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Bullet train: Renewed move to acquire land in Gujarat 'violates' human rights

Counterview Desk
Senior Gujarat-based environmentalists Rohit Prajapati and Krishnakant have sought the intervention of Prime Minister Narendra Modi for urgently stopping all the activities of the Mumbai-Ahmedabad High-Speed Rail (MAHSR) Project, popularly bullet train project, including land acquisition process in light of Covid-19 crisis.
Belonging to the Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti (PSS), Vadodara, the environmentalists, in their letter – copies of which have been forwarded to the managing director, National High Speed Rail Corporation Limited; President, Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA), which is funding the project, and chief ministers of Gujarat and Maharashtra – have regretted that despite the pandemic attempts to acquire land and properties across Gujarat have been renewed.
Meanwhile, Prajapati told Counterview that PSS is planning to make a representation to the UN Human Rights Commission wondering how could the land acquisition begin amidst Covid-19 crisis.

Text:

This is to bring to your attention the latest attempt at acquiring properties, land, etc. in various places across Gujarat for the bullet train project. It violates human rights principles especially in the ongoing distressing times of the Covid-19 pandemic. Your actions further exacerbate the socio-economic hardships of the concerned people and the governments.
The Gujarat government has issued public notice AM-2020-342-M-JAVAD-1219-2268-D, dated June 22, 2020, talking about objections to compulsory land acquisition for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad High-Speed Rail (MAHSR) bullet train project, within 60 days of publication of the Public Notice. This notice has been issued whilst the Covid-19 Pandemic cases are rising in the country and state, when it is difficult to assemble required information for submission by the affected parties as administration and working of all offices are stressed and sluggish.
South and Central Gujarat areas have been unexpectedly visited by a team comprising of the officials of NHSRCL (National High speed Rail Corporation Ltd.), ex-sub divisional magistrate (SDM), ex-forest officers (where their service required), ex-banker on behalf of NHSRCL and land surveyors without any prior intimation. It is only then that these owners were informed that their properties are being “acquired” for the “national project” and they have lost all their right to sell/rent it to anyone else now and would have to vacate.
These sudden official visits have come in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic crisis that has increased the financial insecurity and livelihood crisis resulting in depression, stress, and uncertainty amongst the people. The proposed acquisition process only serves to add extra burden and anxiety on the people who are slated to be displaced at this critical time, apart from exposing them to grave health risks.
Being in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and accompanying restrictions on movement, assembly etc., and with many areas still under partial or full lockdown, it is extremely difficult to access legal assistance and justice, and it snatches the right of the people to adequately communicate their suggestions, objections, or opposition to the acquisition and the project or take any legal action to protect their rights.
On the one hand, the governments have directed people to “stay home, stay safe, maintain social distance, help others… inform government if any outsiders come and stay in your area … Do not travel...” On the other hand, for the MAHSR project, the same Governments state in their Public Notice dated June 30, 2020 (translated from Gujarati) that: “….All the holders of the said lands are informed that they should not stop any surveyor or any civil servant both: to enter, and to survey the property...” 
A Gujarat farmers' protest against the bullet train project
India has confirmed more than 1,750,000+ cases of Covid-19 as of now, and is adding an average of 50,000+ every day, making it the world’s third-worst-hit country. Major cities of the country, specifically cities of Gujarat and Maharashtra states, are badly affected with hospitals and governments struggling to handle the critical crisis. 
Even as India struggles, the true magnitude of the epidemic might not even be accurately recorded, especially considering the lack of adequate testing. The country has an incomplete death-registration system; that means not all deaths are recorded and the documented cases and causes are often incorrect.
Even according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, around 140,000,000 (14 crore – 1.4 million) Indians lost employment during the lockdown. More than 45% households across the nation have reported a sudden and unexpected drop in income levels. Various profitable industries across the country have also cut salaries and laid off employees.
This has led to an overall scenario of anxiety, stress, and insecurity amongst people who are unable to sustain their day-to-day life with the loss of their employment, livelihood after four months of lockdown, and slowdown of economic activity in the country. This uncertainty in life has led to frustration and depression for families and communities as a whole.
There are legitimate concerns as to where the government would find the funds to fight present coronavirus crisis and keep the economy and people alive. Experts have suggested measures such as income support on regular basis to those in the unorganised sectors. It is nothing but a financial emergency in the country and even the governments have been unable to handle the situation effectively.
At a time when the government should revisit its economic priorities, keeping in mind ongoing Covid 19 Crisis, they have started land acquisition process for the extravagant MAHSR project at the cost of survival of millions of India’s citizens.
In this dire economic emergency situation, where all non-essential sources of funding should be tapped and redirected to help the affected sectors deal with the crisis and prevailing economic situation, the government of the day is going ahead with a superfluous and extravagant project like MAHSR.
Land surveyors unexpectedly visiting South and Central Gujarat areas tell landowners that their properties are being acquired and they have lost all their rights over them
The MAHSR project is not a vital service that is required in such a sudden and severe crisis. The Indian Government, in collaboration with Japan, is planning to spend more than Rs 1 lakh crore for this project. The government can and should put on hold this project that, in turn, will save the government time and resources required for the nation at this stage.
We, therefore, raise the following urgent issues:
  • What is the emergency in acquiring residential and commercial properties of citizens during the Covid-19 pandemic?
  • Who exactly is responsible for the distress caused by the unwarranted visits of these officials on acquisition spree? 
  • Is there any concern for redressal of human rights, and if so, how does it work and how can affected people seek it? 
We have already submitted to the concerned authorities, with a covering letter dated December 8, 2018, the published articles authored by us as the concerned citizens and activists of India highlighting the violations of JICA Guidelines for their funded international projects (here, by the MAHSR project). These violations are related to both the environmental and social impacts and concerns arising from the MAHSR Project implementation.
  • July 9, 2018: Bullet Train – Train with ‘Bullets’ i.e. ‘A Symbol of Violence, Absolute Force’
  • August 15, 2018: Japanese Investor’s (JICA) Guidelines Violated in the Mumbai - Ahmedabad High-Speed Rail Project (MAHSR). 
  • September 5, 2018: Committee on Railways (2014-2015) said Bullet Train Project is Financially Unviable. At what and whose cost? For whom? 
We have clearly mentioned in our letter, dated December 8, 2018, that
“You, as the President/ Review Team of JICA for the MAHSR project, to thoroughly review all the procedures and our concerns. It is imperative now that you take stringent and prompt action to redress violations and address the concerns completely, transparently, and promptly. Do inform us of the actions you have taken and would now take as well as the results of the same so that we can decide our next course of action.” 
JICA team  talking with farmers in December 2018
In our letter dated June 17, 2019, we clearly mentioned: 
“After your visit to Gujarat on December 7-8, 2018, you had sent us a letter dated December 27, 2018 and we had agreed to your request to share the details and documents which were submitted by us to you, with National High Speed Rail Corporation Limited and other concerned authorities. You might have received the response or reply from them. We expected that such sharing of the details and documents will facilitate to address the concerns raised by affected - concerned villagers, organisations working in these areas and us, in a timely, transparent, and comprehensive manner... 
“We are aware that pursuant to the visits you have submitted your detailed Report, with all the inputs presented by the project affected people and organisations working in these areas and us, to the National High Speed Rail Corporation Limited, Government of India and Government of Japan. Since the report is prepared with inputs from the project affected people and local stakeholders, including us, we request you to provide us with a copy of the report. A letter dated 10 June 2019 was sent to the Managing Director of National High Speed Rail Corporation Limited but we have not yet received any reply from them.
“We further request you to update us on all actions taken by you or any other concerned authorities so far, along with future interventions planned by you to address the concerns raised by us / project affected people and discussed in person, during your visit to Gujarat and Maharashtra.”
As we did not receive a suitable response from the concerned authorities, we wrote another letter dated 1 July 2019. In this letter, we clearly mentioned:
“A letter, dated 10 June 2019, was first sent to the Managing Director of National High Speed Rail Corporation Limited with request to share the copy of your Maharashtra & Gujarat visit Report, in connection with the Bullet Train Project. We received a reply, dated June 24, 2019, from National High Speed Rail Corporation, which states: ‘With regards to above referred letter, NHSRCL would like to inform you that, detailed report of JICA regarding visit in Gujarat and Maharashtra is the document of JICA which may be obtained directly from JICA’.
“However two concern were raised by JICA in its field report and the response to the same is listed below:
“In light of the letter dated June 24, 2019 of NHSRCL, we once again request you to share a copy of the above-mentioned Report of your visit to Gujarat and Maharashtra, in connection with the Bullet Train Project. We also request you to update us on any action taken by you or any other concerned authorities so far, along with future interventions planned by you to address the concerns raised by us/ project affected people and discussed in person, during your visit to Gujarat and Maharashtra.
“You, as the chief representative of the Review Team of JICA for the MAHSR project, are legally and morally responsible for thoroughly reviewing all the procedures and address the concerns raised by us. It is imperative to uphold the applicable laws of the land as well as the principles and rules of your international Agency and the international standards. 
"Not doing so, will further weaken democratic principles and our collective responsibilities towards the future generations of the human and all other species. You may take on record that already the process is not working on recognised Prior Informed Consent principles and is not even offering appropriate and adequate compensation to farmers liable to loose land.
“Based on your response, we can decide our next course of action for the project affected people and the environment.”
A Maharashtra farmers' protest against the bullet train project
Thereafter, there has been complete silence with no response from any of the concerned authorities.
Big projects, like the bullet train, affect not only the immediate project-affected local people, but also all global citizens who are impacted in the current scenario. International principles of environmental justice as well as national laws recognise the right to public participation and democratic process of decision-making for projects and activities that impact the environment and society.
Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration adopted in 1992 sets out access to information, public participation, and access to justice as the three key pillars of sound environmental governance. All three principles are currently being violated by conducting the acquisition process at this time of pandemic.
If the Covid-19 crisis has highlighted anything, it is the need to rethink development as well as development priorities and not to use the pandemic as a chance to hasten an unsustainable, opportunistic, and destructive development agenda. It is imperative at this juncture that the universal human rights, principles, and laws relating to environment protection and social justice be upheld strictly and comprehensively.
Keeping in mind above facts and international human rights, we demand:
  • The governments stop all the activities related to the MAHSR project, and more particularly, land acquisition.
  • The governments immediately announce, by way of advertisements in all major newspaper and news channels, that they have taken a decision to stop all the activities related to the bullet train project with immediate effect. 
  • The governments immediately withdraw all the public notices issued through newspapers for land acquisitions during pre-Covid-19 and post-Covid-19 period. 
  • The governments immediately announce, through advertisements in all major newspaper and news channels, that the properties, which were acquired in past and places where so-called compensation is considered, be put on hold and people to continue to have rights on those lands for their routine use. 
  • The governments put all this information in public domain and make appropriate arrangement so that this information in different local languages reaches everybody. 
  • The governments reconsider their priorities and work towards grounded efforts of environmental and social stability and sustainability. 
We look forward to hearing a positive and prompt response from you. Let us not make this matter more complicated.

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