‘Fastest’ land acquisition in Mumbai: How Nagpur-Mumbai expressway got farmers on its side

Soon after the announcement, large-scale protests broke out with farmer groups objecting to the acquisition and the diverse terrain, including reserved forests and sanctuaries, raising questions of environmental sustainability.

Back in 2016, when former Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis first announced the Rs 55,335 crore, 701 km Nagpur-Mumbai Samruddhi expressway, uncertainties loomed over the project’s massive land requirement, which needed nearly 24,000 farmers across 10 districts in the state to surrender over 8,800-hectare land.

It was going to be one of the largest and most complex land acquisitions in the country. Yet, it proved to be the fastest, with all land acquired under two years, construction starting in 2019, and a 502 km stretch between Nagpur and Shirdi set to open in May this year.

Soon after the announcement, large-scale protests broke out with farmer groups objecting to the acquisition and the diverse terrain, including reserved forests and sanctuaries, raising questions of environmental sustainability.

But in what is one of the biggest land acquisitions of its kind since the new land Act in 2013 came into force, the state managed to acquire all the 8,861.02-hectare land required for the project in 18 months.

“Our first award was somewhere in July 2017. By the end of 2018, we were done. This is the fastest land acquisition ever in India,” said Dr Chandrakant Pulkundwar, Joint Managing Director of the state-run Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC) that is building the corridor. Records show that 84 per cent of farmers opted for direct purchase agreements or bilateral negotiations with the MSRDC, eliminating the need for forcible acquisition.

Initially the MSRDC went for a land pooling strategy but the move was met with protests on the ground. Eventually, it decided on handsome compensation, five times the value of the land (going over and above the stipulation of four times compensation in the Act) in addition to compensation for loss of wells, orchards and other farm infrastructure, encouraging farmers to voluntarily participate in the process.

Bureaucrats involved in the acquisition concede that the negotiations were also made easy by the fact that large tracts of land in and around the corridor are arid. “It was because the compensation was considerably more than anything I’ve ever made off my land,” said Madhukar Pande, 48, a farmer from Kacchigatti village in Jalna, who surrendered 1.5 acre out of his 4-acre ancestral agriculture land for the project.

The MSRDC paid him Rs 31 lakh per acre. “Our annual income from farming was just around Rs 3-5 lakh a year; sufficient enough for sustenance but not enough to save big for the future,” he added. “The family resisted initially, but when we were informed about the compensation amount, we changed our mind,” said Pande as he walks his cow across what used to be its earlier pasture but is now the under-construction highway.

With the compensation awarded Pande has bought a 4,000 sq ft plot in an adjoining village where he has constructed a three-storey building which he has rented out as shops and residences. “It is already fetching me a rent of Rs 17,000 a month,” said Pande. He reinvested a sum in buying farm land near the highway, building a pucca house for himself and setting aside some for his daughter who is a Class 12 student.

Ashok Chakdhare, 52, says farmers often hesitate due to emotional attachment to the land. He said, “Arid or otherwise, farmers do not really want to give up land. But the compensation being offered was too good to refuse.” Chakdhare surrendered 5 acres of his land in Amravati’s Nimhangaon village and was given a compensation of Rs 1 crore for it. He has reinvested this money into 4 acres of orange orchard, built pucca houses for himself and parents and continues farming in the land he has retained.

According to a government survey, most farmers have reinvested in land with the compensation received. There is however some opposition to the construction of retaining walls on either side of the corridor. “There is no road to our fields. We face problems for transportation of produce. We were promised village roads,” said Sanjay Deshmukh, 55, of Wardha’s Virul village.

“This is a problem. We will resolve it,” said MSRDC’s Vice Chairman-cum-Managing Director Radheshyam Mopalwar.

The MSRDC deployed private communicators for land acquisition negotiations. “We engaged 320 communicators and trained them. The communicators also explained various methods of reinvestment to the farmers,” said Mopalwar. “Land acquisition failures, subsequent litigation and project delays have at times derailed lives of the project affected mostly because the communication was not on point. We wanted to avoid that and emphasise the benefits,” he added.

Pramod Pahade, 48, a farmer from Amravati’s Aasegaon village, agreed. “Usually when government acquisition happens, the uncertainty of the compensation amount, time it will take to avail of it and other such considerations scare farmers. But the communicators explained everything properly to us and compensation was disbursed within two days of my signing the agreement.” Priyadarshi Gudam, 31, a communicator, said, “Initially there was resistance. But once the first few payouts were effected, word of mouth did the work.”

All statutory clearances were in place before contracts for the construction were awarded. The 701-km long and 120-m broad highway cuts across three sanctuaries — Tansa (Thane), Katepurna (Akola-Washim border) and Karanja-Sohol (Washim) — and 35 wildlife focus areas stretched over 118 km across the route. Over 2.36 lakh trees were affected.

“We teamed up with the Wildlife Institute of India to plan various wildlife mitigation measures at the design stage itself. It’s a lot easier — and cheaper — to build in these mitigations during construction than it is to retrofit,” Mopalwar said. “We also wanted to give the confidence that environmental and forest concerns had been adequately addressed.”

In another novel measure, the agency also picked up engineers and revenue staff with proven experience from the state’s departments. “We needed people who would not be fazed by big assignments,” said Pulkundwar. “Nine deputy and additional collector level officials and 17 senior PWD engineers were specially deployed. It paid off,” he added.

Nishikant Surve, Additional Collector and Administrator (New towns), MSRDC, said a dedicated machinery also ensured that hurdles in engineering or land acquisition were addressed on a war footing.

But the biggest factor that helped speed up implementation was political patronage. Fadnavis promoted it as his own flagship initiative. “You often come across departments working in silos. In this case, the entire machinery worked in tandem. The results are for all to see,” said Dr Pulkundwar. After taking over reins, the Uddhav Thackeray-led government continued to extend full backing to the project.

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