet train project is also yet to be made public, even as there are concerns that the project is expected to have an adverse impact on over 80 hectares of forest land and mangroves, wildlife, trees and will cause soil displacement, loss of fertile agricultural land and fruit orchards, generation of noise, dust emissions and more.
SIA and EIA are key requirements under the guidelines of Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) which is providing about 81 percent (Rs. 880 billion/Rs. 88,000 crores) of the total project cost of Rs 1.08 trillion (Rs. 108,000 crores).
Also, the deadline to acquire over 1400 hectares of land in Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Maharashtra and Gujarat, required for the mega project, is coming up in less than 100 days. But the land so far acquired is only 0.0006 percent (0.9 hectares) which was government land to start with. This practically means that in the next three months the governments intend to acquire land at a breakneck speed, even as farmers and tribals raise pitch against it both on the ground and inside the courts.
However, NHSRCL’s Public Relations Officer Dhananjay Kumar stated that the complete SIA and EIA will be made public soon.
“They are going on. There are 300 villages but in all of them, the survey is not yet completed. As the progress happens, we are adding the pages (to the reports). When the final report will be compiled, we will upload everything on the website,” said Kumar while replying to Mongabay-India’s query about the final SIA and EIA reports.
When asked that how soon will the reports be made public and whether they will be made public before the land acquisition deadline of December 2018, Kumar said, “It will take time. There are still three months. SIA and EIA are completed internally but not externally. It will be put online before the 2018 end.”
He further informed that in the in the complete stretch, there are about 7,000 plots and about 15,000 families that are going to be affected.
“In Vadodara, the bullet train alignment is passing through the middle of a housing society. How can that be justified? So many farmers have filed affidavits against giving up land for the bullet train project. Authorities are also making misleading claims,” said Hasmukh Bhatt of Ekta Grameen Praja Vichhar Manch, a group working for farmers in Gujarat.
The bullet train project is the dream project of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and it envisages connecting 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 km), Gujarat (~351 km) and Dadra and Nagar Haveli (two km), 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.
The project may trigger social conflict
The government believes that the bullet train will bring “connectivity boost to least developed areas” and there is “potential for development of new production bases and townships along the corridor. It is also expecting long-term infrastructure development and reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
Experts, however, think otherwise. They feel the development along the corridor will lead to an increase in urbanisation, fight for resources and social conflicts.
The draft EIA report 2018 observed that due to the influx of labourers there will be temporary changes in land use due to establishment of labour camps. It also noted that the project activity could lead to stress on infrastructure, stress on social relations and social conflict due to the inflow of workforce – something that experts feel could be easily exploited by political leaders.
“The authorities claim that the bullet train project will lead to the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. This may not be the case as massive development along the corridor will stress the existing resources. And the track record of successive governments over past decades have shown that planned and sustainable urbanisation has rarely happened,” said Shashi Sonawane of the Bhumiputra Bachav Andolan, who is working with tribals in Palghar, Maharashtra.
“The labour influx can also lead to social conflicts and this tension becomes a ready fodder for political parties,” he added.
Fruit orchards to be impacted but NHSRCL has no answer
The proposed bullet train route is also expected to severely affect the fruit orchards, mainly in south Gujarat area from Vapi to Surat and that is one of the major complaints of farmers in the region.
The 2015 joint feasibility study had identified that 26,980 fruit bearing trees and 53,457 timber trees will be affected by the project.
One such farmer in village Achchhari of Vapi in Gujarat is Mehul Chimanlal Shah who stated that the compensation won’t suffice for loss of their fruit trees.
“South Gujarat, our area, is known for its fruit orchards. A lot of us export fruits as well. Though we have heard that the government will compensate for fruit trees like mangoes but will that be in tune with its full life cycle? A mango tree takes years to mature and then gives fruit for decades. But the government will wash its hands off with a paltry compensation. This is injustice to us,” Shah, who has a mango orchard, told Mongabay-India.
Manubhai Patel of Bilimora area in Gujarat, where one of the 12 stations of the bullet train project is planned, said “my house and farms are going in the project.”
“We have good fruit orchards. But no one has talked to us as yet. What are we supposed to do but protest,” he added.
Manubhai Patel and many who are losing their fruit orchards and farms for Bilimora station told Mongabay-India that the proposed Bilimora station in Kesli village is about seven-eight kilometres away from the national highway.
“Why don’t they build it near the highway? Who will board the bullet train from here? We certainly won’t use such a costly transport when flight or car will be cheaper for us,” said 35-year-old Arun Patel of Kesli village whose farms will also be affected due to the project.
The concerns of farmers about fruit orchards seem valid as even the NHSRCL was silent on the issue.
“We are assessing this problem. As soon as we get the whole result, we will share,” said NHSRCL’s Dhananjay Kumar.
He also stated that December 2023 is the deadline of the project but the government is trying to complete it by August 15, 2022 – which is 75th year of country’s independence – as a gift to all Indians.
Environmental and social issues are not the only problem that the mega project is facing. While farmers in Maharashtra are protesting on ground, the farmers in Gujarat led by Gujarat Khedut Samaj (GKS) is fighting a case in the Gujarat High Court against the land acquisition for the bullet train project. Gujarat Khedut Samaj (GKS) claims to have a total membership of over 500,000 farmers in Gujarat.
GKS’s President Jayesh Patel said that the farmers of Gujarat are together in protesting against the bullet train project.
“This project is being forced on the farmers without taking into account their welfare. This is autocracy. Already about 1,000 affidavits have been submitted by the farmers wherein they have clearly told the High Court that they don’t want to give their land. In days to come, we will submit hundreds of more such affidavits. We will take the fight to the logical conclusion. Until the interests of farmers are taken care of we won’t stop,” Patel told Mongabay-India.
Will it become an election issue?
Though the tribals and farmers are upset over forced displacement for the bullet train project and other multiple infrastructural development projects, there is mixed response to the question that whether it will turn into an election issue.
In Maharashtra, tribal leaders and groups have already asked the political parties to clarify their stand ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
For instance, in Vehele village in Thane district of Maharashtra, Mangesh B Bhoir said, “If the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) continues to push for bullet train we won’t vote for it in the 2019 elections.” Bhoir is expected to lose 3.5 acres of his land to the project.
In Gujarat, many of the farmers, who are losing their land, said they have been traditional voters of the BJP and have been supporting Narendra Modi. But claim they may think otherwise if Modi government or BJP government doesn’t think about their welfare.
But in some cases, the religious fault lines in the society run deep.
For instance, a farmer in Vadodara, who has already lost a majority of his over four-acre land in a road project, said, while wishing anonymity, that even if the other remaining land goes for any project he will still vote for BJP as they are working for welfare of the majority religious community. His cousin brother is expected to lose his land in the bullet train project as well and he himself is closely working with those farmers who are resisting giving up their land for the bullet train project.