While most road construction projects seem innocuous, often even desirable, a closer look at the proposed Mumbai-Vadodara Expressway project exposes the inherent violence in complex workings of modern capital. Cutting through verdant landscapes, this expressway threatens to unsettle traditional land relations and upset occupational patterns practiced by rural, agrarian, tribal and pastoral communities just so that requirements of global neoliberal capital are met.
The 380-kilometer-long, six-lane, controlled-access expressway will connect the business cities of Vadodara, in the state of Gujarat and Mumbai, in the state of Maharashtra in western India. The National Highway Authority of India expects to spend about Rs. 44,000 crores (US$ 7 billion) for its implementation through a PPP (Public Private Partnership) on a “design, build, finance, operate (DBOT)” basis. It means that the expressway will be constructed by paying taxpayers’ money to a private contractor who will operate it in future and reap profits as well.
The agrarian, pastoral and forest communities whose lands the expressway will pass through are facing the brunt of a plethora of such urban infrastructure projects. Apart from the Expressway, the Ahmedabad–Mumbai Railway Line, the six-lane National Highway, the Tribal Highway, Dedicated Freight Corridor and the much hyped Bullet Train projects are planned in the same region that will completely upturn life of these communities.
The thrust on these projects can be explained by the fact that global financial institutions that control the flow of finance have now chosen to lend money exclusively to ‘infrastructure’ that can reduce the distance between raw material deposits, industrial manufacturing sites and the consumer market. Future profits will depend on truncating such ‘economic distance’ through better roads, ports and railways (World Bank 2009). Thus, the priority is constructing a global network of interconnected infrastructure corridors, logistics hubs and new cities aimed at speeding up the circulation of commodities between sites of resource extraction, production and consumption (Hildyard 2016).
Apart from “transport infrastructure”, projects like Kalpasar Dam project, Dholera Port, Nuclear Power Plant in Bhavnagar, Barrage on Narmada at Bhadbhoot, Petrol and Petrochemical Industrial Complex are also planned or running in the neighbouring regions around the Gulf of Khambhat in Gujarat with serious environmental consequences.
The Project and its Impacts
In the first phase of construction 3445 hectares of land will be acquired, 90% of which is multi-crop, irrigated and fertile agriculture and related use land (3125 ha.) producing sugarcane, rice, banana, saffron mango etc. (EIA 2015). 221 thriving villages will be directly impacted across 8 districts of Gujarat (EIA 2015). In addition to private lands belonging to small and medium farmers, community lands will also be acquired. Compensatory afforestation will shoot up the land requirement to 8–9 times than proposed. No details of land identification of this have been provided (Khedut Samaj 2015).
According to the 2011 Census, the total population of this region is more than 28 million (2 crores 80 lakh). In the last 6 years, all these regions have registered 20–50% growth in population density. New population figures have not been consulted while preparing the plan for the project. Districts like Valsad and Raigarh are inhabited by indigenous communities who make up for more than 50% of population in these areas (EIA 2015).
The proposed expressway will irreversibly alter the geography of the region. Traditional pathways used by communities will be blocked and they will have to use longer diversions to reach their destination or use vehicles in the new road which will involve undesirable economic burden for all their life and for succeeding generations. It will also affect approach of cattle, animals and insects which are critical for agricultural breeding (Khedut Samaj 2015). The total forest area to be diverted by the project is 96.403 hectares. The expressway will cut through the eco-sensitive zone of Dahanu taluka in Maharashtra and will pass dangerously close (less than 10 km.) to the Dadra and Nagar Haveli Wildlife Sanctuary which itself is not permissible by law.
The Environment Impact Assessment report (prepared by a private consultant on behalf of NHAI) mentions that 30,786 trees (excluding plants) will be cut which includes flora like orchards of mango, gooseberry and cashew and other precious hardwood deciduous species. However, the report leaves many environmental impacts unaddressed. The number of trees itself is a doubtful figure. Western Ghats, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is likely to get affected by the expressway finds no mention in the EIA.
95 hectares of pristine forest between Vasai (Thane district) and Palgarh (Talasari district) in Maharashtra will be diverted engulfing 50–70 villages. In areas around Mumbai that are losing green cover at a very fast rate, the project will damage mangroves. NHAI has justified this by citing geometrical constraints (Mid-day 2017). The expressway will also pass through river basins of Narmada, Tapi and Daman Ganga deteriorating and diminishing natural drainage patterns and creating flood & flood prone zones on the east side of the proposed project leading to chronic and irreparable damage to ecology, population and agriculture & flora and fauna (Khedut Samaj 2015). Daman Ganga is also one of the most polluted Indian rivers.
Apart from directly impacting agricultural production (both food and cash crops), hundreds of co-operatives that are active in the area and provide thousands of jobs to local people will be impaired. The villages proposed to be effected by the expressway are famous for their milk production and were instrumental in creating the “White Revolution”. Cattle undoubtedly are one of the important means of livelihood in this region. The loss of community-owned pasture lands which will be acquired by the project without any compensation to the community will also hamper the livelihood of the pastoral society (Khedut Samaj 2015).
During pre-operative, construction as well as operational phase, the proposed expressway will result in emissions of harmful and pollutant gases as a result of vehicular movement, damaging fertility of nearby soil (ibid).
Central and State governments in India are blatantly overlooking their social and environmental responsibilities by twisting laws to suit financial interests. The Forest Department in 2013 allowed diversion of forest land for linear projects like roads without even taking the mandatory consent of local bodies like Gram Sabhas guaranteed by Forest (Conservation) Act 1980. 
Inspite of its own suggestion of constructing elevated corridor across the length of the project citing difficulties in land acquisition and rising costs due to the implementation of the new land act Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act 2013  and putting land acquisition on hold, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways in 2016 upgraded the earlier Vadodara-Mumbai National Highway project to the status of an Expressway (Business Standard 2016).
The Ministry of Environment and Forests in 2012 exempted Highway projects involving mining of soil/earth from ‘borrow areas’, or land belonging to local farmers along the alignment of the highway projects, from seeking separate environment clearances . Other projects like Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor which threaten to engulf huge swathes of agricultural land have also received tacit state support in the form of laws like Special Investment Region Act 2009 and changes to Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act 2013 in the form of Land Bill 2015 and changes in State land acquisition rules (Neogi 2017).
In May 2012 about 12,000 farmers and other affected people registered their protest for land acquisition as a part of Land Acquisition Consultation Process in Navsari District (Khedut Samaj 2015). At the same time, the Environmental Impact Assessment report which serves as the blueprint for permitting the maximum level of ecological and social damage that can be allowed by a development project mentioned consent of local community on the basis of only 17 consultative meetings in Gujarat with an average of 10 participants and thus ensuring that only 1 or 2 persons were consulted from each village (Khedut Samaj 2014). The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) has failed to conduct a cumulative environmental impact assessment for the area despite several demands made by people’s representatives again and again through representations, memorandums and protests.
Rehabilitation & Resettlement plan has not been prepared and published. People who are expected to suffer due to this project have not even been identified and surveyed so far. The R&R budget worked out for the proposed VME-Phase-I corridor is Rs. 3305 crores which include cost of land, replacement cost of religious and community structures and R&R assistance to the affected people. R&R is less than 7% of total budget of the expressway.
People’s organisations like Khedut Samaj have protested in all the Environmental Public Hearings held during 2014 in various districts for this and have alleged violations of the Environmental Protection Act 1986 and to the Environmental Impact Assessment Notification 2006 (PSS 2014).
In 2016, villagers of Kebada (Navsari district, Gujarat) tried to stop the land measurement process conducted by NHAI officials without their consent. NHAI officials continued their measurement work amidst heavy police security. 35 people were detained out of which 26 were women (Indian Express 2016).
Civil Society Organizations like Adivasi Ekta Parishad fear that original resident tribals will be driven out after losing their land, livelihood to roads, industries and other urban infrastructure (Counterview 2017).
In Gujarat, non-violent agitations and demonstrations against displacement are often met by brutal police crackdowns. Democratic rallies and marches are denied permission by the administration to deter political resistance. Every year, during the Vibrant Gujarat Summit (a mega-affair which brings together Indian and Gujarat government along with international financial institutes, private investors and industrialists often at the peril of the masses) political leaders are put under preventive detention and the city is cordoned off by heavy security to prevent the protesting rural / agrarian / pastoral or tribal people from reaching the venue (Chakravartty 2015). President of Khedut Samaj Gujarat, Jayesh Patel in an open letter to Japanese PM Shinzo Abe alleged this human rights abuse when Abe visited India on PM Narendra Modi’s birthday to inaugurate multiple projects including the highly controversial Sardar Sarovar Dam and Bullet Train (Counterview 2017).
The much-touted Gujarat model of development works on a series of denials. The government eager to please investors projects these processes as completely frictionless. While the voices of resistance against such government backed private projects are relegated to the background by an effective nexus of politicians, administration, police, local hegemony and media. But for people whose very lands these projects threaten to engulf, this is a matter of their very existence. Inspite of threats, intimidations and the practical impossibilities of organizing people spread across forests and villages, on 9 August 2017, over 1 lakh people from agricultural, pastoral, fishworkers and tribal communities gathered in Talasari (Palgarh, Maharashtra) on the occasion of August Kranti Day to resist against these multiple projects (DMIC, Bullet Train, Expressway, Nuclear Power Plants and Dams).
Environmentalists have taken the legal route to challenge the fraudulent Public Hearings in the National Green Tribunal and the forced land acquisition through a Public Interest Litigation in the Gujarat High Court. The courts are hearing these cases and have a put a stay on the environmental clearance (TNN 2016). The government is adamant on its pursuit of “development infrastructure” by ignoring all social and environmental warnings (TNN 2017). Lakhs of people are looking uneasily at an uncertain future.
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