Chande Kasare is a large village near Shirdi in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district. In 2003, the state government acquired land here for a four-lane highway connecting Mumbai and Nagpur.

Fourteen years later, government officials are back in the village, asking people for land to build another highway between Mumbai and Nagpur. This will be an eight-lane super expressway that the government is pitching as the future engine for the development of the entire state.

According to the people of Chande Kasare, the state does not intend to use the land it has already acquired, where the old highway has already been built. Instead, it wants new land, which, in some places, is merely one km away from the existing highway.

“The land pooling scheme is actually a land grabbing scheme,” alleged Jnaneshwar Hon, a resident of Chande Kasare. The government acquired land for a Mumbai-Nagpur highway in 2003-’04, he said. This was an expansion of the old road running past the village. People lost around a quarter of an acre at that time. “These same people are losing land to the new road,” he added.

Before asking why the government is building an entirely greenfield expressway (greenfield projects are those that are built from scratch on land where there is no prior development) when it already has land acquired from a previous project along a similar route, it is important to understand why the state wants this expressway in the first place.

Most of Maharashtra’s national and state highways are concentrated in the western part of the state and run from North to South. There are few East-West highways passing through the central region of Marathwada and the eastern region of Vidarbha.

Successive governments have attempted to address this regional imbalance by starting new projects in the central and eastern parts of the state, but several projects remain incomplete.

Many highways run out of steam because they are public-private partnerships where it is the responsibility of the developers to both partially finance and build the project before transferring it to the government. In road projects, the company is then given rights to toll collection for a period of time to recover their costs.

In some cases, the private companies that had been given contracts to build the highways were not able to meet the project deadlines because of land acquisition problems and escalation of costs. Even projects that were completed have faced trouble in recovering investments.

For instance, the construction of the Nagpur-Aurangabad-Sinnar-Ghoti-Mumbai road, as the highway passing through Chande Kasare is officially known, began in 2002, two years after it was commissioned. According to a Comptroller and Auditor General report, the project was completed before 2014, at a cost of Rs 765.94 crores.

However, the company has not been able to collect toll on this road since June 2014, when the government ordered eight toll nakas on the route to be shut down in the face of public protests against the poor quality of the road. In parts, the highway has just two lanes and is barely wider than a village road. Other parts are far wider, up to four lanes. As of 2015, a proposal for reimbursement of Rs 1,795 crores, including interest, that the construction company submitted to the state government was still pending.

Residents of Chande Kasare recently refurbished this 100-year-old temple, which they now fear will be swallowed by the new expressway. Residents have so far prevented surveyors from surveying the land around their village and it is therefore not certain that this structure will be razed. (Photo credit: Mridula Chari.)

Funding contortions

The Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation, which is is executing the super expressway project, says this expressway will be different from such big-ticket projects that have come before.

Both the Mumbai-Pune Expressway and Bandra-Worli sea link in Mumbai began as Build-Operate-Transfer projects where private companies have to raise funds and build the roads in question. Build-Operate-Transfer projects are a form of public-private partnerships, which are contracts that governments enter into with private companies, typically to build infrastructure.

After delays and a lack of interest from private bidders, the corporation changed the terms of the tenders and funded these two projects itself through private bond placements at low rates, on the guarantee of the Maharashtra government.

The corporation intends to follow a similar funding route for the Mumbai-Nagpur super expressway. In this, it is closely following the vision for road development as laid out by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre.

One of the major thrusts of the Union government has been to scale up the pace of road and highway construction. As a part of this vision, it has pushed for new models of highway development, including a contract known as Engineering Procurement Construction, which shifts the burden of financing the project to the project owner, which is the government. The project owner lays out the plan and issues a tender only for the engineering and construction expertise of bidders. It will also procure construction material at its own cost.

Build-Operate-Transfer contracts, said Radheshyam Mopalwar, vice-chairperson and managing director of the corporation, often get stuck because of concessions to private contractors.

“In BOT [Build-Operate-Transfer], the contractor can make an excuse, but in EPC [Engineering Procurement Construction], the government cannot,” said Mopalwar. “If the government undertakes a project, it has to complete it.”

Theoretically, this reduces the possibility of costs escalating or of projects slowing down due to the developers. But in practice, the roadblocks to quick construction remain the same. Land acquisition, for instance, continues to be slow, resulting in a highway building pace that matches that of the previous United Progressive Alliance government at its best in 2012-’13.

Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis is reported to be in direct talks with the Asian Development Bank for funding the expressway. State governments are only allowed to incur domestic debt, so it is the Union government that will stand surety for them, even as fluctuations in exchange rates are passed on to states. The state also has the option of raising private bonds, said Mopalwar.

Backwaters of a dam built at Pimpalgaon-Mor, Igatpuri, in 2008. Residents say they still have not received full compensation for the land they lost for this project. (Photo credit: Mridula Chari).

Greenfield project

The question still remains: given the existence of the highway that passes through Chande Kasare in Ahmednagar, why is the state insisting on building a super expressway as an entirely greenfield project?

This is because the Indian Roads Congress manual of 2013 for expressway projects stipulates that all inter-city expressways must be greenfield. These expressways must have minimal contact with built-up areas.

This stipulation creates other similarly strange cases.

Fifteen years ago, say villagers, the state government acquired land for a road in Deola, a village in Nashik’s Igatpuri taluka, just East of the western Ghats. The road, meant to run between Nashik and Shirdi, swallowed with it the village’s library and a primary health centre. At that time, the government promised to relocate the two facilities on other village land, but later realised that the village had no common land left.

“The government gave in writing that it would rebuild the buildings that went in the Sinnar road,” said Raghunath Tokde, a former sarpanch of Deola. “Nobody did that. Nobody here has trust in the government. Adhikari aate jaate hain, hum kya kar sakte hain?” The authorities come and go without asking us.

The reason that there was no land to build the new buildings was that the village had already lost land to a dam, a power station and a railway line, said Tokde. The only land left apart from the gaothans, or village land, is private farmland. Now, even this is likely to be swallowed by the proposed expressway.

This is the case across Igatpuri, say activists and politicians who have been mobilising resistance to the project. Since Independence, more than half the land in Igatpuri has been acquired by the government, claims Bhaskar Gunjal, a Congress functionary and member of a cooperative farmers’ society. Protests are now low-key in this taluka because of the code of conduct that is in place ahead of the coming civic elections.

The Army has 12,000 hectares of land for a firing range, 9,500 hectares have gone in building 11 big and small dams, 300 hectares have gone for the Nashik-Shirdi express highway, 2,500 hectares for a Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation enclave and 400 hectares to the railways. Almost 22,000 hectares are forest land, leaving just around 34,000 hectares of land, he said.

By his calculation, this amounts to well more than half the land in the district, not differentiating between land that has been bought by outsiders as investment and left fallow, and between that which is cultivable or not.

Mopalwar justified the requirement for building greenfield expressways instead of expanding existing highways.

“The geometry is such in existing roads that you cannot have 100 to 200-metre wide roads,” said Mopalwar. As these are often local roads used by villagers, there is steady traffic. The expressway will be an access-controlled route, with limited entry points at 24 places, about 30 km apart from each other.

Building a greenfield road also changes the kind of land the government will have to acquire. Urban areas tend to be fragmented and ownership can be difficult to determine. There are fewer landowners in rural areas, and these individuals are likely to be involved in agriculture in some way. The expressway will require 10,000 hectares of land, 9,000 of which are privately held.

Raghunath Tokde of Deola. (Photo credit: Mridula Chari).

Coming together

Where the state’s model stands to be tested is in its ambitious aim to pool land instead of acquiring it. Land pooling, as explained in the first story in this series, greatly reduces the immediate payoff the government will have to give landowners displaced by the project. However, unlike land acquisition, where landowners can be given compensatory land with the relative discretion of the authorities, land pooling is based on the premise of landowners being included in and benefitting from the final project.

For this, the state plans to develop 24 nodes, or urbanised centres, along the expressway, where landowners will be given compensatory developed land complete with amenities such as roads, electricity and sewage facilities. This land will be up to 30% of the amount of land they have pooled for the highway.

The corporation says it plans to build the nodes as well. This will be the first time that the corporation, established in 1996, will execute an urban planning project. The corporation had earlier planned to build townships along the Mumbai-Pune expressway, but that did not materialise, said Mopalwar.

“It was planned on the Mumbai-Pune expressway in 1996, but with change of officers at the head that was abandoned,” said Mopalwar. “We don’t want this unplanned, clumsy development to happen here too after a generation.”

The corporation is now seeking suggestions from urban planners on how to develop these nodes and will hand over buildings to relevant departments after they have been constructed.

This is the second in a series of stories on land pooling for Maharashtra’s ambitious new expressway between Mumbai and Nagpur. The third and last story will take a closer look at these nodes and what they promise. The first part can be read here.