In 2017, Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari announced that the PathankotMandi Highway would be widened from a twolane road to a fourlane highway. By the end of 2017, the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) had prepared a Detailed Project Report for the fourlaning of the PathankotMandi National Highway154. The estimated project cost was INR 8,000 crore.
The fourlaning of about 219kilometre stretch of road was divided into five phases of 40 kilometres each. In January 2018, the NHAI floated tenders for the project. Two months later, a notification for acquisition of land under clause 3 (D) of the National Highways Act was issued. The clause lays out the procedure to be followed by the Central government to notify the impending acquisition of land in the official gazette. Accordingly, land from Kandwal to Jonta in Nurpur was to be acquired soon after the notification**. **However, the land acquisition was stopped in June 2019 due to high circle rates of land around the proposed highway.
In September, the NHAI decided to change the width of the proposed highway from 45 metres to 33 metres to reduce the cost of land to be acquired. It also decided to use the old track of the highway to utilise government land as far as possible to cut the acquisition cost. It further cited environmental degradation as a reason for the change of plan. The state government had raised concerns that excessive hillcutting by construction companies has over time made areas adjoining highways prone to landslides. Paying heed, the NHAI decided to make changes to the project to minimise environmental degradation.
This left the landowners whose land was to be acquired in a state of uncertainty as they had already taken loans for rehabilitation and even began setting up houses and businesses in other locations.
A Four Lane Lok Body (FLLB), comprising residents affected by the fourlaning exercise, was formed to take forward the grievances of the affected people. Under the leadership of Rajesh Pathania, the FLLB submitted a memorandum to the prime minister, the Union minister of road transport and highways and the chief minister in October. They demanded clarity on the situation within 15 days, after which they threatened to sit on an indefinite hunger strike. As there was no response from the government, FLLB began its hunger strike on October 29. Pathania even alleged that two persons in Nurpur committed suicide because of speculations of the project being shelved. The villagers demanded that land acquisition be resumed as planned and sought a clear date for the commencement of construction work.
The hunger strike initiated by Pathania** **led to a chain of hunger strikes in the area, with more people joining in. They said that the future of 3,700 people was left hanging because of the uncertainty in land acquisition proceedings. They also claimed that the villagers were receiving notices of due payment from banks but were unable to repay the loans as they had been depending on the compensation to pay off their debts. On November 11, Pathania and other strikers were rushed to hospital as their health deteriorated.
The district government then came up with a solution. It proposed deferment of the loan amount and payment of interest on the compensation. Since its initial demand of resumption of land acquisition was not heeded to, FLLB agreed to these terms. They called off their strike on November 14 after the district collector got the Kangra Central Cooperative Bank Ltd to defer the recovery of the loan, and the NHAI agreed to pay 12 per cent interest on the compensation amount.
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