Maharashtra is building the project of its dreams – an eight-lane super expressway that will run between Mumbai and Nagpur and will require 10,000 hectares of land. It would ordinarily take several years to acquire land for such a project, particularly as the amended Land Acquisition Act requires the government to both rehabilitate and resettle landowners.

Instead, the government plans to pool land from landholders and give them smaller compensatory parcels of land at 24 points along the highway. The government is hoping it will be able to drive economic growth in these nodes, which will be built around existing villages. The plan is of particular significance to the eastern part of the state that has historically seen little investment.

These urbanised clusters, referred to in government promotional material variously as “smart cities”, “development nodes”, “prosperity hubs” and “agricultural development centres”, will host manufacturing and agricultural processing units, along with traditional urban infrastructure such as schools, colleges, hospitals and vocational training centres.

Prakash Patil, a revenue department official posted in the eastern district of Washim through which the proposed highway will run, explained the calculations at play.

“Right now, if companies want to manufacture anything, they go either to districts like Jalna [near Aurangabad] or Nagpur,” he said. “They never come to districts in between because of our bad connectivity. Our advantage in Washim is that the land is very cheap. With the highway making travel even until Mumbai only eight hours, factories like Haldirams, or Baba Ramdev’s, or even textile factories can open here.”

But will this calculation work?

A promotional poster for the nodes. The text on top translates as: 'Agricultural Prosperity Centre, Vision of the future'.

Industrialists sceptical

The nodes along the highway sound somewhat similar to the industrial zones promoted by the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation. As of 2015, it had 233 such zones. On paper, the corporation has promised to provide these enclaves with water, road connectivity, electricity and other basic infrastructure for industrial development. It then leases out these plots for anything from manufacturing to software development.

The ground situation is somewhat different. Take Washim itself. There is a Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation zone a few kilometres outside the city. According to local industrialists, it lies unused.

“The road is two kilometres away from the MIDC,” said Sanjay Ruhadiya, owner of a soya bean processing unit in Washim, one of the few functioning industries in the district. “Without a road, how is anyone to access the zone?”

Not just that, locals say that the industrial zone has neither water nor regular electricity supply, which is a non-starter for any industry.

“We will wait to see if this node will be built first and then see if we get a plot there,” said Ruhadiya, when asked whether he would be interested in setting up a factory under the super expressway’s node proposal. “It does not matter which government is there, people have suffered fraud every time these promises are made. Who knows if it will be built?”

The government, on its part, says these nodes will be different from Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation enclaves, partly because they will include residential zones, which the enclaves do not have.

“We are not developing industry, but we are creating the environment and logistics for proper industrial development there,” said Radheshyam Mopalwar, vice-chairman and managing director of the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation that is executing the super expressway project. “Industrial activity will come independently at these locations.”

If industrialists are uncertain, landholders, who will become significant stakeholders in the node, are even more so. They say that they do not know what they will do with these developed plots of land.

There is even more confusion on the ground because the government has been promoting the nodes to landholders as commercial hubs, not residential townships. Many believe they will have to set up businesses there on their own.

“Farmers are not businessmen,” said a tractor supplier in Karanja, the largest city in Washim district. The supplier, who asked not to be identified, is himself from a farming family and owns land in a village that falls just outside one of the planned nodes.

“The main problem will be capital,” he explained. “People like me see it very positively and think there is a lot of opportunity in the road, but people with the farming mindset only know how to work on land. They will find it difficult without money in hand.”

Kisan Nagar in Washim. Photo credit: Mridula Chari

Confusion reigns

The problem of capital remains, whether these are residential, commercial or industrial plots. Deepak Sonawane lives in Kisan Nagar, a small village 11 km from Karanja. Six of his 10 acres of land is likely to be consumed by the road. Farmers in this village work from one debt cycle to the next and running out of credit is always one bad harvest away.

“How will we go and make houses or factories in this land?” asked Sonawane. “With what money are we supposed to do this?”

Even if landholders do have money, many seem uncertain about what else they could do with this compensatory land. Kalu Binnar, a resident of Talegaon, a village in Igatpuri, Nashik, was in a state of shock when communicators employed by the government to inform people about the land pooling project visited him for the first time in November. His entire land of six acres might be absorbed into a node.

“Farmers know farming, not how to build,” said Binnar. “When the node comes, we will not even be able to graze our buffaloes.”

Talegaon was not the first choice for building the node. That was some villages away, where government communicators faced stiff opposition. Builders and city dwellers from Mumbai and Nashik have been buying land in Talegaon for years. Locals say the village is near both cities and has the added attraction of having the air of a hill station.

According to Eknath Dhande, a supervisor of the team of communicators, when builders in Talegaon heard of the unrest, they offered their land for the node and the location was changed.

“For developers, this deal makes sense because they do not use the land for farming,” said Dhande. “This land has lain fallow for years. Now they are approaching us, asking when development will begin and where their land will be finalised.”

Binnar asked Dhande if he could keep two acres and give the rest to the government.

Dhande shook his head. “No, if you do not give it now, the government will acquire it later and that will be on worse terms for you,” he said.

“What use will NA land be for me?” asked Binnar. NA land is an acronym for non-agricultural land, which can be built upon. “People here marry on the basis of how much land you own because that is the most secure over generations. They don’t care if we have a government job or education.”

Talegaon has been inching towards urbanisation for several years now. (Photo credit: Mridula Chari).

People are also bewildered in Pimpalgaon Mor, a few villages away from Talegaon and the original site of that particular node.

“We worked for years to build this house one brick at a time,” said Shobha Tokde, a farmer from Pimpalgaon Mor whose one acre of land is likely to go for the super expressway. She was under the impression that the government would take her house as well, though this is not the case. The expressway is unlikely to pass through any built-up areas at this point. Her land, however, is likely to go and she is opposed to this.

“What will we do with this new land?” said Tokde. “We are too old to do different work anymore. Maybe if all our children get government jobs, we could manage.”

Meanwhile, the government maintains that all stakeholders in the project are well-informed.

“There is no confusion on the ground [about the nodes],” said Mopalwar. “You are talking to people whose land is not going in the project.”

Shobha Tokde. (Photo credit: Mridula Chari).

Road in exchange for development?

The government is trying its best to sell the idea of the node to landowners as something more familiar than a development engine. In its promotional material for the nodes, Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation describes them as agricultural development centres that will include factory units that will process agricultural goods and so scale up their value.

According to the plan, these nodes will also have industrial training institutes, hospitals, colleges, nursing institutes and much more. It also promises to provide, at government expense, vocational training, such as welding and fitting, for men, and nursing and tailoring, for women, to one person in each family. There are certain plots of land that are held by joint families. Even these families will be eligible to send one person for training.

But not all villagers are biting the bait. Those who work off the land but do not own it have not been consulted at all.

“Any jobs that come in the node will be for educated people,” said Vitthal Sonawane, a farm labourer in Chande Kasare, a large, relatively prosperous village in Ahmednagar. “We depend entirely on the land.”

Landowners say they already have access to such development.

“They say that our daughters will get training to be nurses, but our daughters have already become doctors,” scoffed Jnaneshwar Hon, a lawyer and large landowner in the same village. “We already have four international schools, an engineering college, a medical college, a world-class hospital. We don’t want their development.”

Some in the villages want more development projects by the government – but not at the cost of a road running through their fields. Sanjay Tayardi, a resident of Kisan Nagar, pointed out that the government was fast-tracking the road even as Kisan Nagar lacked basic medical or educational facilities.

“If they want to bring us development, why don’t they ask us what we want?” Tayardi asked.

Added Deepak Sonawane, “Isn’t it already the government’s responsibility to build schools here? Why should we have to wait for a road?”

This is the third and last of a series of stories on land pooling for Maharashtra’s ambitious new expressway between Mumbai and Nagpur. The first part can be read here and the second part here.