Rs 1,200 cr redevelopment project a boon or bane for Gandhi Ashram?

Debate builds around whether the historic Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad should be remoulded to keep up with the times, or retain its simplicity

By Jumana Shah
Published: Tuesday 10 August 2021
Photograph of the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad by Piyush Patel

After over a century, the symbolic Sabarmati Ashram that inspired Mahatma Gandhi to initiate the non-violent struggle for India’s freedom, has run into controversy over its future. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is looking to give a major tourism fillip to this historic spot, by introducing a plethora of activities and monuments under what is a massive Rs 1,200 crore Gandhi Ashram Precinct Development Project.

But recently, 130 eminent citizens wrote an open letter to the government, alleging that the proposed development would ruin the sanctity of the place, rendering it a ‘Gandhi Theme Park’.

Following this letter last week, the Sabarmati Ashram Memorial and Preservation Trust (SAPMT) issued a statement that they share ‘many of the concerns’.

The trustees contended:

The Ashram should always remain a message to the world about Gandhi’s ideas of simplicity, economy and frugality, as well as his respect for nature. Our understanding is these values are fully shared by all stakeholders, including the authorities with whom we are in touch.

The project was initiated a year ago, when the Union government decided to ‘restore the Ashram to its original glory of 70 years ago’.

When Gandhi was residing at the Ashram between 1917 and 1930, it was spread over about 55 acres. This included a Gaushala (a cattle shelter), families of several of his followers and the Mahatma’s own residence — which is now popular as the Sabarmati Ashram. The property sits in the heart of the city of Ahmedabad.

In the years following Independence, the maintenance of the property got divided between five trusts, the primary one being SAPMT.

This trust maintains the main Ashram property of Bapu’s own residence, the museum built by architect Charles Correa and other structures on the banks of the Sabarmati.

The other trusts — Gujarat Harijan Seval Sangh, Sabarmati Harijan Ashram Trust, Gujarat Khadi Gramudyog Mandal and Khadi Gramudyog Prayogshala — manage the 35 acres surrounding the Ashram. The area around the Ashram, though a part of the larger Ashram campus, is not open to tourists.

The key aspect of the redevelopment proposal is to reclaim the land, that is now occupied by descendants of Bapu’s supporters during the freedom struggle and offices of these trusts and their activities, to develop it as a tourist destination.

A source from one of Ashram trusts, closely associated with the developments, reiterated that the trustees are concerned about the proposed development, but believe that the concern is shared by the government as well as the architecture firm HCP and its lead architect Bimal Patel. The firm is also in-charge of the Central Vista Project in New Delhi.

The source said:

The first concern is whether the development will happen with the same aesthetics of simplicity or will there be an element of a ‘theme park’. This is an original place. A place where history took place, where Gandhi sat and directed the Satyagrah. The vibrations of the place matter.

The other aspect was bringing in a much higher number of tourists, the source said. Visitors did not come the Ashram looking for entertainment, but with a sort of humility, like a pilgrimage.

For instance, putting up a food court needed to be understood in perspective. Where was it to be situated? How big would it be? What kind of food would it serve?

“The government has assured us that they share these values, but the devil is in the details. The plan is still shaping, so we wait. But the fact remains that there is a dialogue between the Trusts, Bimal bhai and government officials,” the source said.

The source further added that a proposal to build a large bronze statue of Bapu was shot down by the trust. Another proposal of a statue of Gandhi spinning a charkha on the Ashram campus was also shot down.

“Along with the museum constructed by Correa in 1963, we introduced one sitting statue of Bapu in the garden after careful consideration. Children play and sit in his lap. The idea is to keep Bapu accessible. Statues are inherently intimidating. We have also opposed the idea of ticketed entry,” the source said.

The letter criticising the project also mentions a ‘threat’ to Hriday Kunj — the structure where Bapu himself lived. Ashram officials said though the structure itself might not be altered, if other imposing buildings come up on the campus, the humble residence’s importance for the visitor might be undermined.

Sources added that the high budgetary allocation for this project was also seen as a concern. “Rs 1,200 crore is a big amount for a place whose motto is to be ‘simple’. One then wonders what will come with that kind of spending,” they said.

The government officials meanwhile clarified that much of this money was going to be a part of the land reclamation and rehabilitation of residents around the main Ashram.

“Over the years there are squatters and disputed properties too. Settling those is going to take bulk of the budget,” a government source said.

Sources at the Ashram said the state government’s chief principal secretary to the Gujarat chief minister, K Kailashnathan and architect Patel were personally overseeing the resettlement process.

They had already held meetings with the residents and offered compensation packages. Though some rumblings had continued, the residents largely had accepted the rehabilitation and resettlement proposals. Since the project was already a year-old, things were moving at a speedy pace.

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