Away from the glamour of Formula One, poverty stalks India's villages
The world's eyes are on the new Buddh circuit, but elsewhere the race
to propel India into the 21st century is causing conflict
The Observer, Sunday 30 October 2011
A single pitted track leads to the village of Bhatta-Parsaul. A line
of women carry firewood on their heads, bending under its weight. In a
nearby rice field, a labourer stands ankle-deep in mud, talking on a
mobile phone. A man whose wife and three children are perched on his
motorbike weaves between potholes as an expensive-looking SUV
accelerates, forcing boys on bicycles off the road.
Five miles away is another strip of tarmac, in better condition, which
is the focus of considerable attention this weekend. India's first
Formula One grand prix is being held on a new £130m track. Last week,
the chairman of the construction group behind the project said that it
was now possible to "safely say that India has arrived in the 21st
century as a force to reckon with".
The disparity between headline-grabbing projects such as the Buddh
circuit and the poverty that surrounds them has been well documented.
But the myriad conflicts generated by the transformation of India are
heard about less often.
Bhatta-Parsaul made headlines in the summer when police attacked
farmers who had been protesting about the compulsory purchase of their
lands by the government of Uttar Pradesh.
"We were out in the fields as we had been every morning for nearly
three months to demonstrate, when the state police arrived and started
shooting," said Manoj Kumar, a farmer. "Then they went through the
village, smashing things up, beating people and assaulting women."
Allegations of police brutality and violence provoked by land disputes
are commonplace. This is particularly true on the outskirts of cities
where exploding populations, growing wealth and rampant property
speculation combine with repressive colonial-era laws and corrupt
The Buddh circuit has been built as a flagship development for a
bigger project: a new town with a population of several hundred
thousand, which will have malls, sports and education facilities, and
will sit astride a new motorway linking it to Delhi, 32km away, and
Agra, 190km away. The government wanted to sell the land, belonging to
Kumar and other farmers, to the developers behind the motorway and the
town. Greater Noida will be a satellite of a satellite town of Delhi,
a city with a population of about 20 million. The result is that, only
a few miles from the Indian capital, lies a vast swath of land
undergoing extraordinary change at an extraordinary pace.
Tourists rarely come here – although they will pass through this
weekend on the way to the circuit. If they did, they would find a no
man's-land stuck between the new India, with its wealth and
information technology and fashion industries, and the old India,
rural and grotesquely underdeveloped.
The six-lane road that leads to Greater Noida is flanked by scores of
half-built tower blocks. The frames of hoardings bereft of adverts
loom above the traffic. Modern hotels back on to rivers black with
human waste. On the fringes of this zone are villages such as
Bhatta-Parsaul, just a few minutes' drive from the "Grand Venezia"
development that, says the blurb, will provide shoppers with an
authentically Venetian experience, right down to gondolas on
Although it might be tempting to portray the farmers resisting this
development as rural heroes fighting to preserve a bucolic existence,
the situation is more complex. First, life in rural villages is far
from bucolic, and almost all Bhatta-Parsaul's inhabitants would prefer
to live in a city. Second, their main grievance is that the state
government does not pay sufficient compensation not that the viability
of their community is threatened.
Third, the farmers of Bhatta-Parsaul are not exactly horny-handed sons
of toil. Instead, they employ landless day labourers for a pittance.
Illiterate, effectively homeless and unprotected, these are almost all
migrants from the poorest parts of Uttar Pradesh or nearby states.
They are from the lowest ranks of India's entrenched social hierarchy
of "castes". Some are "tribal people" who are at the very bottom of
the scale."We are higher caste than them and have held land for
generations," said Kumar, "so, it's normal that they work for us."
Inevitably, the lines of conflict are being exploited by politicians.
Uttar Pradesh has a population of 200 million, and the outcome of next
year's elections will have a significant impact at national level. One
visitor to Bhatta-Parsaul after the summer violence was Rahul Gandhi,
41, who is being groomed as the next prime minister by the ruling
Congress party.The son of Sonia Gandhi, the party's current president,
he evaded a police cordon to sit with farmers and discuss their
problems. Gandhi's main opponent in Uttar Pradesh is the outspoken
chief minister, Mayawati Kumari, who has mobilised the state's Dalits,
or untouchables, as a power base.
One of the biggest developments in Noida is a huge park with giant
bronze statues of Mayawati, as she is known, who is herself a Dalit,
and other low-caste heroes. The park has yet to formally open but is
already drawing visitors."We will vote for Mayawati, and when we are
dead our children will vote for her. We are Dalit and this makes us
feel proud," said Vinod, 38, who had come to the park from Agra to see
Naturally, all parties are seeking to exploit the grand prix. Last
week it was reported that Mayawati's government had given the
developers a giant tax break to build the circuit. Posters featuring
the chief minister that have gone up in Greater Noida might explain
why. "Speed is progress," they say.
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