India’s new Formula One circuit has made rupee millionaires out of hundreds of farmers who sold their land to make way for the track, but many are unhappy at the changes to their lives.
Life was tough but simple not very long ago for farmer Sanjay Singh and his tight-knit family of six. They were content with their small piece of land on which they harvested cucumbers, vegetables and other crops.
Not any more. Construction of the new US$350 million circuit outside New Delhi, set to host the first Indian Grand Prix on Oct. 30, has turned their lives upside down. “We sold away our land for the organizers of the race,” Singh said, while supervising the construction of his new two-story house in Dankaur-Sarlarpur village which overlooks the race circuit.
“We got the money in exchange, but it was a raw deal,” the 49-year-old said without revealing the compensation amount, believed to be around 5 million rupees (US$112,622) according to a senior village official.
“We are building a new house and we have a car now, but ... our means of livelihood, which was farming, has been snatched away,” he added.
Around the dusty settlement of about 500 families, 80km from the capital, there are signs of construction as the newly wealthy improve their ramshackle homes. Trucks carrying building materials rumble noisily along the badly potholed road to the circuit and buffalo graze in the rubbish-strewn open areas.
Singh says there is “ill-will among the villagers” because of jealousy and suspicion.
“Even in the families, sons are fighting over their share of money,” he said. “They are giving up on their studies as they think they have enough money to last a lifetime. They roam around ... drinking beer and picking petty fights.”
Across India, fights over land are taking place as companies and governments look for space for new industrial projects.
The existing land acquisition act, dating back to 1894, allows the government to acquire any piece of land for projects in the “public interest” such as hospitals, roads and schools. A new law has been promised, possibly as early as this year, but in the meantime perceived injustices over land acquisition flare up periodically.
Farmers complain they are being pushed off their land unfairly, while businesses say that industrial projects that provide jobs for local people are being unnecessarily held up.
The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry said in a 2009 report that land disputes had stalled 133 projects in the country, holding up investments to the tune of US$100 billion.
The villagers of Dankaur-Sarlarpur illustrate how, even when compensation is paid generously and on time, strong emotional links to land and the lack of future prospects for uneducated farmers leave many dissatisfied.
Mukesh Kumar, a 22-year old college dropout, has taken up work as a security guard at the racing circuit due to a lack of other employment options.
“I have a temporary job but what after the race is over? The government had promised that at least one member of each family would get employment, but that has not happened,” he said. “We would have been happier if we had jobs rather than some cash stashed in lockers.”
Not everyone in the village has made money out of the buying spree. A few, like Bihari Lal, did not own any land and instead tilled the plots of other land-owners.
“We knew only farming, but the farms are also gone. We have had to switch to construction work. Those who got money strut around in gold chains and drive fancy cars,” Lal said. “We are stuck in the same misery.”
Builders of the facility, the privately-owned Jaypee Group, have been quick to dispel any notion of wrongdoing, stating that “mutually agreed compensation” was paid to the farmers.
It’s work as usual for them at the site. Trucks and other heavy vehicles buzz around in the grime and dust and workers labor around the clock. Alert security personnel ensure unwanted visitors are kept out of the state-of-the art facility.
The frenzy is understandable as Formula One bosses are set to visit the track, named Buddh International Circuit, on Wednesday for an inspection. The track looks likely to be ready to host the race, but there remains a lot of work to do.
In the village, the general feeling among the older generation is one of disillusionment because of the difficulties in adapting to the new lifestyle. With money and aspirations have come frustrations — over poor roads, the open sewage system, the intermittent electricity supply and the lack of proper schools or hospitals in the vicinity.
“We have a new dish antenna which beams as many as 200 channels,” said Santo Devi, an elderly woman who lives in a spacious house where buffaloes share space with a shiny new car on the front courtyard. “But ... we can hardly watch TV because the electricity is only available for three to four hours. The government is allowing so much to be spent on racing cars, but they have done nothing for the village.”
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