On May 30, Ratilal Patel stared in confusion at a PowerPoint presentation on a 6-foot screen at the Morarji Desai Auditorium in South Gujarat’s Valsad town. Around him, close to a hundred other farmers from across Valsad district struggled to keep up with the slides, which featured information on India’s first bullet train project proposed to run between Mumbai and Ahmedabad.

“Those bullet train people showed us what the train will look like, what features it will have, how many trees will be cut for it,” said Patel, an Adivasi farmer from the Dhodia tribe whose family owns 45 acres of land in Vaghaldhara village. “The presentation was in Gujarati, but they were reading everything from the screen so fast, we could not really understand much.”

This is not what Patel and the other farmers had expected from the meeting, which was supposed to be the first real stakeholder consultation organised by the project authorities in Valsad for people likely to lose their lands. Similar stakeholder meetings had been organised in several other districts on the bullet train route, amid growing farmer resistance to the project.

The elevated bullet train line is a pet infrastructure proposal of the Bharatiya Janata Party government, set to be built at a cost of Rs 1.1 lakh crore with the Japanese government’s assistance. The 508-km rail route will cut through 866 hectares of land in Gujarat, Maharashtra and the Union territory of Dadra and Nagar Haveli, affecting an estimated 312 villages along the way.

A spokesperson for the National High Speed Rail Corporation Limited, the public-private joint venture in charge of the project, told Scroll.in that between 5,000 and 6,000 persons are expected to be affected by the project across all districts along the entire route. But its internal report, available at the Valsad collector’s office, claims there are 1,695 project-affected households in Valsad district alone. The project will also claim more than 80,400 trees across Gujarat, in addition to trees in Maharashtra’s forested districts of Thane and Palghar. Farmers believe this is just a conservative estimate.

Under pressure to give up their farmland, trees and homes for infrastructure deemed to be of “national interest”, farmers who attended the Valsad stakeholder meeting were hoping for clear answers about rehabilitation, resettlement and their livelihoods. “But after their long presentation, they barely gave us 30 minutes to ask questions, which they didn’t even answer properly,” said Sumit Desai, a lawyer from Dungra town who attended the meeting.

Scroll.in visited Valsad as well as Gujarat’s Navsari district – a region famed for its mango and chikoo produce – and found that farmers and home-owners affected by the bullet train project are mobilising to fight for their land. According to the protesting farmers, the steps taken by the National High Speed Rail Corporation and the state government during the public consultation and land acquisition process have been non-transparent, insensitive and often illegal.

Ratilal Patel (right), his brothers and other farmers from Vaghaldhara village are likely to lose their lands to the bullet train project.

Sixty-day period cut short

The Central government’s stated purpose for introducing a bullet train corridor is to reduce travel time between Mumbai and Ahmedabad from seven hours to just two hours. The National High Speed Rail Corporation has announced plans to ply multiple trains on the route every day, with a train every 20 minutes during peak hours. This is meant to benefit textile and diamond merchants and other working professionals who frequently travel between the two cities. To build the elevated rail lines, the corporation plans to acquire tracts of land with a width of 17.5 metres all along the 508-km route. More land will be acquired to build the 12 railway stations en route.

Under the Centre’s Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, any land acquisition process by the state must begin with a social impact assessment of the project, and seeking the consent of at least 70% of the affected populace. Gujarat’s 2016 amendment to the Act, however, does away with the clauses on consent and mandatory social impact assessment for certain types of projects, including those relating to social infrastructure and industrial corridors.

In April, therefore, the corporation proceeded directly to the next step in the land acquisition process under the Act: serving notices to project-affected persons in all districts with survey numbers and other details about the plots of land it intends to acquire. Under the Act, once such a notice is published in the official gazette, two local newspapers and in the offices of the panchayats or municipalities, land-owners must be given at least 60 days to file any objections to the acquisition of their plots.

Plot-owners in Valsad, however, claim they have been given barely 20 days or less to file objections.

In Vapi block, for instance, the notice lists May 8 as the official date of issuance and July 8 as the last date for filing objections. “But it was June 2 by the time the notice reached the talati [revenue officer] of our taluka, and by the time the talati gave some of us Xerox copies, it was June 13,” said Jayatibhai Patel, an industrial worker from Dungra, a former panchayat that is now a municipal suburb of Vapi city in South Valsad. Residents claim at least 500 families could lose their homes if the corporation insists on building the bullet train line’s Vapi station in the densely populated old neighbourhoods of Dungra.

In the villages of North Valsad, the notice letter itself had a discrepancy. “The letter is dated April 19, but the last day for filing objections was June 9. That is not even 60 days,” said Pravin Patel, a farmer from Endergotta village who stands to lose almost all of his 10 acres of land. “Not everyone comes to know if a notice is put up in the panchayat office,” he added. “Some of us got copies from the talati 10 or 20 days before the last date on June 9, some got copies just two days before the last date. What was the point of all this, then? How could we have filed objections any time sooner?”

The notification on land acquisition, dated May 8, which land-owners in Dungra received from their talati on June 13.

Contradicting the contents of the notices land-owners in Valsad showed Scroll.in, a spokesperson for the corporation said the notifications sent to villagers were neither about expressing an intention to acquire land, nor did they stipulate a 60-day time period. “The notices served only stated that we want to do a survey of their lands, because so far we have only done surveys via satellite,” said Dhananjay Kumar, the public relations officer of the National High Speed Rail Corporation.

Unanswered questions

Around the same time the state government began issuing notices about land acquisition for the bullet train corridor, the corporation started to announce dates for public meetings with stakeholders in each district. In some districts like Nadiad, Valsad and Navsari, the corporation described these as “second” stakeholder meetings. But in Valsad and Navsari, farmers claim there was never a “first” meeting to begin with.

“Before the meeting on May 30, the bullet train authorities did not organise any other meeting with the public in Valsad,” said Bhagubhai Patel, the Valsad representative of the Gujarat Khedut Samaj, a state-wide farmers’ association. “None of us know why they are calling it the second public meeting.”

At the Valsad district collector’s office, officials showed Scroll.in an internal report of the corporation on the status of the bullet train project in Valsad. The report claimed that project authorities had already organised not one but multiple stakeholder meetings and “village level focus group discussions” with talatis, sarchpanches and other officials in talukas across Valsad. It featured photographs of those meetings and claimed they were held on different dates in November and December.

One person who does remember a previous meeting about the bullet train is Ram Chandra, the talati of Dungra. According to him, the meeting was held in November in the Vapi block office, with corporation representatives and five or six other talatis from the block. “But this was not a public meeting,” said Chandra. “We were not allowed to ask any questions in that meeting. All they did was give us lists of the kind of questions farmers could ask during land acquisition, but no answers were provided to those questions.”

At the public meeting on May 30, after sitting through the long PowerPoint presentation, farmers asked the very questions the corporation had anticipated. Which exact portions of land would be acquired within a particular survey number? Would farmers be given alternate agricultural land? Would families be rehabilitated in other houses if they lose their homes? Would they be given alternate sources of livelihood?

“They had no answers to any of these questions,” said Sumit Desai, one of the lawyers who has filed a writ petition on behalf of the Gujarat Khedut Samaj in the Gujarat High Court against the land acquisition process for the bullet train project.

A page from the National High Speed Rail Corporation Ltd's internal report at the Valsad collectorate.

‘They are throwing the promise of money at us’

Like Desai, farmers in Valsad seemed upset that the people tasked with answering their questions were not state or Central government officials but representatives from Arcadis, a private consultancy firm the National High Speed Rail Corporation has hired for project management.

“All they wanted to speak about was monetary compensation. But when I asked whether the compensation would be according to open market rates or jantri [ready reckoner] rates, they said that had not yet been discussed,” said Desai. Jantri rate is the minimum price of a property as determined by a government agency. Open market rates, meanwhile, are determined by forces of supply and demand in the market, and tend to be much higher than jantri rates.

Farmers had heard on the news that the state government was offering nearly five times the jantri rate for their lands. In April, the government had also offered a 25% additional incentive on compensation to farmers who not only give their consent to the acquisition of their plots but also promise in writing that they will not challenge the consent in court.

“But they are just trying to throw the promise of money at us without addressing any of our other concerns,” said Dharmesh Nayak, who has a three-acre fruit orchard in Manekpur village in Navsari. “In reality the jantri rate has not been revised since 2011. It is so low that even five times the jantri rate will be less than the open market rate for land in these parts. So why should we part with good land for this bullet train that most of us will never sit in?”

Official talk

The National High Speed Rail Corporation has not yet made the minutes of the stakeholder meetings public, but its public relations officer Dhananjay Kumar emphasised that project-affected persons would be given monetary compensation for everything from their land, trees and fruits to other structures on their properties that are lost to the bullet train project. “They will not be given alternate land but they will get Rs 3,600 per month for a while for their livelihood,” said Kumar.

In Valsad, the district collector and deputy collector were not available for comment. A junior official, however, claimed the bullet train corridor would take up “very little land”, a strip just 17.5 metres in width. “Farmers will get monetary compensation so if they have alternate farmland, they can grow their trees again,” said the official who did not want to be identified.

What if a farmer does not have alternate land? “Well... the government has not said anything about that yet,” the official said with a sympathetic smile.

In contrast to the sympathy collectorate officials expressed for project-affected farmers, the corporation’s internal report painted a rosy picture of the consultations the agency had held with village representatives. The report had statements such as “mostly people are keen to know about the compensation package” and “mostly all the villagers are welcoming the project and they have agreed to cooperate at the time of survey work”.

Pravin Patel, a farmer from Valsad's Endergotta village, holds up the land acquisition notification he received.

Stealth and insensitivity

For land-owners in Valsad, who had never heard of these previous consultations and who have no access to the corporation’s internal report, these statements add insult to injury. They say they have already experienced insensitivity on the part of multiple government officials who came to their villages to conduct preliminary land surveys and markings.

In Endergotta village, Pravin Patel claims that some time in January, corporation representatives entered his farm when he was not around and erected three short poles at a distance from each other to indicate the route of the bullet train corridor. There were two white poles, meant to delineate the outer edges of the route, and a red pole in the centre that marked the central line of the route.

“They never asked for my permission before entering my farm to put up the poles, even though they are supposed to by law,” said Patel. “Then a few weeks later, some other officials came to survey my land, and when I asked them what the poles were for, they just casually said I should forget about the land in between the poles.” Since one of the poles is right near Patel’s house, the farmer is not sure if his family will also lose their home to the bullet train.

In Vaghaldhara village, Ratilal Patel also has white and red poles cutting through the middle of his 45-acre farm. “They put up those poles in the middle of the night, without asking us,” he said.

These stealthy actions stirred resentment among farmers, which came to the fore when the corporation published tiny advertisements in a local newspaper announcing the May 30 stakeholders’ meeting. “At the bottom of the ad, there was fine print saying that ‘unauthorised persons’ would not be allowed at the meeting,” said farmer leader Bhagubhai Patel. This clause prohibited any independent social or environmental activist from attending, he explained. “Who is unauthorised?” he asked. “People who want to attend a public meeting about an infrastructure project, or people who break into our farms in the night without permission?”

In Navsari, this prohibitive clause against “unauthorised persons” prompted farmers to completely boycott the stakeholder meeting scheduled for May 29. “There was such sharp opposition to this clause from us, that they had to cancel the meeting,” said Jayesh Nayak, an environmental rights activist from Khakhwada village in the district.

Farm leader Bhagubhai Patel addresses farmers at a meeting in Valsad to plan protests against the bullet train project.

Speaking for the corporation, Dhananjay Kumar said the “no unauthorised persons” clause had been added later because “politically motivated” people had made a “ruckus” at the first few public meetings. “According to our initial survey, there were going to be 5,000 to 6,000 project-affected persons in the full bullet train corridor from Mumbai to Ahmedabad. But when we called for stakeholder consultations, more than 1,000 people would attend in just one district on one day,” said Kumar, adding that most of the attendees were not project-affected persons. “They were politically-motivated people, like NGOs, who had come just to create a ruckus. They did not let us communicate with the project-affected people. So after the first few consultations, we decided to segregate the people.”

Protests ahead

In response to the state government’s questionable methods of starting the land acquisition process, land-owners in Valsad and Navsari are now determined to block all attempts to acquire their lands.

Since June 15, farmers in Valsad have held at least two large protests in Vaghaldhara, forcing National High Speed Rail Corporation teams who had come to conduct land measurement surveys to leave the village. At the state level, the Gujarat Khedut Samaj organised a four-day farmer rally from June 22 in 192 villages from Ahmedabad to Dungra.

“The whole purpose of this project is only so that [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi can show the world that we have a bullet train too,” said Bhagubhai Patel. “Ordinary people who are losing their lands have absolutely no need for this bullet train.”

All photographs by Aarefa Johari.

This is the first in a two-part series on protests against the bullet train project. The second part can be read here.