Himachalis paying a heavy price for construction of national highways in state

Brig Khushal Thakur (retd) was commanding 18 Grenadiers when his battalion was tasked with capturing Tololing Top during the Kargil War in 1999. Today he is fighting another battle and he doesn’t seem anywhere near winning it. President of the Four-Lane Sangharsh Samiti, the veteran is battling for the rehabilitation of thousands of people whose land is being acquired to build 69 new national highways in Himachal Pradesh.

“The land acquisition process is violating the new land act 2013, which provides for a humane takeover of the land, and resettlement of the affected people,” says Thakur.

Mindless destruction

Bhagat Ram Verma, 53, a resident of Aut in Mandi district, is struggling to come to terms with the loss of both his business and house at the altar of a tunnel and bypass. Verma, who used to run a hardware shop at the main bazaar in Aut, says he and others still can’t fathom why the authorities chose to destroy the bustling, old market at the junction of four valleys instead of building a bypass on the left bank of the river Beas. “We’ve been here for ages. Being at a junction, this market used to remain busy even at midnight. Passengers from as far as Delhi used to alight here, but now 80% of it has been destroyed,” says Verma.

The prosperous trader, who had built a house near his shop, had to spend many traumatic days in a tent with his family when the bulldozers were pressed into service. “I was paid 1.94 lakh for my shop for which banks were ready to give me a loan of 50 lakh,” fumes Verma, claiming that while the land acquisition officer fixed a sum of 2 lakh per biswa (doubled to 4 lakh as per Factor 1 of the new Act), the market rate is as high as 10 lakh.

Mangat Ram, 67, a retired teacher at Nagwain village in Mandi, was hit hard when the 3 biswa land he owned was acquired for the highway. “I have been living here since 1986; six years ago I built a 12-room double-storey house. Last week, I was given a compensation of 71,000 for the house. Now they are putting pressure on me to vacate the land.” Ram is upset because of the different rates of compensation. “There are some who have received crores, it all depends on your connections,” he claims.

Accusing the Himachal government of violating the 2013 Act, Brig Thakur says, “Himachal has fixed the multiplying factor for rural land at 1 even though seven states, including Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, have fixed it at 2, and 17 others have fixed it at above 1. The district collectors don’t care to find out the market value of the land, and there is zero effort at resettlement.”

Interestingly, the BJP manifesto had promised to grant Factor 2 to the displaced people as per which he/she receives four times the market value of the land. Factor 1 gives only twice the market rate.

Land acquired but work at standstill

The slow pace of work on many highways is compounding the misery of those displaced. Joginder Walia, 59, who runs an NGO at Bhour village near Sundernagar, pointed out that even though 350 households were displaced, work on five tunnels near the Kainchi Mor under the PPP mode has been lying suspended since 2014.

“The administration announced the award for the 350 displaced persons in January this year, but they are yet to receive a paisa,” laments Walia, underlining the administrative apathy. He rues that work on the Kiratpur-Nerchowk is at a standstill. “The culverts have been closed due to the project, where will the rainwater go? The colonial rule was better.”

Warning that the displaced were running out of patience, Brig Thakur said inadequate and delayed compensation is leading to a slew of court cases, which will further affect work.

PWD engineer-in-chief R P Verma said this demand is under consideration by the state government but they are yet to take a decision.

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