There Is Not A Single Case Pending In Any Court Of India Against The Kashi Corridor Project: Varanasi Commissioner Deepak Aggarwal
From razing 300 odd houses, to ensuring no one who lived in them goes unhappy, the Kashi Corridor project had many sensitive tasks to ’persevere’ and accomplish.
Varanasi Divisional Commissioner Deepak Aggarwal explains what it took to make it happen.
Hundreds of people have had to vacate their homes, and hundreds of houses have been razed to the ground. But none from these houses and the maze of multi-storeyed structures have been rendered homeless.
There are also no cases pending in any court of India against the ones who brought these buildings down.
This ’wonder’ which would be dismissed as an impossibility anywhere else, has unfolded in Kashi, and two lanes with around 300 houses having made way for what today stands as the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor Project.
But it definitely didn't come easy and it is the approach that made the difference. As elaborated by Varanasi Divisional Commissioner Deepak Agarwal, the instructions from the leadership were clear — that the project was not to adopt a path of conflict or confrontation but one of cooperation and mutual welfare.
"Perseverance was key and the path we had to take was one of coordination and cooperation rather than confrontation", said Agarwal, as he spoke to Swarajya about the administrative hassles and procedures followed to turn what was once a maze into this large temple complex.
This writer had met and spoken to many of those who had been part of this ‘convincing’ process — from those initially opposing the project, to some threatening to commit suicide, to others giving up their spaces without compensation, convinced by the intention of the project (Read about it here).
As the then CEO of the project Vishal Singh had explained on our visit in 2019, ”this could not be treated like any other project. Empathy, sensitivity and emotional connect is what helped us convince people to join hands”.
An old lady who was to receive her cheque had walked in while we talked and then pointed out that a zero was missing, which the team duly got rectified.
But it wasn’t an easy task.
As Aggarwal explained, ”Initially, when the plan was made, there were 197 dwellings that fell under the ambit of the project, but as the scope of the project widened, we had 314 properties. So, the dilemma was how to go about it”.
The administration then decided to ‘pursue the path of individual sale deeds with the owners instead of going in for compulsory land acquisition’.
“It was a difficult task and negotiations after negotiations followed, but perseverance was key,” added Agarwal.
What did the the actual process of negotiations entail and what were the hassles it faced? Here are excerpts from an interaction, where Agarwal charted out the administrative journey of the project:
It started with finding the actual owners of the properties, negotiating with them and calling them over for talks. And in a number of cases, they were multiple in number. At times, there were 25-30 owners of a single property — and to bring them all together to the negotiating table and have a deal in place, with an agreement to sell their property at the negotiated price — was a challenge that the project had to deal with at the outset.
“But it was some divine blessing that we were able to make them agree to our vision, after which the properties were purchased. It went on for a couple of years — starting early 2018 to as late as January-February 2021“, he recollects.
But as they say, the devil is in the details. The acquisition challenge was not just about negotiations; it also had to deal with different kinds of properties, different equations of tenants and owners, of encroachers and of those who had no tenancy rights but had lived on the precincts for years.
"These properties fell into three categories — some of them were private properties, some others were Trust properties and the third was custodian properties — private properties which were in the name of abstract entities and they had custodians as a result of which we had to have a different kind of solution for acquiring them."
But the negotiations and legal acquisitions were just the beginning. For the real trouble was in having the occupants vacate those spaces.
“The most difficult part was getting those properties vacated, because, most of the time, the actual occupants were different from the owners — they were either tenants or encroachers or a number of other people who didn't have any tenancy documents but had been living there conventionally. So trying to find a solution where we can amicably get these properties vacated was a big challenge,” said Agarwal.
“We had various options before us — one was to build houses under various schemes and make them shift there ,or construct commercial shops at some place under different schemes and allot them there. But then, we decided that it would be a long-drawn process and there would be a credibility issue because it would be a "future promise" — where only after completion of the alternative would we be able to get custody of the property to be acquired,” he added, enlisting the nuances of the issues that the project had to sail past.
"It is then that the project adopted the policy of one-time settlement, where ‘we give them an amount, create a rehabilitation policy where there was an amount fixed — that the lowest amount will be x and the highest amount would be y and would be decided for each depending upon their location, and their purpose — whether it was a commercial occupancy or a residential one and their socio-economic condition of the families," Agarwal said.
The amount was decided based on mutual negotiation and the cheques were handed over right away.
“This way, within a definite period of time, we got those houses vacated amicably. And it is to the credit of the honourable Prime Minister and our honourable Chief Minister that we don’t have a single case pending in any court in the country regarding the rehabilitation, purchase or acquisition. We are litigation-free as far as these areas are concerned,” said Agarwal.
But there were those that went to court, who were miffed and not happy with the compensation — those structures that had too many tenants, who who had fissures of their own that prevented the property from being acquired.
Agarwal enlisted three incidents: The Carmichael library building whose possession kept making news, and had 37 tenants — 11 of whom thought that the compensation we were offering and negotiating was too little for them — and hence went up to the high court and Supreme Court.
But the courts asked them to go before the committee and negotiate the amount, which eventually turned out to be less than what we had offered to them, he added.
The other was was a case regarding a nazool property — basically a government property on which there is a tenancy right of the people. There was an issue with the tenants, who sought compensation that was double the amount offered to other owners.
That matter went up to the high court. But ultimately, we were able to settle it out-of-court through negotiations — as instructed by the court, Agarwal explained, adding that the third was a case that went to the Supreme Court but was dismissed for being ‘apprehensive in nature’.
"There were other cases ‘which were more private in nature’, where the temple trust had to play mediator and help settle disputes, or else, it would have delayed the process of getting hold of the property until the title issue was decided. Hence, we tried our best to avoid having people go to court and instead settled the issues and address their grievances", Agarwal explained.
But the highlight of the entire process has been its flexibility, Agarwal emphasises, sharing how 30 families that lived at the Manikarnika ghat were compensated during the acquisition process.
These were families whose dependence over the rites and rituals that happen on Manikarnika ghat were tremendous.
But their dwellings size was ‘very very very small‘, he said, and so, according to the norms of area, they would get compensation accordingly, which would be meagre.
“We took this up to the board, and said that we should go out of our way and ensure they have enough money on hand so that they can find a place in and around Manikarnika so that their livelihoods aren’t affected,” he elaborates, expressing gladness at being able to play a role in this ‘dream project’ of linking the two hallmarks of Kashi in a beautiful precinct.
“I am happy to inform that all the 30 families were rehabilitated very very amicably. We’re happy to note that in the process of the making of this complex, nobody was left out, hurt or aggrieved. None regrets not being given their due,” he concluded.
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