Modi’s Bullet Train Dreams Are Hitting Rural Roadblocks

With elections coming soon, land rights are getting in the way of an easy political win.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (2nd R) and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe (R) shake hands in front of a shinkansen train during their inspection at a bullet train manufacturing plant in Kobe, Hyogo prefecture on November 12, 2016.(JIJI PRESS/AFP/Getty Images)
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (2nd R) and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe (R) shake hands in front of a shinkansen train during their inspection at a bullet train manufacturing plant in Kobe, Hyogo prefecture on November 12, 2016.(JIJI PRESS/AFP/Getty Images)

DAHANU, INDIA —One morning in May, Rajiv Gouda woke to find a large white circle stamped on the lane behind his home, in the village of Vanai on India’s west coast. It was a sign of impending change.

A few weeks earlier, officials had told him that his land was on the path of India’s first bullet train, a pet project of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The $17 billion project, funded by a soft loan from Japan, is intended to halve travel time between Mumbai, in the state of Maharashtra, and Ahmedabad, the capital of neighboring Gujarat, Modi’s home state. More importantly, it will be India’s first high-speed rail line, an important step forward for a country often criticized for poor infrastructure.

Yet Gouda, a member of the indigenous tribal communities known as adivasis, doesn’t want to shift from the only home he knows. And, despite the generous inducements, he isn’t the only one.

The 315-mile route will consume 1,400 hectares of land, affecting almost 300 villages and 5,000 families. Opposition to the project is high in some of these villages, especially in the Dahanu area, where residents have chased away surveyors, stalled public consultations, and organized rallies. They oppose displacement, criticize the opaqueness of the process, and even question the need for the train. “It’s not only about the amount of land,” said Brian Lobo of the Kashtakari Sanghatna, a tribal rights group in Dahanu. “There are larger issues here.”

In Gujarat, some of the farmers who have sued over the land acquisition are focused on better compensation for their land. But in Dahanu, the train is not opposed by wealthy orchard owners but by tribal communities with fragmented farms and a history of political mobilization. Where urban bureaucrats see land as real estate or a transport corridor, these communities see a place and a source of permanent sustenance. Raghunath Sutar, a resident of Vanai, noted that most adults here have not finished school, making them poor candidates for city jobs. “We would be sweepers,” he said.

Sutar’s neighbor Sunil Dangda pointed out the practical hurdles of India’s fragmented farms. Land that originally belonged to his father and uncles is now informally divided between Dangda and his brothers, as well as their cousins. It’s unclear whose bit of the land will be acquired for the train and who will be compensated, he said. Past failures fuel his skepticism: Nearby villagers who were displaced by a dam a few decades ago are still waiting for proper electricity and water supply. And public hearings for the train have not been reassuring, with the information largely provided in English.

When it was launched over a year ago, the bullet train project was intended to be a high-profile, easy win for Modi, one that would cement India’s increasingly close relationship with Japan while providing the country with an example, and symbol, of what Modi called “next-gen infrastructure.” The project is the first of several proposed high-speed rail connections, and its inauguration date was even pushed up by a year to 2022 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Indian independence.

That deadline is now in question as protests have virtually stalled land acquisition—an all-too-familiar scenario in a country that continually struggles to reconcile its democratic ideals with a desire for speedy modernity.

Conflict over land acquisition for mega-projects is not new in India. According to Land Conflict Watch, an independent data tracker, there are more than 670 ongoing land conflicts in India, some decades old, and over 40 percent of them are due to infrastructure projects. The difficulty of taking over rural and forest land is often cited as one reason for India’s slow infrastructure growth, despite more than a decade of rapid economic growth.

Modi promised faster projects and a tougher approach. As the provincial leader of Gujarat in 2008, he famously sent a text message to the head of the Tata Group, inviting him to set up a factory in Gujarat after the original project ran into farmer protests in the then communist-run state of West Bengal. That invitation laid the foundation for Modi’s business-friendly reputation, which helped rehabilitate an image stained by his handling of anti-Muslim riots. The “Gujarat development model” was crucial to the 2014 victory of his Bharatiya Janata Party.

As national elections loom later this spring, Modi has partially lived up to that reputation, easing environmental regulations and launching big-ticket projects such as highways and ports. But as the bullet train controversy shows, the issue of land acquisition remains a knotty challenge. Supporters of such mega-projects point to the need for better connectivity to accelerate economic growth, while critics point out the hidden costs to the rights and interests of rural or marginalized communities.

These divergent views are compounded by India’s federal structure, where central, state, and local interests often clash. The country’s original land acquisition act was introduced by the colonial government in 1894, with little provision for consultation or negotiation over compensation. The authoritarian character of the law remained largely unchanged after independence, despite amendments to improve consultation and resettlement. Millions have been displaced over the decades, often without proper rehabilitation or compensation, resulting in protracted conflicts in some areas. The true cost of removing people from their land, like that of damaging the environment, has been hidden for decades.

“The Indian state has always tried to acquire land without looking at rights,” said Namita Wahi of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. “But its capacity—and the capacity of nonstate actors—to acquire land has risen in the past few decades.”

That has come as the nation has tried to catch up in infrastructure, an area in which rival China is far ahead. The number of major projects across the country rose from 571 in 2012 to 1,304 in 2018, according to a report by Credit Analysis and Research Ltd. These include a proposed string of ports, regional airports, and expressways, as well as a much-needed expansion of road and rail in the remote northeastern region. The budget allocation for highways has doubled since 2014.

At the same time, the land issue has kept slowing down big projects. Some blame the previous government. In 2013, the previous Indian National Congress party-led regime passed a new land acquisition law, one of a few pieces of progressive legislation pushed through before Modi came to power. The new law hiked consent requirements, mandated social impact assessments, and increased compensation. In a country where records of ownership are often poor, the new rules recognized the claims of “livelihood losers”—those who work or live on land but have no title records—and set out strict “public purposes” for which land could be acquired. But “the new act made land acquisition more difficult and costly,” Manish Sharma, a partner at PwC India said, noting that in some instances landowners have to be compensated at four times the market value.

Both the central government and the states have tried to dilute the act. At least seven states including Maharashtra and Gujarat, have issued amendments, easing requirements on consent, social impact assessments, and compensation. In practice, the Centre for Policy Research’s Wahi said, the act isn’t implemented in much of the country—something she expects will lead to increased legal battles. Litigation over the issue in India’s Supreme Court has risen steadily since 1950, according to a study led by Wahi, with a spike after every legal amendment.

The study found that over 60 percent of cases were about compensation and that much of the litigation came from highly urbanized districts. That’s partly because urbanization is a major cause of land acquisition, Wahi said, but also because landowners near urban areas are more aware of market values—and of their rights. Few cases came from remote areas, where indigenous communities are less likely to have land records and access to the courts. These areas have also seen some of the greatest displacement—especially from mining and dams—as well as violent conflict. “Where people are more empowered, they go to court,” Wahi said. “Where they are less empowered, there is more conflict on the ground.”

Her findings point to possible solutions to the issue. People are more amenable to change when processes are transparent and needs are fulfilled. Sometimes these needs are not only about cash. In Gujarat, one stretch of the bullet train seems likely to go ahead if compensation demands are met. And in Maharashtra, district authorities are promising much-needed street lights, ambulances, and schools. Opposition in some areas has reportedly begun to waver.

Back in Dahanu’s villages, however, many remain unconvinced. They point out that the government should be providing them with basic facilities anyway. With national elections around the corner, India’s first bullet train may take a while to get on track.


Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar is a journalist based in Mumbai.

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