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Sabarmati Ashram being redeveloped, Ashramites losing identity

| Updated: September 28, 2021 12:14

A two-lane road. That’s the only patch that separates them from the Sabarmati Ashram where their forefathers worked with Mahatma Gandhi between 1917 and 1930, leading a life as frugal as the father of the nation. Today, the Ashramvasis who live just across the road are caught between the devil and deep blue sea.   

The descendants now have almost no option. They fear losing their sense of identity by choosing to relocate or fighting for it at the risk of giving up compensation offered for relocation.

The Gujarat Government claims to have promised one and all that the simplicity, the solemnity and the serenity of the historic ashram won’t be compromised. But this is no solace to the Ashramvasis who are destined to be uprooted.

Manjulaben Chawda, 60, who lives in one such house and sells Khadi products, says while she has accepted the compensation, she is worried if she would be able to sell the items at whatever new place she moves to. This is because the tourists who visit the Ashram usually pick up stuff from her shop right opposite the museum premises.

“Will we still be called Ashramwasis? My husband’s grandfather was part of the Dandi-march. Don’t we deserve to retain our identity that we are so proud of?” The pain is visible in her eyes as the voice chokes.

Manjulaben says the compensation, too, was brought down from the originally promised Rs 71 lakh. “They have asked us to empty the house in a month. We haven’t yet decided where to go. We want to know if we can still keep our shops here and do business?” she asked.

Another Ashramwasi, who did not want to be identified, said the coordinators who come to tell them of relocation are authoritative and at times, threatening. She lives in 5X3ft room with a family of five for rent to Rs50-100. “They haven’t told us anything, where would be relocated, whether we would be allowed to visit the Ashram or we would still be considered part of the Ashram family,” she said

Back to Manjulaben. A side of her makaan has a single mural of Mahatma Gandhi in transit. While simple, the mural draws a lot of attention, with many visitors clicking pictures besides it. The wall and the mural is as simple as the life that most of us might have imagined Gandhiji living.

This, the residents claimed, made them question the urgency or the need of the redevelopment project. “Whoever visits the Ashram also comes here to soak in the atmosphere of the settlement, sometimes clicking pictures or even staying for a few days. When the place is in itself such an integral part of Gandhiji existence, why to redevelop it. The people are as much part of the history, as the museum itself,” a resident said on the condition of anonymity, fearing retribution from the authorities.

BACKGROUND

The Gujarat government formally greenlit the Rs 1,200 crore Sabarmati Ashram redevelopment project on March 5 this year. The project, according to the formal notification, is meant to merge the areas around the Sabarmati Ashram and turn it into a “world class memorial”. Located on the banks of Sabarmati River, the Ashram, in its present form, exhibits books, manuscripts and photocopies of his Mahatma Gandhi’s correspondence, photographs of his wife Kasturba and other ashram associates, life size oil paintings and actual relics like his writing desk and spinning wheel. The Gandhi Museum inside the Ashram was developed by renowned architect Charles Correa in 1963, years after Gandhi was assassinated.

Read More Here: Gandhi Museum: Redefining modest magnificence for years

Opposite to the Ashram is a settlement of third to fourth generation descendents of Gandhi. The land on which the settlement exists is owned, in parts, by six Ashram trusts — Gujarat Harijan Sevak Sangh, Sabarmati Harijan Ashram Trust, Sabarmati Ashram Gaushala Trust, Gujarat Khadi Gramodyog Mandal, Khadi Gramudyog Prayog Samiti and Sabarmati Ashram Preservation and Memorial Trust (SAPMT).
There are over 260 tenant families, mostly Dalits, whose forefathers had worked directly with Gandhi living here. The families are paying rent anywhere between Rs 100-150, depending on the size of the house.
As of now, the Sabarmati Ashram, managed by SAPMT, is spread over 5 acres of land. When the new redevelopment project comes to fruition, the memorial will occupy 55 acres of land — merging the settlement and the road dividing the two structures with the Ashram.

The government has allocated one-time compensation of Rs 60 lakh. For those who refuse the compensation, the government has proposed a new building in the vicinity of the new structure.

“Right now, they are tenants. If they choose to move to the new building, they will have full ownership of the house,” IK Patel, member of the executive committee overseeing the Gandhi Ashram restoration project, said.

Sudarshan Iyengar, a Gandhian and former vice-chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapith, said the manner in which the proposal was being presented to trustees and the residents alike was very “imposing” and “authoritative”.

“There is consultation, but only after major decisions are taken. We have still not received detailed project report (DPR),” Iyengar said.

IK Patel said it would take some time for the DPR to be released. “The planning is on and finalising of things will take some time,” he said.

Neetaben Mahadev (63), a Gandhian activist, said, “When put in perspective, Rs 60 lakh is not enough. There would be tax deductions and compensation has already been brought down to Rs 60 lakh from Rs 71 lakh. While the houses do belong to the trust, and people living here are on rent, at least provide people – those who have not opted for compensation – a clarity on where they will shifted.”

Bhavna Ramrakhiani, an activist, said, any redevelopment project, judging by the past patterns, is exclusionary in nature. “Take Kakaria and Ravivari for example. They have made public places expensive for people. I am afraid this might what happen with the newly proposed Sabarmati Ashram as well,” she said.

On relocation, Ramrakhiani said, “Taking the most recent example of riverfront relocation: The rehabilitation done by the authority was largely satisfactory, but only in terms of shelter. People living on the riverfront had their shops/offices close to that. They were not earning much. Suppose someone makes Rs 6,000 per month and they have been relocated some kilometers away from their original house, how would they factor in the commute cost in their daily expenses.”

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