May 25, 2020
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Swallow Holes

A smart city in fallow marshland? Dholera may sink in the mud.

Swallow Holes
Aapoorva Salkade
Swallow Holes

Just off the state highway SH-6 that links Gujarat’s biggest city Ahmedabad to Bhavnagar, about 100 km away, along an unobtrusive turn to the left, the road leads to Sareshalpara village. This quiet cluster of small mud-houses with orange-tiled roofs lies bang in the middle of what is to be Gujarat’s first-ever Special Investment Region (SIR). Sar­esh­alpara is one of the 22 villages the state government has included in the 920 sq km Dholera SIR—it’s 10 km from the eponymous village. This is the area earmarked for Gujarat’s first ‘smart city’.

On a day when Union finance minister Arun Jaitley announced an outlay of Rs 7,060 crore for smart cities to be built across India in the budget, villagers in Dholera were preparing to file a plea in the Gujarat High Court to cancel the entire Dholera SIR proposal. This, after a long agitation against the government’s smart city proposal failed to ensure a review from the state machinery.

The skies are overcast, a dull grey with patches of pregnant clouds (there’s no rain though). Vast stretches of arid land span out on both sides of SH-6, lying in wait for the promised water, with unmanned cattle grazing around inside vacant campuses of already announced residential complexes like Dholera Metro City, Avirahi and Athen City. The monsoon, villagers say, should have arrived in the first week of June. In the years that it got delayed, the rains still waterlogged the area by June 15, if not earlier. The state highway that Outlook took should have been unapproachable and any business in the region impossible because of the abundance of seawater on ground. This year even that delayed deadline has come and gone. Villagers despair that the already meagre crop seems doomed, struggling without irrigation water from the public canals.

At the entrance to Sareshalpara village, just like in Dholera, the villagers’ intentions are announced on posters. They want the entire DSIR proposal withdrawn. Pasted on walls right at the entrance of all the 22 villages is a modest poster in black and white, written in Gujarati, warning the DSIR officials from entering for any “smart city work”.

The proposal, on paper, may appear to be a smart idea. A city, twice the size of Mumbai, connected by internet, gas, water and electricity through a smart grid, is what the government has proposed. Citizens and civic facilities connected in real time with no traffic snarls, offensive smells, dust or jostling crowds. The plan on paper talks about 15 zones in the smart city that includes a green belt, an agriculture zone, a sports and recreational activity zone, tourism and resorts zone, industrial zone, a city centre, solar plant zone and a residential zone among others.

In 2008, when the state government had first thought up the idea, it had also tom-tommed the enticing figure of at least 400 Japanese professionals making Dholera their home for good. After all, of the proposed 24 smart cities in Gujarat, Dholera was to become the first, part of the influence zone of the mega-infrast­ructure Delhi-Mumbai Ind­ustrial Cor­r­idor (DMIC) project, an Indo-Japanese venture planned to link the country’s capital Delhi to its economic capital Mumbai. In that sense, Dholera was perched to take off into a future of economic abundance.

The entrance of all 22 villages has a modest poster warning the DSIR officials from entering for any “smart city work”.

But Dholera’s landscape of immense possibilities is spread out only on paper for now. On the ground, the government is far from meeting deadlines it had set for itself. The first phase, slated to be completed by 2015, has now been pushed to 2022, with even environmental clearances and studies still awaited. And villagers in the area are ensuring that none of it takes off at all. Anirudh Sinh Chudasama, a farmer from Dholera and also the coordinator of the farmers’ body opposing the project, tells Outlook, “The scheme allows the government to take 50 per cent of our agriculture land for the smart city, with only half left for us. The land they gave us in compensation is close to the sea where we can’t farm. How is it a fair deal to make lan­d­­holding farmers landless?” Bhavsang bhai, another farmer, argues, “Every year when it rains this area remains waterlogged for months. How can the government even think of building a city here?”

Sagar Rabari, organising secretary of the Gujarat Saduk Samaj and Zameen Adhikar Andolan Gujarat, explains the issue. “The DSIR proposal itself is flawed. The entire region is a low-lying area right next to the sea where the villagers are losing a centimetre of coastline to the sea every day. If you dig there even as deep as eight feet, you hit water. How will the government build multi-storey structures there?” He adds, “This kind of development plan is not just anti-farmer and anti-village but a clear case of bad financial planning. The huge money spent filling the marshland itself will make it unviable financially.”

The financial viability angle may actually pose a threat. Especially when reports from Mckinsey suggest that India will have to build 20-30 new cities in the next decade alone to accommodate the 590 million or so people expected in urban centres by 2026. Clearly, in dire situations like these the Indian government cannot afford to take a quarter of a century to build just one smart city and escalate costs like in the case of Dholera.

The opposition to the project therefore is only expected. A senior town planning expert at the CEPT university, Ahmedabad, says, “Sure we need more housing, but smart cities like Dholera are just not smart ideas. Instead, we need to develop villages and towns. You need to preserve land for food and drinking water. Smart cities is a mindless idea meant to favour the corporates and the rich, nobody else.” If that be the truth, then Dholera is still far from attaining its smart credentials. No wonder progress on the project moves at a snail’s pace. DSIR officials say that work should “hopefully begin next year”. Until then, the Japanese (part of the promised 400 permanent residencies?) are only to be seen in the hustle and bustle of Ahm­edabad, and nowhere near Dholera.

By Prarthna Gahilote in Dholera, Gujarat

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