Biting the bullet

Union Minister of State for Finance and Shipping Pon Radhakrishnan has said that those opposing various government projects are terrorists, a prominent daily of Chennai reported recently. The minister, during a conversation with journalists at the Chennai Port Trust’s guest house, refused to use any other term for protesters. Radhakrishnan said that even the term “anti-national” can’t be used for those protesting government projects, for this could accord them “importance”. Viewed in this angle of thought, the National High Speed Rail Corporation Limited’s (NHSRCL) problems may assume gigantic proportions. The Corporation has come out with the announcement that people who cede their land for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project will get a waiver on stamp duty for any property they purchase using the compensation amount within three years of handing over the land. Also, no upper limit has been set on the stamp duty that would be reimbursed as long as it is done within the three-year period.

This is a desperate measure as the NHSRCL approaches December 2018 deadline for the completion of land acquisition and many land owners are still unwilling to part with their holdings on the terms NHSRCL has laid down. It has already tried multiple means to coerce land owners to part with their properties for the multi-crore project but none of it has seen great success. It therefore seems possible that what the Union MoS for Finance said may take tangible form with the land owners being labeled ‘terrorists’ and killed in supposed ‘encounters’. For, now that seems to have become the easiest method to clear all impediments, both political and governmental.

The 508-km high-speed rail corridor is one of the dream projects of the Prime Minister and requires 1,434 hectares — 353 hectares in Maharashtra and the rest in Gujarat. According to reports, the agency has to date been able to physically complete acquisition of only 0.9 hectares in Bandra-Kurla Complex. Although the government appeared to be setting a blistering pace of progress in its initial days, it has not been able to progress at the speed it promised to achieve or maintain. The costs and delay in land acquisition would mean that the overall project would also inflate unless corners are cut. Going by the pace at which land is being acquired, it appears doubtful whether meaningful progress can be made within the deadlines set. With general elections round the corner this coming year, there is no saying whether the present government would return to power and whether the project would be pursued with the vigour it currently is supposed to witness.

The hurdle of land acquisition is no small conundrum before the NHSRCL. Unless all the land the project requires is acquired in time, it will have no basis to begin. And while the high speed railway tries to acquire land by offering far above the circle rates in parts of Maharashtra, there are parts of Marathwada where farmers are still committing suicide in large numbers. One report recently said 63 farmers in that region had committed suicide over just one month; the figure ran into hundreds over a period of about a year. As the government increasingly gets into the election mode and the game of numbers, it is trying to hide its follies under the decades of misrule and corruption of the Congress governments. In the process it is leaving the people with no legitimate alternative to vote for. If the 2014 election gave the BJP a thumping majority in the House in the hope that it would bring in the desired change, that trust has eroded today. The next election may not give it the luxury of numbers it enjoys today and the going will only get even more difficult.

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