Government’s dream, farmers’ nightmare
Mumbai city news: The BJP may have to pay a very heavy price for the Nagpur-Pune expressway.mumbai Updated: Jul 19, 2017 00:04 IST
When Sharad Pawar was chief minister of Maharashtra in the 1990s, he notched up two very visible achievements - the building of India’s first expressway from Mumbai to Pune and converting a staid government (Sahyadri) guest house into a luxury resort. But by the time the latter was ready for occupation, the Congress was out of power and Pawar never got to occupy those luxury suites.
Now somewhat similar but rather more complicated was the case of the expressway. The project was conceptualised in the first place because of the personal inconvenience the chief minister faced - Pawar frequented his home town by road and was left stranded on many an occasion on the old highway for hours together.
But there is a fundamental difference between Pawar and current chief minister Devendra Fadnavis of the BJP, who has also conceptualised the Nagpur-Mumbai expressway for the same reason – needing a faster road route to approach the state capital from his own home constituency. Pawar, however, was conscious of the fact that he needed to get back to power with a popular vote and in seeking a faster road between Pune and Bombay, he would not crush the villagers enroute underfoot. There was fierce resistance to his expressway by villagers, though not for livelihood issues. The highway would separate them from their friends and relatives, many of who would end up on the opposite side of the project and would have to travel long miles to visit each other, when now they could just cross over and drop in on their friends anytime, instead of making a planned trip of it. The Pawar government was still negotiating with them to find a reasonable way out of this impasse when his government went out of power and Nitin Gadkari, coming in as the minister for Public Works, bulldozed all their objections and made faster progress on it before his government too was voted out of power. The next Congress-NCP government finished what they had started but then were faced with an odd situation – dacoities and holdups on the superfast expressway that led to not only loot but caused many serious accidents when motorists had to brake suddenly and there were multiple pile ups. The government soon discovered these dacoits were resentful villagers who thought they had been deprived because of the convenience of these motorists and so wanted to deprive them too.
However, as their livelihoods had not been taken away from them, many were persuaded to give up dacoity and robbery. I am not so sure it will be that easy for this government to persuade farmers enroute the Samruddhi Expressway to give up their land or even bulldoze their objections. There are large stretches in Amravati and Aurangabad, in Vidarbha and Marathwada respectively, two regions which are highly drought and suicide prone, where farmers will lose their fertile lands and be compelled to follow their compatriots into the other world. But it is the farmers of the Nashik stretch, which is unusually evergreen and fertile through the 12 months of the year, who are now really up in arms against the government. They grow not just cereals but also vegetables and fruits that fetch them enormous sums not just in the local but even the export markets. They are now proving a headache to the government and could end up as its nemesis.
The government’s determination to go ahead with forcible acquisition of their land has already given rise to a fresh new movement of farmers - the Samruddhi Mahamarg Shetkari Sangharsh. It is supported by the combined opposition and includes some allies of the BJP – not just the Shiv Sena but also those like the Swabhimani Shetkari Sangathana, all of who are already crying out loud about the unsatisfactory loan waivers to farmers. Echoes of slogans like “not an inch of my land” and “over my dead body” are reverberating through the fertile greens of Nashik district and farmers have a legitimate question of the government – “you will give us money for our land today but what after that? Money soon runs out but land continues forever and our future generations are assured of a sustainable income.”
In fact, there is also a growing suspicion among farmers that the Samruddhi expressway is being built only to help transporters and cargo companies cut costs, who are already buying up land across the route in anticipation. This brings the classic rich versus poor debate into play again. It is also handing a ready-made issue to the opposition and Fadnavis’s dream is fast snowballing into a nightmare. The BJP is completely isolated on the issue and may have to pay a very heavy price for this road, after all.