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Gujarat elections: Modi’s Dholera dream is a tale of delay, progress and resistance

Dholera, a remote village is being undergoing transformation to be converted into a modern industrial hub as a part of the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor.

assembly elections Updated: Nov 21, 2017 07:37 IST
Prashant Jha
Prashant Jha
Hindustan Times, Dholera/Bavaliyari/Gandhinagar
Gujarat elections,Gujarat polls,Narendra Modi
Construction work for basic infrastructure proceeds in the activation zone in Dholera. This is supposed to be completed by 2019.(HT Photo)

A few metres from the main Dholera chowk stands Hotel Vision Modi.

The name is apt — for converting this far-flung village into a modern industrial hub as a part of the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC) is dear to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In an office complex next to the hotel, a group of officials assesses the progress in construction work in what is being termed the ‘activation zone’ nearby. JP Shivahare, CEO of Dholera Special Investment Region Development Authority (SIRDA), says, “This will be one of the world’s most liveable cities.”

Not everyone agrees.

Exactly 23 kilometres away, in the village of Bavaliyari, Pradhyumna Singh is carefully poring over the text of the SIR Act, which provides the framework for converting 22 villages of the area into an industrial hub. He argues the project will destroy the lives, culture and livelihood of 110,000 residents of the region.

“This is not a project for development but destruction.” Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi has promised him if Congress comes to power, complaints of farmers — worried about the loss of their land — would be addressed.

In those contrasting images — of a group of officials executing a project at the heart of Modi’s vision and a determined farmer movement lobbying hard with the Opposition to prevent it — lies the story of a mega project in Gujarat.

The past, the future

First, some quick history. Under Phase 1 of the DMIC, eight nodes were to be developed as smart industrial townships across six states. Of the eight, the Ahmedabad-Dholera Investment Region is the biggest, over 920 sq kms.

The SIR Act was passed in 2009. Since then, the project has progressed, but very gradually. It was only in March 2016 that a contract was awarded for road and service construction in an activation zone of 22.54 km.

As Shivahare drives through the activation zone, he explains the challenge: “Look, China has done many such projects. This is the first for us — converting barren land and an entirely rural area into a city matching global standards.” We drive through L&T construction boards, trucks, and material. “An amount of ₹2,784 crore is being spent to develop this area. It will have roads, water treatment plant, sewage treatment plant, solid waste management systems, power transmission and substations, ICT networks,” says Shivahare. This is coupled with work on connectivity.

But these plans sound abstract to people in the vicinity. Across villages, there is wonder and cynicism about the project. At Lolia, between Ahmedabad and Dholera, Rathore Jayantbhai says, “People have been talking about it for ten years. Let it happen first. This is all on paper. We have not benefited at all.” This was because of a cycle, say officials. Since the infrastructure is not ready, companies cannot come. And since companies have not come, the sense is the project has not taken off at all. Shivahare claims the current phase of work was invisible. But their objective is to find an ‘anchor tenant’— if one big company decides to set up a plant here, it will have a domino effect. That would be visible.

“We want a big brand name, a company which will also bring in many ancillary units since that is where mass employment will be created; a minimum investment; and jobs. Our eventual target is employment for 8.5 lakh people.”

The land debate

The story of Dholera however is neither as simple nor as linear, for as one steps out of the guided tour by officials, the deep divide among locals about the project is palpable.

First, the supporters. In Hotel Vision Modi itself, are two land brokers. Dharmendra Singh says, “This is barren land. The government will take 50% land from each household, but it will use that to develop roads, power, facilities and so the value of the remaining 50% land will significantly appreciate. There will also be employment when companies come in. Our villagers are illiterate so they don’t understand.”

Singh’s words are echoed by Shabbir, a shopkeeper inside the Dholera village bazaar. “Dholera can be like Delhi. We will have metro to Gandhinagar. We will have big companies and big jobs.”

But if traders, shopkeepers, land brokers are for the project, there is palpable opposition from the farmers of the region. The critique is most forcefully articulated by Pradhyumna Singh, the president of the Bhal Bachao Andolan, who has gone to court.

Singh mocks government officials for using the word ‘partner’ for farmers. “In the SIR Act, the word farmer or agriculture is not even mentioned. There is no concept of compensation or rehabilitation. All they want is to take 50% of our land without any compensation — and the 50% that remains will be allotted to us in areas not ripe for agriculture. Partnership happens voluntarily, not through coercion.”

Singh also adds that they will not, according to SIR Act, have the right to rent or sell the land. “We will be reduced to becoming tenants of SIR authority, with only cultivation and no ownership rights in practice.”

When asked about the possible employment benefits, Singh is dismissive. “There is no education in this area. We don’t have a single higher secondary school, no science education, no colleges. Today’s industries require qualified individuals. How are our boys going to get good jobs? They will all be reduced to chowkidars. In agriculture, everyone gets work — the old and young, the educated and uneducated. The distribution of income through agriculture is much higher. We would rather be owners of our land than have such jobs.”

He also rebuts the government’s argument that this is barren land. Singh argues many villages in what is now SIR were within the command area of the Narmada — and thus eligible for its water. “Through an arbitrary order in 2011, the government removed these areas, ‘decommanded’ it. Once we get the water, it will be ripe for agriculture.”

It is with these grievances that Singh and other farmers met Rahul Gandhi in early November. They told him that the SIR Act violates the 2013 Land Acquisition Act.

“He told us that if they form the government, within a week, they will invite us and discuss solutions to the problem. And if they lose the elections, they will join our movement and support us.”

The defence

Dholera authorities, however, claim that many of these arguments are based on misconceptions. Back in his Gandhinagar office, Shivahare says, “Even though the Act does not require us to give compensation for the 50% land we take — because the logic is that the value of the 50% land which remains with them will significantly appreciate — we are still providing them compensation.”

He also insists they are trying to provide the developed land — the 50% that remains with the farmers — in the original plot.

“People will be accommodated, as far as possible, in their own land. And if at all they are shifted, it will be to prominent locations.”

At the moment though, the Dholera story is one of progress- work has finally begun — coupled with uncertainty.

It remains caught between its search at the top for ‘anchor tenants’ which can accelerate the project and the pressure from below from farmers who don’t want it to proceed at all.

The Gujarat 2017 election will determine if the project, under the BJP, moves with vigour or

if, under the Congress, it is re-examined.

First Published: Nov 21, 2017 07:36 IST