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This Time, in Shadow of a Bullet Train

About two decades after the Narmada Bachao movement, villagers in Gujarat await the end of the world again, this time however, in the shadow of a bullet train.
Image of Anand Patwardhan addressing the audience at the July 13 event. Courtesy – Dakxin Chhara

Image of Anand Patwardhan addressing the audience at the July 13 event. Courtesy – Dakxin Chhara

Narrating the detrimental effects of the India’s first bullet train project on the lives of villagers in Gujarat, when the documentary titled ‘Bullet’ was screened on July 13, audience present in the auditorium of Centre for Environment Education, Ahmedabad witnessed similar accounts of institutionalised form of injustice – once effected by the Narmada Valley Project (NVP) in 90s, leaving the indigenous population in a constant state of beggary and desolation. This time, it’s a bullet train instead of dams. However, the ‘skewed idea of development’ remains the same.

The documentary has been produced by Gujarat Khedut Samaj – a group of farmers in Gujarat which seeks to prevent exploitation of villagers – and has been made by Dakxin Chhara. The film shows great anomalies in systems of compensation and rehabilitation, land acquisition for the much-hyped Mumbai-Ahmedabad high-speed rail corridor project and packages announced by the Gujarat government.

The trailer of the film details the reaction of the villagers in Gujarat, according to whom; this project is a dream of an ‘insensitive government’ which talks about development that is ‘not the development of giving, but taking away’.

Trailer of ‘Bullet’ documentary. Courtesy - YouTube

Newsclick spoke to advocate Anand Yagnik, who has appeared in the court representing the farmers who would be affected by the project, to understand the parallels that can be drawn between the NVP and the bullet train project. He commented, “Land Acquisition Act, 1894 was in operation at a time when the land was acquired for the Narmada dam and the reservoir. Despite the act not providing for any rehabilitation and resettlement, the then GoI and the three respective state governments, namely Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, came out with a comprehensive resettlement and rehabilitation policy which included payment of compensation, land against land, and providing government job to one of the family members among other things.”

“If this can happen in the absence of a statutory provision under an old act of land acquisition which was brought out by the British to extract resources from Indian, why can’t it happen under the provisions of Land Acquisition Act, 2013?” questioned Yagnik. 

Eve though the bullet train is a multi-state project, land acquisition processes are unique to each of the states. In Gujarat, ahead of the commencement of the bullet train project in 2016, the BJP-led state government had amended the Land Acquisition Act of 2013 – which severely diluted or entirely scrapped provisions regarding social impact assessment, consent clause, R&R (rehabilitation and resettlement), land against land to the tribals and scheduled castes, environmental and the food security aspects.

Yagnik has termed the state government’s amendments as “taking the heart out of the body, leaving the citizens with a mere skeleton”. He added that the Modi government is creating “islands of poverty in the ocean of equality” by allowing such amendments to be operated at the state level.

Last year, in September, as many as 1,000 farmers had moved the Gujarat High Court negating the claims of the Gujarat government that majority of the farmers in the state are ready to give up their land for the proposed bullet train project. 

The farmers turned to Japan for justice after losing hope from the state government. In December 2018, when a team from the Japan International Co-operation Agency (JICA) – the Japanese government’s international financing agency that is funding the major part of the bullet train project – visited Gujarat, farmers and their representatives were confident that the violations of Japanese funding agency’s own guidelines and their agitation against land acquisition process will bear fruit.

The inspiration behind such events must be the struggles of Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), which in 1991 got the World Bank to review the dam project. Two years later, the Bank withdrew from financing the project – marking the first in their history of financing projects around the world.

This time, while the history has repeated itself, it has reached a new low. The Gujarat activists are currently fighting and have written a letter to the chief reprehensive of JICA to share the documents and details of the report that was prepared after JICA representatives had visited Gujarat.

Yagnik also quoted Supreme Court judgements to highlight the dangers of the attempts that the Gujarat government is making in bringing back the legislation that has been repealed by the Parliament of India.

“In 2011, in the Noida land acquisition matter against the then Mayawati’s government,” he said, “the Supreme Court goes on to observe that inadequate land compensation to farmers has been a constant source of injustice which leads to couple of known factors, such as mass suicides among the farmers, and higher rates of unemployment due to taking away of the self employment of an individual in the form of farming.”

According to him, the process also accentuates migration from rural to urban India, which leads to creation of urban ghettos, further resulting into “criminalisation of sociology.”

The Narmada Bachao activists reiterated similar dangers about the resettlement and rehabilitation policy that was adopted then by the state government whose implementation was “far from satisfactory.” The land-for-land policy has largely failed in the state of Maharashtra, and in Gujarat. Many people in Gujarat have complained that the lands sold to them came with heavy debts.


Newsclick also spoke to Dakxin Chhara, who directed the documentary. The main objective, according to him, is to use the means of films and documentaries to make people aware of the damages done to the indigenous people by the bullet train project. Private screenings have been arranged in about 16 villages by the Gujarat Khedut Samaj. Similar to Anand Patwardhan’s A Narmada Diary (1995) and Sanjay Kak’s Words on Water (2002), this documentary aims at offering stimulating visual imagery, in order to help shape the narratives around the issues.  

In 1999, under the leadership of Medha Patkar, the Narmada movement activists intended to protest by mass suicide, called Jal Samarpan against the dams which would have led to rise in water levels resulting in dispossession of thousands of villagers. Two decades later, villagers in Gujarat await the end of the world again, this time however, in the shadow of a bullet train.

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