From farmland to Formula One, Indians grapple with growth

GREATER NOIDA, India, Nov. 21 (UPI) -- It was a symbol of India’s economic growth and modernization: A Formula 1 Grand Prix, which in late October attracted all the glamour and glitz that comes with the sport.

The pop star Lady Gaga thrilled the crowd with the rendition of her biggest hits, including "Poker Face" and "Bad Romance" at the India F1 after-party.

The race marked the grand opening of a $400 million, 3-mile circuit in Greater Noida, just east of New Delhi. The track is part of a vast multibillion-dollar project to develop huge swaths of land into a sports city. Besides the race circuit, the 2,500-acre sports city will have a hockey stadium, a cricket ground and a tennis stadium.

The race brought a fresh dose of glamour to the region but residents say the track -- and the money that comes with it -- isn’t as much of a boon as it was promised to be.

“Our children (will) grow as strangers to farm life,” said Bishwambhar Singh, 77. “Until a year or so ago, the area around the stadium was mostly agrarian.”

People in the area complain that clauses in the land acquisition law were bypassed and that they were excluded from negotiations.

Many of the farmers who once worked that land didn’t have a choice but to sell it -- at below market rates -- to the government, Singh said.

“All the landowning families were paid not more than 800 rupees (roughly $16) per square meter,” he said.

Instead of creating jobs and new industry, Singh said, the government doled out huge swaths of land to major infrastructure companies.

It’s not the first time farmers in the region have been displaced. In a growth driven by the service sector, Greater Noida has emerged over the past decade as a satellite city of the capital. Prime real estate projects, including office blocks and newly opened universities, form a patchwork of walled, gated compounds in the rural countryside. In the last three years, the region has been booming with new construction.

The building boom has been made possible because the government is forcefully taking land, farmers say. At regular meetings during which area farmers meet, dissent over the government’s use of colonial-era laws is a primary theme. Some farmers have considered filing lawsuits against the government.

But the lure of compensation has deterred serious mobilization against the government. Some big farmers have received huge sums from construction companies and have used the money to build large homes and buy expensive cars.

Locals who once worked in agriculture now earn good wages at construction sites -- sometimes two or three times more than their previous earnings.

“Nobody is on the rolls of the rural employment program,” one local development officer said, referring to the government program that guarantees about $2.50 for a day’s work. The wage rate offered in the region is highest in the country.

A representative for Jaiprakash Associates, Ltd., the company that built the race track, said about 6,000 people, including skilled and unskilled laborers, worked at the site every day for the last two years.

But between the loss of agricultural land and the social disruption that occurs when long-held traditional expertise, such as farming, becomes irrelevant, the region risks major social disruption, experts say.

Devinder Sharma, a food and trade policy analyst, said one-fourth of the villages and one-third of the arable land in Uttar Pradesh state will soon be diverted for non-agricultural activities. He views this as a dangerous trend, as states like Punjab, Haryana, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh are acquiring farmlands (on a fast-track schedule) or diverting farmlands for non-agricultural purposes.

“India has become a playground for the rich,” Sharma said.

Local government agencies are brokering land deals for private developers, said Rajiv Malik, a farmer from Parsol village.

“We got pittance for our land and the same land was sold to private developers at higher rates,” he said. “There could be no better way for governments to earn money.”

But as some farmers worry about their futures, others manipulated the situation. Residential land is excluded from government acquisition, so some farmers bribed local officials to list their farmland as residential zones.

Asif Bhatt is one farmer who bribed local officials to make money. He has since started a rice mill and plans to invest in an English-language school and a shopping complex.

With the coming in of the private investment, he said, the place is up for a change.

“The people in this locality would seldom go to malls or send their children to big private schools," Bhatt said. "My business will cater to the growing aspiration of the locals’ vis-a-vis the rich in the lavish apartment blocks.”

India needs small urban centers to sustain its growth, says Professor P.V. Indiresan, former director of the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras.

Indiresan says he isn't in favor of emerging metropolises in the suburbs of New Delhi.

“Big cities reduce the purchasing power parity and further deepens the social divide,” he said while expressing his reservations about how some growth is occurring.

“The state has no business to acquire land for private development,” he added.

Even so, he said there’s nothing unnatural about the shift of the workforce to non-agricultural activities.

Where farming was once the primary option for work, constructing homes is now “the only visible social security,” said 28-year-old Santram Singh, who never went to college.

“We don’t know what will become of us,” he said.