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Delhi-Mumbai Expressway: What did the tribals get from this path of development?

Reality of farmers whose lives have been affected by the Delhi-Mumbai Expressway. Kismal Vasunia of Udaipuriya village is an example. Know his story.

By Shishir Agrawal
New Update
Delhi Mumbai Expressway and question of livelihood for tribals

Kismal Vasunia, a 52-year-old resident of Udaipuriya village in Jhabua District, a region in Madhya Pradesh from where the Delhi-Mumbai Expressway passes. His village, Udaipuriya, is situated on the banks of this expressway. Interestingly, Kismal claims that the 'expressway goes from his farm'. He used to farm on 6 bighas of land, but now only half of that belongs to him. The other half of the land was acquired by the government in 2021 for the expressway project. As a consequence, his crop yield inevitable reduced. Now, to make ends meet, Kismal states that he and his son travel to Gujarat, and work as labourers.

What did the tribals get?

This, India's longest, expressway runs through villages within the Meghnagar and Thandla tehsils of the Jhabua district, spanning a length of 50.5 km. Completion of this project is expected by next February, according to Union Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari. Through this expressway, the journey from Delhi to Mumbai can be completed in just 12 hours, and the approximately cost for the project is ₹ 1 lakh crore. However, it raises the question of what benefits, if any, this expressway brings to the tribal communities residing in these areas of Madhya Pradesh.

Delhi-Mumbai Expressway in jhabua
Kismal, in yellow-shirt, claims that the 'expressway goes from his farm'.

Kismal Vasuniya angrily states, “We haven't gained any benefit. All we've experienced is loss.”

"Before, we identified as farmers. However, now we must make our livelihood by being labourers."

Many of the indigenous inhabitants here assert that the government has abruptly seized the land to construct the road. They have lived here for generations,and farmed on these lands, they claimed. This action has put their means of sustenance at risk and altered their identity. Sharing his perspective, a local villager explains,

People left with only a small amount of land will now become 12-month labourers... We aren't even allowed to sell water bottles on this roadside.

Employment question

In this region, the majority of the inhabitants migrate for survival. Most days of the year, they work as labourers in Gujarat, a district that borders this area. When the monsoon season arrives, it's time for them to return home. During this period, they cultivate a crop using rain water, providing them a full year's income. The government's intention behind the expressway was to generate jobs for 50 lakh man-days. However, on the job opportunities front Prem Singh (45) from Udaipuriya shares a different on-ground reality.

"Labourers from various locations were brought in to construct the road here and left after their work was done. However, no job opportunities were provided to the locals in our village."

Increasing migration

Baddu Bhuria (68), from the village of Kaldela, roughly 60 km from Udaipuriya, fears he will be unable to continue farming in the near future. He cultivated approximately 1 hectare (8.96 bigha) of farmland. However, two-years ago his crops were destroyed, to construct an expressway. He states,

"In that particular year, cotton was priced at Rs 10,000 per quintal. Even though my farm produced up to 20 quintals of cotton, we weren't allowed to harvest the crops."

In case of Bhuria, the government had issued two prior warnings to him and the fellow villagers to leave the land. However, by the time of these warnings, their cotton crops were already planted. They remained hopeful that the government's construction work would be deferred until their harvest. But, when the official team arrived to clear the area for road construction, their appeals were ignored.

Delhi-Mumbai Expressway
The highway passes through the fields

Homeless people

Bhuria is left with only 1 bigha of land that will be split equally among his two sons. He fears that such a small piece of land will not sustain them sufficiently. As a result, he anticipates that they will likely move to Gujarat. Whereas, Kismal Vasunia highlights that people who resided on government lands have now been rendered homeless.

“The villagers repeatedly approached the SDM, conveying that their residency dated back to 3-4 generations. However, their concerns fell on deaf ears.”

Adding to Kismal's point, his brother Premsingh Vasunia says, “About 100 people had gone to the SDM and asked him to give us something in exchange for this land. On this the SDM laughingly said that it was government land, now if the government needs it, they took it.”

What does the law say?

Pratyush Mishra, an advocate in the Indore bench of Madhya Pradesh High Court, says quoting the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013,

“According to Section 41 of the Act, as far as possible, land belonging to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes should not be acquired. If it is necessary to acquire land, it will have to be done only as a last option and with a reasoned conclusion as to why it is the last option. "

However, the local people here say that no such information has been given to them.

Delhi-Mumbai Expressway in jhabua
Highway villages are isolated, making ambulance access via rough roads challenging.

Question of economic justice

Local tribals believe that this issue is not just about land. Apart from their livelihood, their identity and history are also linked to this land. Hence, historically the tribals have the right to this land. Ramesh Katara (30) asks, "The government should tell us if our ancestors battled against the British or was it the government that fought them?"

23-year old law student Ravi Katara argues that although the Constitution discusses social and economic justice for every citizen, these cannot be ensured when land is acquired in such a manner.

Administration side

Talking to Ground Report, Jhabua District Collector Tanvi Hooda says,

“Appropriate compensation has been given to the people affected by the project.”

Speaking on the topics of halting migration and job creation, he mentioned that individuals are granted employment for 100 days under NREGA. To augment job prospects, the government is also working on the growth of local industries. However, residents are resisting this industrial development. The local people are under the impression that this will lead to another instance of land loss.

Delhi-Mumbai Expressway
Mountains cut to construct roads.

Roads, representation of development

The Delhi-Mumbai Expressway, considered a threat to the livelihood and constitutional values of Jhabua's tribes, is a component of the government's elaborate Bharatmala project's Phase 1. This phase plans for the construction of a road spanning 24,800 kilometres. The expressway's stretch from Ratlam district in Madhya Pradesh to Vadodara district in Gujarat will account for 211.49 kilometres, and this includes the villages of Jhabua district.

Over the past several years, there has been a rapid expansion in the country's road network. Up until 2014, the total distance of National Highways was 91,000 kilometres. However, this number increased to 1,29,000 kilometres by December 2018. Union Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari detailed the government's contribution, stating that during the 2017-18 fiscal year, the government constructed 27 kilometres of roads daily. A rate expected to increase to 35 kilometres in future years.

Delhi-Mumbai Expressway: What did the tribals get from this path
Longer roads construction has increased tribals' distance to facilities like electricity and hospitals.

Long struggle

The construction of roads has shortened the travel distance between Delhi, Mumbai, and other cities. However, ironically, has increased the gap between the residents of Kaldela village in the tribal region of Madhya Pradesh, and basic amenities such as electricity and water. Kantilal Vesta reports that an electric pole was uprooted during the expressway construction. Despite multiple complaints lodged by the villagers to reinstate an electric pole at the electricity office, their pleas have fallen on deaf ears, with no new pole installed as of yet. According to Vesta,

“We are bringing power lines from thousands of meters away. Now, people from any department (electricity department) will come and accuse us of electricity theft.”

Besides this, individuals, mostly women, get drinking water from roughly 2 to 3 km away, as now the expressway is being constructed over the reservoir. According to the villagers, this water is used to bath animals now, as it completely unfit for drinking.

Delhi-Mumbai Expressway: What did the tribals get from this path
The reservoir's water is utilized for bathing animals, however, it is not appropriate for drinking.

Giving an official stand on the issue, Jhabua Collector says,

"The administration is examining people's complaints. Once the election's code of conduct is over, actions will be undertaken in accordance with these proposals."

Despite the elections being over, we attempted to gather information from the residents via phone calls about the current status of the issue. They reported that the installation of electric poles has not been carried out yet.

Following the completion of the highway construction, it's expected that vehicle traffic will begin within days. This highway isn't the final expressway within the nation, as the expanding road network in 'New India' serves as a testament to its progress. However, the question still linger; owing to this developmental model, what benefits, if any, have been garnered by the tribal communities?

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