Baban Sonawane, 36, happily handed over 1.5 acre of his ancestral land in 2010 for the Shirdi airport project.
He, like many other residents of Kakdi village, were happy that the town, 245 km from Mumbai, would get an airport. The pilgrim town of Shirdi sees around five lakh devotees, mostly non-resident Indians, every year.
The nearest airport is Aurangabad and Pune but pilgrims have to travel several hours by road or rail to reach the Sai Baba Temple.
“We regarded the project as a gift from Sai Baba and want our village on the world map,” says Baban.
Since 2010 when the Shirdi airport project started, a total of 1,000 acres of land has been acquired so far. Initially, the government required only 840 acres for the Rs315-crore project but the land demand kept increasing as the construction progressed.
It’s a first in the history of Indian aviation that an airport is being built without any delay, thanks to villagers who readily parted with their land in the hope of seeing the place develop.
In two years, the barren landscape has been transformed. A runway is ready in the buzzing construction site, 13km from Shirdi shrine. The foundation of the terminal building has been laid.
“Thirty five per cent of the work is completed,” said an official of Maharashtra Airport Development Corporation (MADC), a state government agency, which is building the airport.
The agency is now scouting for a consultant which can get them a global private player to further develop and operate it on a public private partnership (PPP) basis. “The project is coming up fast and would be capable of handling bigger planes. International flights could also be operated from here,” said a senior MADC official.
Shirdi airport project has set an example in execution of a proposal mooted only a couple of years ago.
The MADC officials attribute the feat of fast completion of work to the residents, who did not pose any hurdle and handed over their land at a ‘special negotiated’ rate.
But, the initial excitement among farmers of Kakdi village in Shirdi has fizzled out. Because the land rates shot up after the airport project, they now feel that they got a meagre amount for their land.
According to officials, Rs3.5 lakh per acre was announced for barren land and Rs5 lakh for fertile land. The money offered to farmers was much more than the market rate of Rs70,000 to Rs80,000 per acre.
Since most of the 1,000 acres of the initially acquired land was barren, the farmers got Rs3.5 lakh per acre.
However within months of the project being announced and compensation given, the realty rates shot up to 1,200% as hotels and other commercial entities too wanted land to set up their business near the proposed airport site.
Around 345 families live in Kakdi village, the airport site, and some had to give away their land for the project.
Some of the villagers were against the compensation amount and had moved the Aurangabad bench of the high court. Now, even those who had been paid for the land have joined them, demanding more money.
“The villagers agreed to the compensation amount then as they needed money. But now we feel that we didn’t know the real value of the land and instead got carried away by our emotions,” says Jalinder Kandekar, the village sarpanch.
Even as the villagers claim they have been cheated by the government, real estate experts and consultants are overjoyed by the plummeting realty rates. “At present, an acre of land costs anywhere between Rs35 lakh and Rs 40 lakh,” says Suhas Vichare, a real estate consultant, who runs his business near the market area in Shirdi.
No wonder, villagers now regret giving away the land of their forefathers at a throwaway price.
Somnath Sonawne, 25, who parted with 1.5 acres now realises how much more his land could have fetched.
“I now want an amount equivalent to the market rate and I will fight tooth and nail for it,” he says sitting in his two-room home which he built after getting the compensation amount.
Although the villagers are irked by the ‘meagre’ amount and have approached the court, officials say it would not affect the project.
“It’s quite natural for the land owners to feel cheated as they saw realty rates soar after they selling their land. The litigation in such infrastructure projects will surely keep on happening. But I don’t think it would affect the project unless the court orders a stay,” says Kapil Kaul, CEO (South Asia), Centre for Asian Pacific Aviation, a leading aviation industry think tank.
In spite of the minor hurdle, the work on the Shirdi airport is underway and is expected to be complete by 2018.
On the contrary, almost all upcoming airport projects in the country have been delayed due to land acquisition issues. The airport work in Navi Mumbai is yet to begin although it was mooted more than a decade ago.
The privately operated Mumbai airport is facing several hurdles in its expansion because of the slums surrounding it and problems in rehabilitation.
Shirdi is bracing for more footfall in 2018, the centenary year of Sai Baba’s death. At least five crore devotees are expected to arrive at the temple from across the world during the centenary year, say the temple trust committee members.
“The airport will definitely make travel easier for devotees and so we are pursuing the cause of development of the airport. The temple trust has contributed Rs50 crore for the project,” says Jayant Sasane, a former member of Shirdi Sai Baba Sansthan Trust.
Though the affected villagers might get more compensation from the government, they are not pinning any hopes on the new land acquisition bill.
The UPA government has been touting the Land Acquisition Bill, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, 2011, passed by the Group of Ministers in October, as farmer-friendly.
According to the bill, consent of two-thirds of land owners is compulsory before land acquisition can begin for any PPP project. It is expected to be tabled during the ongoing winter session of parliament.