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Explained: Why is Gujarat BJP's Plan to Redevelop Sabarmati Ashram Drawing Flak?

The project is being helmed by Bimal Patel, who is also involved in the Central Vista Project.

Updated
Explainers
5 min read
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(This story was first published on 21 August, 2021. It has been reposted from The Quint's archives on the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti.)

A Rs 1,200 crore project by the Gujarat government, aimed at redevelopment of the Sabarmati Ashram into a "world class memorial", is drawing criticism from all quarters.

Leaders of Opposition and over 130 concerned citizens, including Mahatma Gandhi's grandson Rajmohan Gandhi, have stepped forward to criticise the pet project of Narendra Modi, which will be helmed by Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani and the prime minister himself.

What is the Gandhi Ashram Memorial and Precinct Development Project? Why is the BJP considering redevelopment of the Sabarmati Ashram and who are the stakeholders?

Here's all that you need to know.

Explained: Why is Gujarat BJP's Plan to Redevelop Sabarmati Ashram Drawing Flak?

  1. 1. What Is the Sabarmati Ashram Redevelopment Project? 

    The Sabarmati Ashram redevelopment project, also called the Gandhi Ashram Memorial and Precinct Development Project, is a Rs 1,200 crore outing earmarked by the Gujarat government which aims to revamp the ashram into a 'world-class memorial'.

    While the project has been public knowledge since early 2019, a formal notification regarding it was issued by the Gujarat government on 5 March.

    The proposal aims at integrating 35 acres of the ashram campus which has around 65 heritage structures into one composite land parcel and redeveloping these heritage structures to highlight the activities of original ashram and Gandhi's lifestyle.

    Further, in addition to revamping the old buildings, the project also aims to bring new structures into the fold of the ashram.

    • A new museum

    • A food court

    • Museum shops

    • The Mahatma Gandhi statue near the Income Tax Junction in Ahmedabad, which was created by renowned sculptor Kanti Patel in the 1960s, to be installed at the ashram

    • A parking area with a capacity of 200 cars

    • Ahmedabad's Jay Jagat amphitheatre to be upgraded.

    The project is being helmed by Bimal Patel's Ahmedabad-based firm HCP Design, Planning and Management Private Ltd. Patel is also involved in the Central Vista and the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor Project.

    The Modi government's go-to architect, Patel has previously designed the Swarnim Sankul, a complex of office blocks to the north and the south of Central Vista of the legislative assembly building in Gandhinagar.

    The Gandhi Ashram redevelopment plan also includes demolition of several structures which were built after Independence and "oppose the simple nobility of Bapu's abode," as per the notification issued by the Gujarat government.

    The government has formed a governing council and an executive council for the project.

    Expand
  2. 2. Who Are the Stakeholders?

    During pre-Independence days, the Sabarmati Ashram stood on a magnificent 100-acre campus of which the memorial occupied 47 acres and the rest belonged to other related heritage structures.

    After Independence, the ashram was divided into five trusts – Sabarmati Ashram Preservation and Memorial Trust (SAPMT), Sabarmati Ashram Gaushala Trust, Harijan Sevak Sangh, Khadi Gramodyog Prayog Samiti, and Harijan Ashram Trust. SAPMT manages Sabarmati Ashram that houses Hriday Kunj where Mahatma Gandhi lived during his stay.

    Earlier in July, the government had asked the trustees of all the five trusts to pass a resolution giving approval to the project.

    While it is still unclear if the trustees in principle agreed to the proposed restoration, a report by Deccan Herald states that the new project will accommodate all the existing bodies including SAPMT, Sabarmati Ashram Gaushala trust, managed by National Dairy Development Board, Sabarmati Harijan Ashram Trust, Gujarat Harijan Sevak Sangh, and Khadi Gramodyog Prayog Samiti.

    Apart from the trustees, other stakeholders involve approximately 200 families, (mostly Dalit) descendants of the original ashram inhabitants, who live in and around the ashram premises. They are being given Rs 40 lakh each as compensation for vacating their properties.

    As per a 2019 report by The Wire, hundreds of residents of the Harijan Ashram held a protest march against the proposed development amid the fear of becoming homeless.

    Expand
  3. 3. The Legacy of Sabarmati Ashram

    Located on the banks of the river Sabarmati in Ahmedabad, the ashram was previously known as the Satyagraha Ashram and has been witness to several milestone events which led to India's freedom from the colonial rule.

    First established at a bungalow of Jivanlal Desai, a friend of Mahatma Gandhi, the Sabarmati Ashram was later relocated to its current location by Gandhi who lived there for several years. It was at this ashram that he also started writing his autobiography – The Story of My Experiments with Truth.

    It was from this ashram in 1930 that Mahatma Gandhi began the Salt Satyagraha with the Dandi March. He along with 78 others travelled several miles to Dandi to protest the British Salt Law.

    It is believed that in the same year, Gandhi vowed that he would never return to the Sabarmati Ashram till India had gained independence from the British rule. And as fate would have it, he never found an opportunity to return to his ashram from August 1947 to January 1948, when he was assassinated.
    Expand
  4. 4. Who is Opposing the Project and Why?

    The ambitious project of the central government and the Gujarat government to revamp the Sabarmati Ashram has met with strong criticism since the day it was announced.

    Recently, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot called the project "shocking" and "politically driven."

    In a statement shared on Twitter, Gehlot wrote, "Sabarmati Ashram is known for its harmony and ideas of fraternity. People from within the country or abroad don't wish to see any world class buildings here."

    Further, over 100 concerned citizens wrote an open letter to oppose the project. Among the signatories are historians Ramachandra Guha, filmmaker Anand Patwardhan, Mahatma Gandhi's grandson, and historian Rajmohan Gandhi and renowned journalist P Sainath.

    The letter said that the "ashram has never needed a ‘world class’ makeover to attract tourists. The charisma of Gandhi along with the authenticity and simplicity of the place has been enough.”

    It further goes on to say that "at best the project envisages a Gandhi-themed park and at worst a second assassination."

    The letter also alleges that the project is in line with "the present government’s strategy to appropriate and commercialise all Gandhian institutions in the country."

    The Quint spoke to Ahmedabad-based conservation architect, Riyaz Tayyibji, who said that it is still too early to conclude that the restoration project will destroy the ashram's legacy.

    "From the details which are available in the public domain, all we know about the proposed project is that the government wants to restore the ashram to what it looked like in pre-Independence days and convert it into a tourism hub. There is clear lack of transparency for any critical analysis at this stage," he says.

    "More than a restoration project, it seems that this is an urban planning initiative. The government has earmarked some structures and buildings which will stay and some which will be demolished. What we don't know is the criteria which will be used to ascertain which structures should be demolished and who will be the people taking these calls. You clearly need historians, conservationists and other domain experts to do such jobs."
    Riyaz Tayyibji, Conservation Architect

    He further added that it is this lack of transparency that is giving rise to speculations around the project. "It has become a style of this government to do things in a very opaque fashion. The less information is available, the lesser critical analysis one can do."

    (With inputs from Deccan Herald and The Wire)

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

What Is the Sabarmati Ashram Redevelopment Project? 

The Sabarmati Ashram redevelopment project, also called the Gandhi Ashram Memorial and Precinct Development Project, is a Rs 1,200 crore outing earmarked by the Gujarat government which aims to revamp the ashram into a 'world-class memorial'.

While the project has been public knowledge since early 2019, a formal notification regarding it was issued by the Gujarat government on 5 March.

The proposal aims at integrating 35 acres of the ashram campus which has around 65 heritage structures into one composite land parcel and redeveloping these heritage structures to highlight the activities of original ashram and Gandhi's lifestyle.

Further, in addition to revamping the old buildings, the project also aims to bring new structures into the fold of the ashram.

  • A new museum

  • A food court

  • Museum shops

  • The Mahatma Gandhi statue near the Income Tax Junction in Ahmedabad, which was created by renowned sculptor Kanti Patel in the 1960s, to be installed at the ashram

  • A parking area with a capacity of 200 cars

  • Ahmedabad's Jay Jagat amphitheatre to be upgraded.

The project is being helmed by Bimal Patel's Ahmedabad-based firm HCP Design, Planning and Management Private Ltd. Patel is also involved in the Central Vista and the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor Project.

The Modi government's go-to architect, Patel has previously designed the Swarnim Sankul, a complex of office blocks to the north and the south of Central Vista of the legislative assembly building in Gandhinagar.

The Gandhi Ashram redevelopment plan also includes demolition of several structures which were built after Independence and "oppose the simple nobility of Bapu's abode," as per the notification issued by the Gujarat government.

The government has formed a governing council and an executive council for the project.

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Who Are the Stakeholders?

During pre-Independence days, the Sabarmati Ashram stood on a magnificent 100-acre campus of which the memorial occupied 47 acres and the rest belonged to other related heritage structures.

After Independence, the ashram was divided into five trusts – Sabarmati Ashram Preservation and Memorial Trust (SAPMT), Sabarmati Ashram Gaushala Trust, Harijan Sevak Sangh, Khadi Gramodyog Prayog Samiti, and Harijan Ashram Trust. SAPMT manages Sabarmati Ashram that houses Hriday Kunj where Mahatma Gandhi lived during his stay.

Earlier in July, the government had asked the trustees of all the five trusts to pass a resolution giving approval to the project.

While it is still unclear if the trustees in principle agreed to the proposed restoration, a report by Deccan Herald states that the new project will accommodate all the existing bodies including SAPMT, Sabarmati Ashram Gaushala trust, managed by National Dairy Development Board, Sabarmati Harijan Ashram Trust, Gujarat Harijan Sevak Sangh, and Khadi Gramodyog Prayog Samiti.

Apart from the trustees, other stakeholders involve approximately 200 families, (mostly Dalit) descendants of the original ashram inhabitants, who live in and around the ashram premises. They are being given Rs 40 lakh each as compensation for vacating their properties.

As per a 2019 report by The Wire, hundreds of residents of the Harijan Ashram held a protest march against the proposed development amid the fear of becoming homeless.

The Legacy of Sabarmati Ashram

Located on the banks of the river Sabarmati in Ahmedabad, the ashram was previously known as the Satyagraha Ashram and has been witness to several milestone events which led to India's freedom from the colonial rule.

First established at a bungalow of Jivanlal Desai, a friend of Mahatma Gandhi, the Sabarmati Ashram was later relocated to its current location by Gandhi who lived there for several years. It was at this ashram that he also started writing his autobiography – The Story of My Experiments with Truth.

It was from this ashram in 1930 that Mahatma Gandhi began the Salt Satyagraha with the Dandi March. He along with 78 others travelled several miles to Dandi to protest the British Salt Law.

It is believed that in the same year, Gandhi vowed that he would never return to the Sabarmati Ashram till India had gained independence from the British rule. And as fate would have it, he never found an opportunity to return to his ashram from August 1947 to January 1948, when he was assassinated.
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Who is Opposing the Project and Why?

The ambitious project of the central government and the Gujarat government to revamp the Sabarmati Ashram has met with strong criticism since the day it was announced.

Recently, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot called the project "shocking" and "politically driven."

In a statement shared on Twitter, Gehlot wrote, "Sabarmati Ashram is known for its harmony and ideas of fraternity. People from within the country or abroad don't wish to see any world class buildings here."

Further, over 100 concerned citizens wrote an open letter to oppose the project. Among the signatories are historians Ramachandra Guha, filmmaker Anand Patwardhan, Mahatma Gandhi's grandson, and historian Rajmohan Gandhi and renowned journalist P Sainath.

The letter said that the "ashram has never needed a ‘world class’ makeover to attract tourists. The charisma of Gandhi along with the authenticity and simplicity of the place has been enough.”

It further goes on to say that "at best the project envisages a Gandhi-themed park and at worst a second assassination."

The letter also alleges that the project is in line with "the present government’s strategy to appropriate and commercialise all Gandhian institutions in the country."

The Quint spoke to Ahmedabad-based conservation architect, Riyaz Tayyibji, who said that it is still too early to conclude that the restoration project will destroy the ashram's legacy.

"From the details which are available in the public domain, all we know about the proposed project is that the government wants to restore the ashram to what it looked like in pre-Independence days and convert it into a tourism hub. There is clear lack of transparency for any critical analysis at this stage," he says.

"More than a restoration project, it seems that this is an urban planning initiative. The government has earmarked some structures and buildings which will stay and some which will be demolished. What we don't know is the criteria which will be used to ascertain which structures should be demolished and who will be the people taking these calls. You clearly need historians, conservationists and other domain experts to do such jobs."
Riyaz Tayyibji, Conservation Architect

He further added that it is this lack of transparency that is giving rise to speculations around the project. "It has become a style of this government to do things in a very opaque fashion. The less information is available, the lesser critical analysis one can do."

(With inputs from Deccan Herald and The Wire)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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