Once every fortnight, Satpal and Om Prakash, both farmers in their 50s from Asawarpur village in Haryana’s Sonipat, swing by Ashoka University. On days the university’s lawns are mowed, its gardeners leave piles of grass on the pavement outside – a waste for the university but a treat for the farmers’ buffaloes. “Our animals need 20 quintals of jowar in a year but this grass is free,” said Satpal, squatting on the ground, his buffaloes chomping around him. Nearly a decade ago, a small part of the land on which Ashoka stands was his.

All of Rajiv Gandhi Education City’s 2,026 acres belonged to farmers living in villages around it. The project to bring higher education and research of global standards to rural Sonipat started around 2006, and it has changed the lives of the farmers in many, often surprising, ways. Since 2015, villages such as Asawarpur and Sewli, bordering Education City, have been linked to Sonipat’s municipal services, a development the villagers feel ambivalent about because along with better roads and sewerage, it has brought levies such as house tax. SRM University, also in Education City, has a hospital which offers affordable healthcare – out patient registration costs Rs 20 – within walking distance of Patla village.

Some private universities in Education City and around it aspire to global standards and have taken staff and students accordingly. This influx of people from across India has introduced new tastes, businesses and ways of conducting them. It has meant employment for hundreds of villagers, including women, and wrought other, subtler changes. Subrata Banerjee, a vegetable vendor outside OP Jindal Global University, close to Education City, has seen the villagers become “more welcoming”.

Manoj Singh left his job at a glass factory to start the store near Jindal Global. Photo credit: Aabid Shafi

Sprouting new businesses

Manoj Singh’s family sold 11 acres of their poultry farm to a housing project shortly before Jindal was founded in 2009. The family still had 0.12 acres left in Jatheri and just as the university was coming up, Manoj Singh left his job at a glass factory to start the unfortunately spelled Chirag Confancery and General Store. With its array of household goods, packaged foods and condiments, the store has prospered entirely on the urbane habits of the university’s staff. No Sonipat villager, Manoj Singh, 29, explained, would spend on such luxuries as air fresheners, imported cigarettes, drinking chocolate, and premixed Biryani spices.

Manoj Singh owns all 20 plots for shops along Jatheri road and rents them out. The first went to a liquor store which, Singh said with a grin, “depends on the university”. Soon, shops selling chicken and SIM cards, a salon, and several eateries appeared, and Check Post Market, so called because of a police check post close by, was born. Pushpinder Dhama, 28, from Uttar Pradesh’s Baghpat was drawn away from a Meerut shop to Jatheri by his partner from Sonipat. “He told me there is a university and a society,” he said, referring to Jindal and the housing complex Tulip Grand. He set up Mann Fast Food two years ago and this year added virgin mojito and blue lagoon to the menu.

Jindal also brought enough Bengalis that Banerjee, 40, could quit his job at the university’s food court and strike out on his own. He started selling fish and vegetables that Manoj Singh had never heard of, such as pui saak (a type of spinach) and mocha (banana tree flower). “During vacations, our profits plunge by 75%,” Banerjee said.

Along with the sprouting of shops, the university renting apartments for staff raised Tulip Grand’s occupancy and rent, and taxis and autorickshaws started venturing into the village area.

While Check Post Market near Jindal is thriving, the villages surrounding Education City are yet to see substantial economic benefit from it. A year ago, Jyoti Pal opened Aradhya Cosmetics Centre on the edge of Asawarpur closest to Ashoka, hoping students would stop by. Selling nail clippers, false eyelashes, jewellery and mostly off-brand cosmetics, she has not had much luck. “Only if they come will we know what to stock,” she said. Patla village, at the other end of Education City and closest to SRM University, gets a few students buying stationery, but only occasionally. Whatever commerce these villages see is generated not by the well-heeled academic staff or students but the support staff. Security guards, cleaning and gardening crews may pick up milk, and some even rent rooms.

The pace of Education City’s development has been sluggish, with even its police and fire stations still under construction. Only three of its universities are functioning – SRM, Ashoka, World University of Design – while the rest are under construction or just have boards marking their locations. This lack of development is hurting the villagers who were already resenting losing their land, said Sri Bhagwan Antil, former head of Asawarpur’s panchayat.

State as property dealer’

In Sonipat, land is a sore point. The government acquired over 2,000 acres of farmland for Education City from nine villages in 2006-’07. It was before Pal came to Asawarpur as a bride but her family still talks about how the Haryana government “took land cheap and built expensive universities”. Bhagat Singh, a schoolteacher from Asawarpur based in Delhi, alleged the government “acted like a property dealer”. The original compensation rate of Rs 12.6 lakh per acre paid to the farmers, he said, was lower than the rate at which the first nine plots were allotted in 2009. Punam, a scholar from Maharshi Dayanand University in Rohtak, analysed the pattern of land acquisition in India and its impact on farming communities for her 2015 doctoral thesis. On Sonipat, she writes, “The area near the Rajiv Gandhi Education City had been acquired by big private builders…at very high prices…compared to the compensation amount announced by government.”

There were protests and cases were filed, including in the Supreme Court, as the villagers fought for higher compensation. “If some of the land had to [be sold] to private parties, we could have sold it to them directly,” said Bhagat Singh. Compensation rates were later raised, by threefold in some villages in 2011, but the process has generally been shoddily handled – some have got full amounts, others land elsewhere, some both, and some are still fighting court cases.

With their compensation, many villagers bought cars and air conditioners, and built better homes. Weddings grew more lavish. Some bought farmland or flats elsewhere. Punam noted in her thesis that in some cases, agricultural land holdings even grew because villagers bought land where it was cheaper. Some of that prosperity shows in the villages, where most homes are built of brick-and-mortar, have cars and some livestock. But as Badle Ram Chauhan, 75, Patla village’s de facto sarpanch – the post is held by his daughter-in-law – pointed out, the compensation money “did not come as a lump sum that it could be invested together”.

But even with fair compensation, Mahinder Singh, 66, “would not have given land” if it were up to him. His family lost 25 acres in Asawarpur. The four acres left have a dozen claimants. “Our children are not so educated that they will pick up other professions,” he said. “As long as we had land, every generation could make a living.”

Eight years ago, when the villagers realised Education City would not be developed in a hurry, they secured permission from the district administration to continue farming unoccupied plots. Even now, swathes of empty plots are cultivated but, as Mahinder Singh said, “The government can remove our standing crops whenever it wants.”

With the compensation he got, Mahinder Singh bought land in Panchi, but that is about 45 km away. Education City begins across the road from him.

Few opportunities for education

It has not helped that the universities are prohibitively expensive for most villagers and the standards of academic performance required for admission are quite high.

Scroll.in did not meet any family that had a member studying or teaching at Ashoka. The villagers have been turned away from Jindal as well. A small number – usually youth from the more prosperous families – attend SRM but even that is a struggle. Badle Ram had sought a fee concession from SRM for a relative who wanted to study engineering, but had to pay the full amount.

Bhagat Singh said the villagers would have been less incensed if their land had gone to government colleges as it did in Murthal. The Haryana Private Universities Act 2006, under which the universities were established, requires them to reserve 25% seats, with fee concessions ranging from 25% to 100%, for students domiciled in Haryana. However, a 2009 amendment reduced the quota to 10% for universities with foreign collaborations (both Jindal and Ashoka have international partners). Sri Bhagwan Antil believes seats should have been reserved solely for the villages which lost land, not the entire state.

The villagers do need higher education opportunities and the new universities have raised the next generation’s hopes. Shivani Antil, in Class 9, attended the free tutoring Ashoka’s students offer village children on campus and she liked what she saw. “I want to study there after I finish school,” she said. “I like [the students’] ways and how they speak in English.” But those are not her only reasons. Students from all over India come to Ashoka but she cannot go as far as Sonipat town for college. “Ashoka is close by and my family will not allow me to go far,” she said.

Sri Bhagwan Antil, former sarpanch of Asawarpur, believes seats in the new universities should have been reserved solely for the villages which lost land and not the entire state. Photo credit: Aabid Shafi

Reaching out to the community

Ashoka’s community-engagement club Neev, which organises the classes Antil attended, is an example of the universities’ outreach to the villagers. Others involve awareness programmes on matters such as menstrual hygiene and entrepreneurship workshops. Such activities, as also surveys and studies, are worked into students’ curriculum.

Jindal’s students have a range of such programmes as well. Their legal aid cell works in neighbouring villages and has even intervened on behalf of Jatheri’s residents when they “had problems dealing with the state authority”, said a student. The university’s various clubs and cells have conducted workshops on using the Right to Information Act and filling applications for loans; they also assist workers at one village’s early childhood care centre.

But many of such interactions have been tentative and, on occasion, fraught with tension. The yawning cultural gap is felt on both sides. “They see us as too modern, bratty and non-sanskari,” said a student at Jindal. Students, male and female, may drink or smoke outside campus, and that sometimes leads to fights.

What the women students wear is closely monitored. “We went to meet a sarpanch, but were told the girls could go talk to the ladies and boys could meet him,” said a Jindal student, recounting a visit to a neighbouring village. “After we sat down, the entire conversation was about what the drunk boys do outside campus, what the girls wear and how it is bad for their own kids to see that.” An undergraduate at Ashoka related how liquor stores near the university “ran into a lot of trouble” because students drank there, started fights and attracted police. “It shows how deeply the lives of the villagers have been disrupted,” he said.

The villagers like to keep a distance as well with many from both Asawarpur and Patla insisting they have no links with Education City. “It is difficult for [students] to come in here,” said Samundar Mahasingh of Aswarpur. “The way we live is completely different.” This idea was reinforced in June when communal tension over the construction of a shelter in Patla’s Muslim graveyard forced dozens of migrant Muslim families from Bihar to leave the village. They included men who worked in Sonipat’s Rai Industrial Area, but also those who served as support staff in Education City.

Bateri's gardening job at Jindal Global fetches her a fixed monthly salary of Rs 8,400 and benefits such as provident fund. Photo credit: Aabid Shafi

Source of employment

In spite of the friction, if there has been no major conflict it is because the new universities have opened some jobs for the villagers as well as migrant labourers who had moved into this part of Haryana earlier. Services such as housekeeping, running mess halls and security are outsourced to agencies, which recruit locally. Sudhir Kumar, 32, said over a hundred people in and around his Bindroli village are employed at Jindal. Jagat Singh, 28, a supervisor of security guards at Ashoka, works close to his home in Pehladpur. He was earlier posted at Nehru Place, Delhi. His team of about 50 guards includes several from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar who live on rent in the surrounding villages.

The universities have also brought organised employment to women who prefer the environment of a gated university to factories. Bateri, 45, from Bandepur has watered, weeded and trimmed Jindal’s lawns for eight years. She earlier worked as farm labourer but prefers the gardening job because it fetches a fixed monthly salary of Rs 8,400 and benefits such as provident fund. Around 25 women from Bandepur work at Jindal, said Anita, 26. Till she joined Jindal two years ago, Anita said she “never left home”. Similarly, women from Jakholi village are part of the cleaning and gardening crews at SRM University. Satveer from Patla knows about half a dozen villagers who drive the university’s buses.

A tiny number of villagers has landed a better grade of jobs. Jyoti Pal’s husband, an alumnus of the Motilal Nehru School of Sports, is a swimming instructor at Ashoka, although his is not a permanent position. Pramod Kumar from Malha Majra village is a junior executive librarian at Jindal.

But the villagers complain that employment opportunities have not grown over the years. The prosperous zamindars do not care for the kind of jobs available. As Sri Bhagwan Antil explained of Asawarpur: “Only fourth class jobs are available, for cooks, sweepers and such. Most people here are from the general castes and will not do this kind of work.”

The scholar Punam found land acquisition has altered employment patterns around Education City. Landless farm workers have drifted into private jobs and relatively prosperous farmers such as Sri Bhagwan Antil and Satveer now rely more on the milk trade. Punam’s study found income from livestock increased in 46.7% households around Education City after the land was acquired.

It has been a struggle, though, for farmers with small land holdings. Satpal and Om Prakash each have less than an acre left but have not received the monetary compensation or land they were promised. They make do with a few buffaloes, supplementing income from milk by working odd jobs. Free grass from Ashoka is small consolation but still welcome. “Animals like fresh grass and it will last us two days,” said Om Prakash. “We will return for more tomorrow but after that the grass will be too dry.”

This is the last part of a three-part series. Read the first here and and second part here.