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India's new Grand Prix track collides with tradition

The glitzy Buddh International Circuit in Atta Gujran stands in stark contrast to the impoverished population around it. Many farmers lost their land so it could be built.

October 26, 2011|By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times
  • A worker dumps sand near the track before Sunday's debut Formula One Grand Prix race at the Buddh International Circuit outside New Delhi.
A worker dumps sand near the track before Sunday's debut Formula One… (Eugene Hoshiko, Associated…)

Reporting from Atta Gujran, India — The world's newest Grand Prix racetrack, a state-of-the-art complex just outside New Delhi, showcases the brash, high-octane pride of India as it muscles onto the global stage with world-class airports, an ambitious space program and the planet's first billion-dollar home.

But just beyond the gleaming track, vestiges of age-old India remain: villages without paved roads, schools without books and legions of people scratching out a meager living. Near the track's VIP entrance this week, just a few days before Sunday's debut race, a corpse was being burned in a modest stone crematory.

The looming Formula One event is the most sought-after ticket in town, ranging in price from $55 to sit on the grass (equivalent to a factory worker's monthly pay) to $22,000 for a top corporate box (several lifetimes' wages for most Indians).

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"Indians no longer want a coffee, they want a cappuccino," said Kunal Shah, a Formula One blogger and former driver. "It's a glamour sport, and Indians want to be seen as a part of it."

Promoters, eager to attract young spenders, have organized concerts by Metallica and Lady Gaga this week. Fawning models, star sightings and $5 million worth of after-hours parties are adding to the allure, along with elephant processions, dancers and culinary offerings from every Indian state.

There will be 35,000 police on duty at the $400-million Buddh International Circuit track — intended, disgruntled locals say, to ensure that they don't crash the party.

For area farmers, "it's like these vehicles are driving on my chest, like I'm being run over," said Madhuresh Kumar, a land rights activist. "I'm really not sure F1 is right for India. It only benefits the rich and those out on the golf courses."

Critics say the racetrack — on land that until recently was used for rice and wheat fields and several crematories — and the underhanded, even corrupt way that property is appropriated by government here underscore how the Indian miracle often comes on the backs of those least able to afford it.

Like thousands of other residents, Ravinder Nagar, 28, received a letter in 2009 telling him his land had been condemned under an "urgency clause" of India's Land Acquisition Act. He and others say they were told the land would be used to create factories and highways.

Payouts from the government ranged from $2,000 to $30,000 per bigha (about a fifth of an acre) depending on location and the owner's connections with local power brokers. Those who questioned the settlements had the money placed in a taxable escrow account while appeals dragged on.

But most people here, largely uneducated and with limited savings, accepted the cash, believing, they said, that "public interest" projects would generate factory jobs to replace the farm work that was all they knew.

"My farm that my forefathers have been on since forever is gone," Nagar said. "What sort of public interest is a racetrack? I'm so angry I want to burn it down."

After taking the land, the Uttar Pradesh state government then sold it to developer Jaypee Group at 60 to 80 times the price it forced the farmers to sell at. In exchange for building a highway from New Delhi's outskirts to Agra, Jaypee has been allowed to build villas, shopping centers, the racetrack, a golf course and other sports facilities alongside the freeway.

Askari Zaidi, Jaypee's senior vice president, said it paid the market price to the government and that any differences should be ironed out between the government and residents. "Jaypee can't on its own change the land laws," he said.

Further infuriating the farmers were the local officials who swooped in when the compensation checks arrived and demanded "processing fees" — to fix a typo, stamp a document or alter a name discrepancy.

"There's so much corruption," said Kusum Bhati, 35, principal of a primary school in this dusty village who helped many illiterate farmers with the forms. "Officials made a killing."

A few farmers used their checks to buy land farther out from New Delhi. But residents say most went on spending sprees, even as fights over the proceeds fueled domestic violence and family feuds.

"Gambling, fancy cars, new houses, lavish weddings they couldn't afford," said farmer Jaikaran Nagar, 62. "Most are already broke."

With land grabs on the rise amid India's booming economy, Parliament has drafted legislation limiting the state's ability to condemn property. But the bill is still being heatedly debated, and even if it passed it would come too late for farmers here.

The sprawling Noida area southeast of New Delhi where Atta Gujran is located has seen thousands of farmers from 40 villages file suit over land acquisitions. Despite daily protests, prayer sessions and hunger strikes seeking higher compensation and jobs for their family members, farmers say they expect their voices to be drowned out by the squeal of expensive tires.

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