In 2007, when the state-owned Gujarat Gas company acquired land in South Gujarat to lay underground gas pipelines, Mahesh Patel lost 130 mango and chikoo trees from his farm in Navsari district. Each fruit tree yielded an average annual profit of Rs 4,000, which meant he lost trees worth Rs 5 lakh a year. But that was not his only loss.

“The gas line cut through my farm diagonally and the portion of land left on one side was too narrow to grow any trees,” said Patel, who owns six acres in Navsari’s Manekpor village.

Now, Patel’s farm faces the threat of another linear incursion. “They want to build the bullet train right through the middle of my remaining land, and I will lose even more trees,” he said.

Manekpor is one of the many villages in South Gujarat’s “Agri Export Zone” that has prospered because of its high-quality mangoes and chikoos. It is also one of the 312 villages in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Dadra and Nagar Haveli that fall in the path of India’s first proposed bullet train corridor from Mumbai to Ahmedabad. This elevated 508-km high-speed rail line is scheduled to be built with the assistance of the Japanese government at a cost of Rs 1.1 lakh crore.

The bullet train is one of the Bharatiya Janata Party government’s pet infrastructure proposals, meant to benefit textile traders, diamond merchants and other professionals by cutting down travel time between Mumbai and Ahmedabad from seven hours to just two hours. In the process, it will take over at least 866 hectares of fertile farmland in Gujarat and Adivasi and forest land in Maharashtra’s Palghar district.

Officials from the National High Speed Rail Corporation Limited – the public-private joint venture in charge of the project – claim the bullet train will affect 5,000 to 6,000 people along the corridor. Landowners claim the human impact is likely to be much higher. For several months, project-affected persons across Gujarat and Maharashtra have been protesting against the bullet train and the corporation’s questionable land acquisition methods, as the first part of this series reported.

In addition to the loss of land and homes, farmers in Gujarat are particularly agitated about the destruction of healthy, fruit-bearing trees that the bullet train project will bring in its wake.

According to the corporation’s official figures, the project will require the uprooting of 80,487 trees in all, of which 26,980 are fruit trees. Farmers in Gujarat’s green belt believe this is an extremely conservative estimate.

In Navsari and Valsad – districts that stand to lose the maximum number of fruit trees – farmers told this loss will deal a significant blow to their livelihoods. “Farmers with small land holdings depend almost entirely on fruit production for their income,” said Bhagubhai Patel, the Valsad representative of the Gujarat Khedut Samaj, a state-wide farmers’ association. “If most of their trees are cut and most of their land is lost, what will they do?”

Farmer Mahesh Patel lost 130 fruit trees when an underground gas pipeline was laid across his farm. (Photo credit: Aarefa Johari)

Agri Export Zone

In mid-June, when the first monsoon rains begin and the last mangoes of the summer are still hanging from their trees, South Gujarat’s expansive fruit orchards look lush and picture-perfect. In each farm, the soil is soft and layered with yellow leaves, while drooping branches form wide canopies overhead.

The high fertility of this region – starting from Valsad in the south to rural Ahmedabad in the north – is one reason why it has been designated an Agri Export Zone for mangoes and vegetables. Agri Export Zones were introduced in 2001 as an agricultural equivalent of Special Economic Zones, so that state governments could invest in resources to help boost the production and export of crops conducive to that region.

All the eight districts set to lose land to the bullet train in Gujarat fall within this Agri Export Zone. The region produces 11 lakh tonnes of mangoes and 4.5 lakh tonnes of chikoo every year. In 2017, Navsari emerged as the biggest producer of chikoos in India, while Valsad and Navsari together are said to account for 45% of Gujarat’s mango produce.

If the bullet train is built, farmers estimate the felling of trees will affect 15% of South Gujarat’s fruit production.

“There are 12 families in my village whose lands could be acquired by the bullet train, but just among us, we could lose at least 1,000 fruit trees,” said Ratilal Patel, a farmer who owns 45 acres of land in Valsad’s Vaghaldhara village. As per official estimates, Valsad alone is set to lose 12,248 fruit trees and 9,808 other trees to the high-speed rail corridor. Navsari is likely to lose at least 4,150 fruit trees and 1,111 other trees.

Most of the fruit trees in the Valsad-Navsari region are at least 15 years to 20 years old, and farmers and environment activists point out that mango trees cannot be easily relocated. “If a mango tree is cut, a new tree will take at least 10 to 15 years to mature and start yielding profits,” said. “But anyway, the bullet train authorities are not giving farmers alternate land as compensation, so there is no question of growing new trees.”

A painted line and a short red pole indicate the route of the bullet train line near a banana farm in Navsari. (Photo credit: Aarefa Johari)

Learning from past experience

In Navsari, simmering anger among farmers over the loss of trees for the bullet train project stems from their experience with the laying of the underground gas pipelines.

In the last 11 years, farmers in Manekpor have had to give up flowering fruit trees for gas lines laid by three companies – GAIL India Limited, Gujarat Gas and Reliance Gas Pipeline Limited. “All these gas lines have come up in a corridor just 1.5 km wide, and now they want the bullet train to be built in the same space,” said Dharmesh Nayak, a farmer from Manekpor who owns 13 acres of farmland.

Nayak lost dozens of mango and chikoo trees when a Gujarat Gas pipeline was installed under a strip of his land. He was given compensation of Rs 19,000 per mango tree and Rs 9,000 per chikoo tree. “But that compensation was worth only two years of profit that I could have made,” said Nayak. “If those trees were alive, they would have yielded profits for at least 50 years more.”

In the case of the underground gas pipelines, losing trees has not meant losing land. Farmers can no longer grow trees with deep roots over the pipes, but they are allowed to cultivate small vegetables or fodder on that land. But there have been other fallouts.

“Even though I grow small crops on that land now, the gas company has entered its name in the official land ownership records,” said Nayak. “So I cannot take farming loans easily for that portion of my land, because I need the permission of Gujarat Gas.” Nayak claims the pipelines have also drastically devalued his property, from Rs 75 lakh per acre to Rs 25 lakh per acre according to competitive market rates. “Now if the bullet train line adds to all the loss, it will be crushing,” the farmer added.

No clarity on compensation

In the case of the bullet train, the question of compensation for losses has been controversial from the start. The National High Speed Rail Corporation has not made it clear whether land-owners will be compensated as per the competitive rates of the real estate market, or according to the jantri (ready reckoner) rate fixed by the government as the minimum price of a piece of land. Jantri rates in Gujarat have not been revised since 2011, so farmers claim that even compensation worth five times the jantri rate would not be commensurate.

For tree loss, many farmers in Valsad and Navsari claimed they had been told they would get Rs 16,000 for each mango tree lost to the bullet train in addition to compensation for their land.

But a spokesperson for the corporation said the compensation rate for trees has not yet been decided. “The amount for tree compensation will be decided by the Forest Department, and nothing has been announced to farmers yet,” said Dhananjay Kumar, public relations officer of the National High Speed Rail Corporation. “But farmers will not be getting alternate land for the land they lose,” he added.

At the Valsad collector’s office, an official who did not wish to be identified said their surveyors were still counting the number of trees that would need to be cut. “But yes, the official estimate quoted to farmers during public consultations is small,” the official said. “Many more trees will be lost.”

A farmers' rally protesting the bullet train project in Manekpor village on June 25. (Photo credit: Jayesh Nayak)

Rising in protest

Farmers groups, meanwhile, are determined to stall the land acquisition process for the bullet train. The Gujarat Khedut Samaj has filed a writ petition in the Gujarat High Court questioning the necessity and feasibility of the project. The association has also organised several village-level rallies to mobilise farmers. In Navsari, farmers boycotted a public stakeholder consultation scheduled on May 29, and in June, farmers in Valsad prevented district authorities from conducting land measurement surveys on at least two occasions.

Farmer leader Bhagubhai Patel cites the example of the proposed Vadodara-Mumbai six-lane expressway to prove that farmers can still hope for a favourable outcome. In 2016, in response to a petition by the Gujarat Khedut Samaj, the National Green Tribunal had stayed work on the 268-km expressway because farmers had not been given awards for land acquisition and the environmental clearance to the project was erroneous. With no let-up in the farmers’ agitation, work on the highway has still not resumed.

“That expressway would have eaten up at least 6 lakh trees, even though the official estimate was 36,000 trees,” said Bhagubhai Patel. “If we have blocked that project, we can block the bullet train too.”

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