By Zahid Rafiq
THE TAJ Expressway, now known as the Yamuna Expressway, certainly lives up to its first name for its ambition and grandeur. Connecting Delhi with Agra, the 165 km, eight-lane highway is a work of modern engineering, which passes through more than 1,880 villages in Uttar Pradesh, and in the process, is changing the lives of villagers forever. The tractors that used to plough the 2,400 hectares of agricultural land on either side of the highway are to be replaced by bulldozers and crushers.
This road to progress is paved with the muffled voices of thousands of villagers. And staining the underpass of this highway is the blood of three people who were killed and 25 who were injured on 14 August when police opened fire on the villagers who were protesting the government’s land acquisition.
All around this highway, there are many huge projects taking shape. After 11 km, there is a Highway City coming up. A kilometre further, a Formula One track is under construction in the Sports City. A cricket stadium and golf course are also in the works. Two more km ahead, there will be an Indus City. At the 39 km mark is the plot for the proposed airport. In between these projects of urbanisation, one can get glimpses of sheep grazing, boys and girls returning from school on tracby tors, and families of the farmers enjoying their quiet lives in the fields.
It is impossible to reach the highway through the Noida Expressway and ignore the shadows of BSP politics that loom large. Posters of Mayawati and Kanshi Ram are perched on every alternate electric pole for more than 10 km of the Noida Expressway, with a few pictures of Ambedkar in between.
The Mayawati government was instrumental in giving the Yamuna Expressway project to the Jaypee Group. Though the project was supposed to have been completed by now, the renewed deal has given Jaypee an extension till 2013.
The Rs.11,000 crore project is being built trac by Jaypee Infratech. In return for building the highway — which will cut down the travel time between Delhi and Agra to just 90 minutes — Jaypee will get to operate it and collect toll for 36 years. Jaypee has already got 600 acres of land around the Noida Expressway, where it has built apartments. Jaypee will also get more than 2,400 hectares of agricultural land around the Yamuna Expressway, where plans are afoot to develop townships.
ALIGARH WAS the first flashpoint where the project clashed with the lives of the farmers. In Zikrpur village, work on the highway was suspended after UP Police fired on the farmers protesting the land acquisition. Besides burning vehicles belonging to Jaypee, the farmers went on a hunger strike to stop the government from forcing them to sell their land for Jaypee’s township project. Price has also been a factor in the agitation. Farmers in Aligarh and Mathura received Rs. 453 per sq ft, while their Noida counterparts got nearly double — about 800 per sq ft.
“The government is forcing us to sell our land. It is threatening to suspend government employees who belong to the agitating families. We have already given land for the highway, then why should we part with more land for the township project?” asks Vineet, a BSc student, who has been protesting for the past two weeks.
Adds his friend Sumit, “We know that we will not remain farmers. We will become salesmen, labourers and employees in the township and we don’t want that to happen.”
There are people from different castes living in these villages and some of them have already sold their land. Small landholders like the Jatavs were the first ones to sell. However, Jats and Rajputs, who grow four crops on their land every year, don’t want to sell.
In Kripalpur village, Aligarh, stands the house of Shripal Singh, who lost his 12-year-old son during police firing a fortnight ago. Mohit had come back from school and fought with his father, demanding a new pair of shoes for the Independence Day function. Three hours later, some neighbours carried an injured Mohit back to his shocked father.
“One bullet had hit his arm, and another on his ribs. He was sitting under a tree when the bullets hit him. He kept telling me that ants were crawling all over his ribs,” recalls Shripal, a Dalit farmer who had sold his five bighas to the government for Jaypee’s township. Mohit died the next day, along with three agitators from neighbouring villages.
“Why is the government playing the broker’s role? Why isn’t Jaypee talking to us as a company?” asks Ramesh Chand Atri, a farmer. “We will tell them whether we want to sell our land or not. Or what prices we want. Jaypee is doing its business, but what is the UP government doing? We will not sell out land.”
Even in Mathura and Agra, where Jaypee plans to build townships, the farmers want to save their land. They are in constant touch with those from Aligarh, and they are making plans to join forces. “We have seen how they killed farmers in Aligarh, but that will not make us sell our land. We are ready to die for our land,” says Subir Chand, a farmer from Agra.
The villagers allege that the government forcibly cut their crops last month, but they vow to start farming again. In the years to come, just like the Taj Mahal, there might be plenty of legends buried under this project too — stories of voices that were torn from throats and ripened crops that vanished from the fields.