Noble Mansion

The Squeeze

How land was acquired for the Navi Mumbai International Airport

Rahul Bhatia
Reporter

The men at the table near the village pond were laughing. A pile of loose paper chits lay on the desk between them – a shuffle of faces and names cut days earlier by an assistant at the village panchayat. Using a ruler, he sliced hundreds of large photocopies into smaller ones, and organised them for convenience. “If you don’t have a card, you can go vote with this slip,” he said, not looking up.

The gang gathered themselves into a parody of prim behaviour when other villagers sought help. Then the unwinding began anew. In their mind, the October election was settled. Who else will win it, one of the men said. “Vivek Patil’s party.” A stretch of the legs, a lean backward, a grin.

Vivekanand Shankar Patil was somewhere out there in the hilly, dusty Maharashtra countryside, traveling with an entourage of fervent supporters from one voting station to another, bolstering candidates with his presence. He was a political fixture. The first election he won from Panvel, a partly planned town outside Mumbai, was two decades ago. He won the couple that followed by margins so wide they dismissed debate. Five years ago, in 2009, he stood for office in a neighbouring constituency, Uran, and the distance between him and the nearest opponent was over 20,000 votes.

As a representative, Patil’s doings kept him in the news. In the state assembly he passionately argued that his rivals were thieves. In 2005, he tabled a motion in the state’s lower house, calling attention to the dance bars in his home district of Raigad. His political outfit, the Peasants and Workers Party of India, rode the issue by holding protests and demanding a ban. Five months later, the bars were shut down.

During his time in office, Patil’s worth grew splendidly. His returns mirrored the region’s dramatic prosperity. In two terms, his wealth leapt from Rs 2 crore to over Rs 56 crore, and his holdings included farmland, commercial real estate, and four apartments (two of which he did not mention in earlier declarations).

Readers of the local Marathi newspaper he published, Dainik Karnala, grew familiar with his cheery face. In the fortnight before the election, the front page was a publicity vehicle for Patil and his party; his picture was published on it no less than twenty times, with multiple appearances on the same day. He was photographed surrounded by a dozen posters of himself. Dainik Karnala reported that the region was a sea of red, the party’s colour.

At Dapoli, across the pond with the laughing men, a senior officer who had served as a UN peacekeeper in Serbia watched lines of voters shuffle into a school. He arrived in a white Scorpio and fiddled with his phone while muscular subordinates in dark glasses marched about, breaking up groups of boys who stuck their tongues out and posed for pictures with victory signs. The officer and his convoy travelled from village to village. “We get calls about people distributing money. But when we get there, we don’t see anything. There seems to be nothing here,” he said. “But it happens. It happens.”

While Patil campaigned for himself in Uran, he turned up to support the party candidate in Panvel, a man named Balaram. On some days, Balaram made the front page of Dainik Karnala as much as Patil.

Both lost. Patil was unelected for the first time in two decades. I did not think much of it until a fortnight later, when Mahendra Patil, a former sarpanch, or leader, at Paragon, a village outside Panvel, claimed that entire villages had pretended to be away when Patil arrived to campaign. “Our wives said, ‘We don’t need to listen. Shut the windows’,” Mahendra told me. “Patil lost because we were angry about what he did.”

The only trace of Patil after the election was on political stickers that held on desperately to walls and poles where he had campaigned. Panvel was changing rapidly, with signs of riches in the new Audis, flash homes, and better clothes. Patil, the locals believed, had denied them the kind of life they were owed.

Voters wait in line at a school in Dapoli on 15 October 2014

The Harbour line begins in South Mumbai, near the city’s eastern docks, curves right at the northern suburbs, crosses an inlet between Salsette Island and the mainland, and then turns to the south. In Mumbai, the tracks are crowded by buildings. At the other end, near Panvel, the line passes over creeks and open stretches of grass and mangrove. The scenery will soon change, because the land is being acquired as part of an ambitious plan to create an airport and commercial district spread over several hundred square kilometres.

This development, like so many others across India, is being built on the undeniable premise that progress is necessary. There must be new roads, thriving industry, jobs, homes, and more choice. But as with development in other parts of India, there is a persistent unease about the manner progress is achieved in and around Panvel too. Of course the future chugs on. Early morning, hunched men begin hauling sacks of cement from the road to a string of stores. Shops sell glistening basins and bidet sprays. Boys work under open skies to meet the demand for readymade doors and door frames. The banks of highway 54, outside Panvel, are littered with presently empty buildings made with the conviction that there will be demand. Dumpers drive by trenches dug up to lay new pipelines.

All this is on old land possessed by families with history there. They have to make way for the call of modernity. This they know. When that call comes, with its demand to step away from a life with familiar treads, there are only so many choices to make. They may choose the way of their going. Quietly and quickly, or slowly and noisily. They may opt for money instead of land. They may adapt. They may live on, spent, like ghosts, doing nothing. This part of Mumbai has its share of ghosts and spectres.

The construction of this commercial enclave is built on the promise of the Navi Mumbai International Airport, which is estimated to begin operating by 2019, and of which no trace, apart from a signboard, can yet be found today. This is the spectre around which stories are being written.

The airport outside Panvel was first proposed in the late Nineties. Mumbai’s main airport was expected to be overrun with 40 million passengers by 2013, and a second landing terminal in the neighbourhood seemed a good idea. For a decade after, officials from CIDCO, the town planner in charge of the project, commissioned a raft of studies and acquired permissions from the ministries governing aviation and the environment. The planner hired consultants to show that a river diversion would have no adverse effect on the surrounding areas. The Bombay Natural History Society studied migratory bird patterns around the location.

Local residents, environmentalists, and even the central government itself resisted the project. Debi Goenka, the founder of Conservation Action Trust, a non-profit, excoriated CIDCO for seeking an exemption to forest department rules. “I call it Devil-opment,” he said to me last year.

Elsewhere landowners, baffled by the opacity of CIDCO’s operations, met with the planner’s officials dozens of times to get in writing what they had been verbally promised, and found little of substance forthcoming. Finally, in 2014, an alliance of villages took CIDCO to the Mumbai High Court to get more details. The case was resolved, although “they still haven’t answered all our questions,” Mahendra Patil, who was on a committee that represented the villages, said.

Charles Correa, the former chief architect of Navi Mumbai, wrote to the Ministry of Environment and Forests that the airport was an unexpected addition that would lie exactly at the original city centre of the Navi Mumbai he had designed. The ministry did not know this. “It was informed to him that this fact was never brought to the knowledge of the Ministry,” an official wrote in a note. “Further, if CIDCO has proposed an airport in place of a city Centre/lake, then they might have to undergo for a change in the plan…”

The officers who spoke for CIDCO regularly invoked the vision of a finished airport. Since 2013 alone, officials announced that the airport would be ready by 2017, then 2018. These days the date stands at December 2019. There was always some kind of bidding going on, some kind of tender that had been issued. There were no logjams, only files that were moving between ministries. One such announcement moved Jairam Ramesh, then the Minister of Environment and Forests, to write a three-page letter, dated 26th June 2009, to Ashok Chavan, who was then Maharashtra’s chief minister. “Dear Ashok,” the letter began, “I read in the Times of India that CIDCO is claiming that I have changed my original view in regard to the ecological undesirability of the proposed location. I request you to kindly direct CIDCO to desist from spreading such misinformation.”

 

Dated 26 June 2009, a letter from Jairam Ramesh to Ashok Chavan to "emphasize the serious environmental implications" of the airport at that lovation

All of this had stalled the process of land acquisition, which CIDCO claimed had quadrupled the cost of the project. Then, in early October 2014, it was all over. A court announced that October 8, 2014, was the last date for landowners to pledge to sell. Official surveys would come later; discussions about the size of compensation offered would come later – first, the landowners had to pledge. If they didn’t, CIDCO’s offer of compensation would no longer apply.

And so, on October 6, 2014, nine days before the Maharashtra Assembly Elections, landowners stood in line at a CIDCO office in Panvel to hand in their pledges. They knew what they were giving up. They knew what they were told they would get in return. But they knew, too, that the assurances came with restrictions. In their minds, they had no choice.

 

When land is acquired in India, there comes a moment when the uncertainty that buyers face is transferred to sellers.

One now has desired land. The other bobs in doubt, now at the mercy of the state machinery. For this reason, since 2000, when Navi Mumbai was seen as a viable location for a new airport, CIDCO and other government officials met landowners in Ulwe, a swell of land near Panvel, more times than residents could recall, to offer assurances.

The locals had grown up knowing that land acquisition was an inevitability in the neighbourhood. From the first acquisitions in the 1970s, they had heard the stories of violent protests, undelivered payments, of troubles that arose during transactions. History made them wary.

Since the latest round of acquisitions began, the villages in Ulwe have thrown up young lawyers and working professionals keen to display their education. Rahul Mokal, an advocate from Pargaon, said, “Right now we’re getting smarter, getting better.” Mokal and others told me that their experience allowed them to be more skeptical. Around Panvel, an educated villager’s true value lay in being able to decipher legal documents, and not trusting spoken promises. “Most people here don’t know about the internet. They don’t know that [CIDCO’s] plans are only put on a website. This is why people have no idea what’s going on. This is why they suffer.”

Jeetendra Mhatre, a lawyer with a new office down the road from Pargaon, said, “CIDCO makes promises. Then it changes them. This is our experience.” Mhatre wore aviators and fastened his keys to his belt loop. His car bore stickers that identified him as an advocate as well as a member of the press. The claim was true. Before Mhatre took up law, he published a frequent newspaper about local affairs. Gradually it grew occupied with one large beat: the airport’s effects on the locality.

Mokal, Mhatre, and Mahendra Patil, the former sarpanch, were among a group of villagers who met with CIDCO officials often. Between June and November in 2013, village representatives had 15 meetings with three of the town planner’s officers. Each was intended to negotiate the terms of compensation; each meeting ended with the subject unresolved. The gap between their expectations and what CIDCO could offer was frustrating. This was aggravated by the officials’ reluctance to put down their assurances on paper.

The protracted discord was driven in part by the exhibition of wealth created by the airport’s announcement. For over a decade, land prices had risen fast. One resident’s estimate put the increase at about 400 per cent. The area’s builders paid landowners large sums, creating a class that found itself with unexpected riches. “Most people who have money here are not able to spell money,” Praful Hingarde, a police officer from Panvel, said. “There’s so much money, they don’t think. They buy branded clothes. They don’t even bargain.”

However, just across the road, a quirk of zoning fate kept the price of land affected by the airport low. This created two classes, the suddenly rich, and the done in. The village committee represented the unlucky ones, and argued that their compensation had to have real value.

The disagreements continued until the first week of November when Prithviraj Chavan, the chief minister of Maharashtra, asked to meet the villagers’ representatives and CIDCO in south Mumbai.

On November 11, a few village representatives, including Vivekanand Shankar Patil, set off to meet Chavan with the understanding that any offer would be discussed with the villages. That evening, while villagers at Ulwe waited to hear about the talks, there was a news break. A press release from Chavan’s office announced that an agreement had been reached with the villagers. Local news channels echoed details of the release. Reporters began filing copy for the next morning. The Times of India reported, “Backed by a strong political mandate, CIDCO managing director Sanjay Bhatia and joint managing director V Radha, as a team, interacted tirelessly with villagers and displayed an openness rarely seen these days to pull off a major victory in less than six months… Bhatia attributes it to the faith that the project-affected people had in them.”

The news came as a surprise to those most affected. “When we saw on a channel that these people had agreed, there was unrest here,” Mahendra Patil said. “Word spread all over Maharashtra that the package had been agreed to. Here, we all hated it. We knew it could break us.”

Had the reporters checked that day, they would have found an agitated mob. The only passage that rang true in the Times’ report was the last paragraph. “Recounting her last meeting with the villagers, Radha said [that] … she was constantly shooting down their demands. ‘They kept raising various demands and I kept firmly telling them that it did not fit in the rules and could not be done.’ ”

Patil and other villagers gathered at a temple at Dapoli two days later. In his recollection, their representatives “pressured” them to accept the compensation plan. “We told them, if you thought this was a good package, why didn’t you tell us first? Why did you say yes at the meeting?” The representatives insisted there had been no agreement, but the villagers did not believe them.

People from the six villages most affected by the airport left the temple for an open field beside a nearby pond. “There were 8-10,000 people … to protest against CIDCO,” Mahendra said. “The villages where land needed to be acquired, Pargaon, Dungi, Koli, Owla, Varcha Owla, a lot of Dapoli land which belongs to farmers — all of them came together. They said they would resist.” Later that week, the magazine Down to Earth put forth a more measured number: 700 families had protested the agreement.

 

R. C. Gharat, an advisor to the villages, denied that there had been an agreement with CIDCO

Among the people who met the chief minister that day was a man named R. C. Gharat. A year later at his home near Panvel, Gharat spoke of a back and forth bargaining that, to my ear, reeked more of a farmer’s market than of an official meeting presided over by the chief minister. “We always wanted 35% of the land in exchange. But they said they could only give us 22.5%. We reduced our demand to 30%, and then 25%. We told them, okay, give us that much, but don’t cut anything from it…” Gharat went on, making the point that the negotiators were trying to pin CIDCO down to some specifics they could live with, while the officials for their part exerted enormous pressure to end the meeting with some sort of deal. “The day we went to the meeting, we didn’t accept their offer. We told them that we would consult the villagers first. But they kept telling us, ‘No, you have to agree, no, you have to agree now’.” The pressure to agree was evident by the people who sat in that day: the chief minister, his deputy, and CIDCO’s most powerful officials.

The state’s officials cajoled them into reducing their demand. “They made us understand that the land we were receiving would be valuable. A gunta (100 square meters) would fetch us Rs 1 crore. Even now it’s getting us Rs 50 lakh. That’s what builders are giving us right now.” When I asked him about the agreement, he cut me short. “There was no agreement [that day]. We only talked.” However, Vivek Patil, who was voted out the following year, told the Times of India that they had agreed to a compensation package.

On November 30, CIDCO sent a confirmation letter signed by Radha, its managing director, to village heads.

“If CIDCO does what it promised us, that will be good,” Gharat said. “But if it causes trouble, then that will be a problem.” He spoke about unfulfilled promises made decades ago by CIDCO. Land that should have been theirs but wasn’t. Jobs that should have been theirs, but did not materialise. Conflicts with CIDCO were rife in the region. At the Panvel court, a set of small old buildings with peeling yellow paint, an ‘Indian Judiciary Information Kiosk’ listed 75 cases involving CIDCO. Mhatre, the advocate, said, “It wasn’t like this when I started. Now the cases here are more land-related.”

The villagers were still seething at CIDCO and their own representatives when the Maharashtra government announced, two months after the meeting, that they would offer two compensation packages to choose from. The choice contained several unclear clauses. On 14 March 2014, CIDCO officials invited the villagers to see what life would be like for them once the area was developed. “They showed us a ten minute presentation,” Mhatre said. “A really good presentation about life.”

The life they were shown came as a surprise. It promised more than any official document had. Mhatre asked Radha why there was a disparity between her letter at the end of March and the presentation now. He said Radha could not recollect writing the letter. “She said, ‘Whose letter is this?’ We told her, ‘Your signature is on this’.”

When there were still no answers, the villagers of Ulwe filed a petition in court asking for clarity. They emphasised that they were “not challenging the acquisition of the lands”, but calling upon CIDCO “to clarify as there were several ambiguities.” The confusion was over ‘net’ and ‘gross’ compensation in land, how CIDCO defined a family, and other terms that could be interpreted loosely. They wanted to improve “their post-acquisition social and economic status”. CIDCO’s response answered only a few questions, leaving the rest open to interpretation.

The court disposed of the petition in September, ordering the villagers to choose a compensation package by October 6th 2014. This was the last in a series of steps that went against the villages. At first, an indeterminate meeting, then a pre-emptive media blitz that created the impression of an agreement, and finally a court picking its way out of the labyrinthine mess with a judgment that shut the door on further negotiations.

Mhatre, a constitutional lawyer, used to publish a newspaper dedicated to land acquisition and the airport

Mhatre took me for a ride on the eastern boundary of the airport. He drove slowly over a road that existed only in name. Gori tera gaon bada pyaara played on the radio. We passed tiny, sad quarries. “CIDCO bought that in the 1970s,” he said, pointing at one. The car rattled along. “CIDCO is a corporation, and it has a chairman. The chairman is a political appointee. So are the two directors. So they all work for the ruling party.” He called the business around the airport a conspiracy.

In the distance, across a rivulet, lay a tiny village whose homes were shrouded by trees. “There’s a runway on this village,” he said, referring to the airport plan. He drove for half an hour, pointing to places that would disappear, until he stopped on a long bridge over Panvel creek, a slow-moving muddy brown body. There were trees and nature where the airport would rise. On the creek’s other side, there were large new buildings.

Mhatre had an epiphany under the burning sun. “We should give CIDCO a proposal. You give us a hundred guntas of land. We’ll give you 15.75% in return. We’ll double the rate for you,” he said, laughing.

It wasn’t a joke. It was a longing for justice, the kind of longing that revealed itself in every conversation about land, work, and the future here.

A tape measure lies at Pushpak Nagar, one of CIDCO's planned cities

This is the first story in a series that examines how land is acquired, and what it is used for.

3 thoughts on “The Squeeze”

  1. Gp Capt (Retd) N Kanitkar
    June 2, 2015

    A good attempt at making the lay viewer understand the devil in the detail. However, the piece is a bit dis-organised as it appears to me. A few suggestions below not only for this piece but for all the articles on Peepli in general

    1. If you could reduce font size and put the important details in one page, it would become easy to assimilate. Scrolling down a lot tends to take away from info displayed earlier.

    2. The photographs are good (Arati Rao’s are exceptional) but at times way too large in their connect to what the written script says at times. Probably there could be an option to view it large if the viewer desires. If it is a photo essay like the article ” A Trip down the Sela River” in the Sundarbans, incorporating elements of the map essentially, then it is fine, wonderful.

    3. I strongly feel a page view with information that a viewer can assimilate on that page itself to be a small story of the larger story would be better than a continuos scroll. The former would also allow the viewer an option to see multiple pages in a smaller font maybe to connect for example two of the smaller stories. The scroll view could be an option.

    4. Specifically for this article, a map showing where location of Navi Mumbai would have been helpful; it would have connected to the environmental concerns brought forth in Jairam Ramesh’s letter.

    5. A commendable effort all said. Arati Rao’s freshwater diaries are superb reads. I hope you take my comments in the correct perspective. I have also pasted these comments on the Peepli page. The content above para 1 of these comments are irrelevant to the Peepli page.

    • Rahul Bhatia
      June 3, 2015

      Thank you for writing with feedback. You’re right about the map. It would have been useful not just in the context of Jairam Ramesh’s letter, but also to give you, the reader, a sense of place. I will add it to my stories from here on.

      Please do keep reading us.

  2. Adv JJitendra Mhatre
    June 10, 2015

    Thanks a lot