x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Villagers are the losers after Indian F1 race track deal

The residents of Jaganpur, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, sold their land on the understanding that it would be converted into an industrial area that would provide employment. All they have instead is a Formula One racetrack, no work and little hope for the future.

Workers building the sides of a highway in the backdrop of the Sports City Motor Race Circuit under construction in Greater Noida, India.
Workers building the sides of a highway in the backdrop of the Sports City Motor Race Circuit under construction in Greater Noida, India.

NEW DELHI // The farmers of Jaganpur, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, have watched the transformation of their ancestral farmland with increasing trepidation.

The land has been paved over to create the Buddh International Circuit, which will host India's inaugural Formula One Grand Prix on October 30.

Many turned millionaires after selling their farms but as money runs out they are anxious about the future: they sold their livelihoods as well as their lands.

They were promised jobs in a new industrial zone but instead they got a racetrack. The residents of Jaganpur now have no work and little hope for the future.

Three years ago, Gajab Singh Pradhan, 44, the head of the village, sold more than 40 acres to the government when he was told that it would be converted into an industrial area that would provide employment.

"We gave our land with the understanding that we, or our children, would eventually get jobs in whatever was built," Mr Pradhan said. "We had no idea they would build a racing track. We expected a factory."

The track is part of a larger sports complex that will include cricket and hockey stadiums and a golf course. It is expected to employ 10,000 people.

The villagers thought a factory would be built that would provide jobs for at least one member from each family. Village leaders say the 500 people who live there do not have the skills required to work at the sports complex.

Local governments can allocate farm or forest land for what they consider the public good under the country's land acquisition law, which dates back to 1894.

The legislation has come under fire from protesting farmers and activists, who argue that it has been manipulated by companies to buy the land cheap from the government then sell it for easy profits.

These protests have been largely ignored until they turned deadly. In West Bengal in 2007, 14 people died when authorities and protesting farmers clashed as the farmers attempted to halt construction of chemical factories on their land. A year later, in the town of Singur, Tata motors was forced to move factories.

In response to the growing anger of the farmers, the government has proposed an amendment that would increase the compensation for those who lose their livelihoods and land as well as redefine how property is acquired.

Construction of the track was months behind schedule amid continuing protests by the farmers.

However, the man in charge of the Formula One franchise around the world, Bernie Ecclestone, told The Associated Press on Saturday that "we're very happy, they're doing a good job".

The World Motor Sports Council met on Friday and said it received a "positive" briefing from Indian race officials but did not elaborate.

The villagers also are upset about the Taj expressway, which was built to connect the track with urban areas.

It cuts through swathes of farmland and blocks as many as 25 of the area's villages from each other and the outside world.

"We have to drive 10 or 12 kilometres past our village before we can make a U-turn to get home. We are no longer linked to nearby villages like we used to be," said Bhanu Pratap Singh, 27, a former farmer.

Before they sold their land, the farmers were fairly prosperous.

They grew rice and wheat and were able to secure loans to upgrade their machinery, marry off their daughters and buy cattle.

The village head, Mr Pradhan, lived in a house with a thatched roof and rode a bicycle.

After he received more than 12 million rupees (Dh890,000) from the government, he started construction on his dream home, a three-storey house.

It is decorated with ornate busts of the god Shiva on the porticos.

Wrought-iron gates painted red and white enclose an expansive driveway made of granite and marble. Recessed lighting and crown moulding adorn the living room.

Mr Pradhan, ever the practical farmer, has even provided space for his livestock in the house.

But construction has halted. The third floor is yet to be built, the second floor is only partly complete, the two sets of stairs lead only to the open sky.

His two sons, their wives and his parents all live on the ground floor. With money running out quickly, he said, he has had to abandon plans for the third floor.

"Once we got the money, we thought, 'Why not?'," said Mr Pradhan. "Now with the money mostly gone, what do we do? We are not going to leave our ancestral land to look for jobs elsewhere. We are farmers. We have limited skills."

The villagers, having sold the land that sustained generations in Jaganpur and with little hope of employment at the F1 track, re hoping to regain the portion of their land that has yet to be developed.

They have taken the developers to court, demanding, among other things, jobs for at least one person from every family in the village.

They also want to enter partnerships with some of the businesses that are springing up on what was once their land.

A bill before parliament would address some of Mr Pradhan's concerns. It has guidelines for the amount of compensation farmers must receive - at least six times the market value of the land.

It also would give them the right to demand a return of their land - for free - if there is no development on it for more than five years.

The villagers of Jaganpur sold their land before the amendment was proposed and would not benefit from it even it is enacted.

But they have modelled their demands on the content of the bill and hope they will succeed in court.

Jaganpur is only one village where residents regret selling their land.

Tek Ram, from the nearby village of Murshadpur, also sold his land. Mr Ram, 55, quit his job as a labour camp supervisor in Dubai in 2006 after Indian government payments were finalised on the family property.

His family received 300,000 rupees. When he heard the news, he was excited at the prospect of not having to work anymore. He thought his future was secure and was given promises of an apartment in a proposed development on his land.

But there has been no development on the land for eight years and Mr Ram does not have his dream apartment. He is petitioning the government to have his land returned.

The villagers are worried they have made a deal which has irrevocably changed their lives, even if they succeed in regaining part of their land.

"Once the city people move into these buildings, we will be foreigners in our land, reduced to being puppets who once owned all this," said Mr Singh, gesturing at the construction in the distance. "The buildings will house these city folk and they will make fun of us."

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae