Hard lessons to Nitish Kumar regarding Nalanda University

Sanjay Paswan is trying to get a government job. A graduate in Hindi literature, he regularly appears for tests. But he might not get a government job because he has a criminal case against him.

The case against Sanjay, 32, is serious. He allegedly threw stones at Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar three years ago when he was getting off a chopper with economist Amartya Sen and former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam at a helipad in Nalanda. They were there to oversee preparations for the revival of the ancient Nalanda university. Sen and Kalam were the mentors of the proposed university, a dream project of the chief minister.

Sanjay was working as a construction labourer at the helipad. He and 17 other workers from the locality allegedly joined a group of people who threw stones at the chief minister when he landed on the property demarcated for the university. “The government snatched the land from us. They did not even pay the compensation we deserved,” said Sanjay.

Around 550 acres of fertile land was acquired from farmers, allege the villagers, against their wish. Each cottah of land (about 60 cottahs make an acre) was acquired at 110,000 on an average. The land transactions, however, have been stopped, as prices skyrocketed in the area. Now it is estimated to be around 150,000 a cottah, leaving the poor villagers who gave the land earlier in huge loss.
These people, ironically, appreciate what Nitish is doing in Bihar. Sanjay said he threw stones at Nitish on the spur of the moment. “I could not control myself when I saw the chief minister celebrating after kicking us in our belly,” he said. Ten cottahs of his land was acquired for the project. “Let us live without land. At least our state will change,” he said.

Soon after the incident the police raided many houses and arrested people who took part in the agitation. Sanjay was in jail for six months. He has pleaded to the chief minister to withdraw the case.
The project has left thousands of farmers in the five villages of Nalanda in a mess. Many have lost their land, their only source of income; some have lost their houses; schools had to be shifted; and burial grounds have disappeared. “We have heard that our region used to be a rich learning centre. We have to get our pride back. For that we are ready to do the sacrifice,” said Surendra Shaw, who lost his 20 cottahs of farmland to the acquisition. “I used to get three harvests a year,” he said. He will soon move out of his house and grocery shop.

Surendra got 12 lakh for the 20 cottahs, and 13 lakh as compensation for the house. At the current market price, he will not be able to buy anything worthwhile with the money. “My three sons have left the village to work as carpenters. I don't know how I would run my big family and buy a house with this amount,” he said.
Nalanda District Magistrate Sanjay Agarwal admitted that land prices were soaring in the region. But, he said, the government had paid the compensation according to the rules. “The fact is, after this phase of acquisition the compensation rate has been increased by the government manifold because of the sudden spurt of land prices in Nalanda. So in the next phase of acquisition the villagers would get better compensation,” he told THE WEEK.

Interestingly, the land acquisition in Nalanda was done around the same time the agitations against land acquisition in Singur and Nandigram in West Bengal shook the nation. The villagers said they could have raised their voice like the Bengal farmers but they chose not to. “It was easy for us to join the bandwagon. But we chose not to go the Bengal way as we thought Bihar would lose a great opportunity,” said Shivshankar Paswan, 40, a farmer. “It is true that none of us has given land wholeheartedly. But we did not have any violent protest.”
Though the villagers seem excited about regaining Nalanda's lost glory and the promised economic boom, most of them do not have any idea about the ancient Nalanda university. “To be honest, I have no idea what was taught there or who built it. But I have heard that if this project shapes up, hundreds of people would come and stay here. Many other institutions would also come up. We will have jobs,” said Shivshankar.

The project, in fact, could be a game changer. It is getting millions of dollars of funding from around the world. China has already invested $1 million. The proposed university, which is located about 8km from the ancient university site (where the Archaeological Survey of India has unearthed the ruins of the university and a monastery), will have centres for Buddhist studies, philosophy, comparative religion, history, international relations and peace studies. The university will also offer modern courses such as business management, public policy and development studies, environment and information technology.
A mentor group headed by Sen has created a roadmap for the institution. Though the disagreement among the mentors was apparent when Kalam opted out of the committee citing the absence of space science and nuclear science in the curriculum, the work is already underway. Expressions of interests have been sought from many agencies for the proposed design of the university and the progress is being directly monitored by the ministry of external affairs. “We are all set to begin our academic session in two years,” said Gopa Sabharwal, vice-chancellor of the university.
Nitish has been showing keen interest in the project from the beginning. “The chief minister arranged funds for it and invited foreign investment. But as foreign countries have decided to pour in big amounts, he decided to hand over the entire project to the Central government, as it has agencies to deal with the foreign funds. However, it remains his dream project,” said Agarwal. Though he denied that the state government wanted a say in building the university and deciding the curriculum, the authorities addressed Nitish's concerns at every step, especially after he successfully acquired the land.

To make his intentions clear, Nitish asked the administration to create awareness among the people of Nalanda in advance. The district magistrate camped in the area and the villagers were taught about the project. “Despite having no knowledge of the ancient Nalanda, the villagers could understand the importance of the project and how it could change their lives,” said a government official.
It helped. The Communist Party of India and the Rashtriya Janata Dal tried to incite the farmers against the project. But the villagers shied away from them. “We thwarted all such plans to damage the project. It is true that the government cheated us by paying very little compensation. But we never allowed political parties to agitate,” said Shyam Sunder Paswan of Pilkhi village.
Nitish visited Nalanda several times and met the villagers. He called the disgruntled villagers to the secretariat in batches and convinced them about the land acquisition. “Initially, some of us tried to create a committee against the land acquisition. But that committee was wound up as most of the farmers took compensation cheques,” said Shyam Sunder, who sold 13 cottahs for 18,000 each.
Agarwal admitted that without villagers' support the land acquisition could have been difficult. “It was remarkable that despite land protests across the country, we could do it in Bihar,” he said.

But it seems the goodwill has not been returned. Around 5,000 people have lost jobs because of the land acquisition. The youth have to go to other places for work. And, there is the looming threat of more acquisitions. But the government said it was just a matter of time that these people got jobs in Nalanda.
A medical college, five-stars hotels, engineering colleges, management institutes and English medium schools are coming up in Nalanda and the nearby tourist spot Rajgir. Roads are being widened and an airstrip is being built. All these, said Agarwal, would require huge manpower. So people would have to come back to join the development process.

But such promises are of no consolation for people like Surendra. “Could not the government show us some mercy by giving alternative land for housing at a low price?” he asked. He invited us for tea, saying with tears in his eyes: “You would be my last guests in this house.”

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