Illegally built buildings have spoilt serenity of Gandhiji’s Sabarmati Ashram

It is only the buildings managed by the Sabarmati Ashram Preservation and Memorial Trust on three acres of land which have retained the ascetic character of Gandhiji’s ashram

Illegally built buildings have spoilt serenity of Gandhiji’s Sabarmati Ashram

Nachiketa Desai

A paan-beedi-gutka kiosk across the road from Hriday Kunj or Bapu Kutir where Mahatma Gandhi and Kasturba lived from 1917 to 1930 mocks at the 11 vows the Mahatma had made mandatory for the residents of Satyagraha ashram at Sabarmati in Ahmedabad.

A road-side Dhaba, set up by a resident of the chawl in which Gandhiji’s principal secretary Mahadev Desai and close associates Kakasaheb Kalelkar and Kishorelal Mashruwala once lived, is doing brisk business serving spicy Kathiawadi food cocking a snook at the ‘Aswaad Vrat’ Gandhiji had prescribed for his ashram inmates.

Multi-storied buildings, many of them erected illegally, have obliterated the skyline of Bapu’s Satyagraha Ashram. Even the heritage Jamna Kutir, the residential complex with over half a dozen small huts with tiled roof that belonged to philanthropist industrialist Jamnalal Bajaj and the ‘Lal Bungalow’ of Pranjivandas Mehta, one of the founders of the Harijan Ashram, have been demolished to build multi-storied buildings and bungalows.

Residential and commercial buildings of varying shape and size have come up on the 110-acre ‘Satyagraha Ashram’ Bapu had set up in 1917, disfiguring the serene complex that once had small houses with Mangalorean tiles on the roof.

It is only the buildings managed by the Sabarmati Ashram Preservation and Memorial Trust on three acres of land which have retained the ascetic character of Gandhiji’s ashram. Here are located Hriday Kunj, the cottage in which Ba and Bapu resided and the cottages where Vinoba Bhave and Miraben lived.

New buildings have come up here too to house a museum, the archive of Gandhiji’s writings, letters, photographs and audio-video records, a book shop and a khadi shop. However, the design and aesthetics of these buildings are congruent with over a century old heritage cottages.

The museum building was designed by eminent architect Charles Correa and inaugurated by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1963.

The museum, the archives and the cottages of Ba, Bapu, Vinoba and Miraben, as well as the chawl in which Mahadevbhai, Kakasaheb and Mashruwala lived, are maintained and managed by the Sabarmati Ashram Preservation and Memorial Trust headed by octogenarian Gandhian Elaben Bhatt.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi revealed his ambitious plan of redeveloping Gandhiji’s Sabarmati Ashram into a world class tourist spot at a cost of Rs 1200 crore, his officials reassured the members of the Sabarmati Ashram Preservation and Memorial Trust that none of the heritage buildings would be altered.

In fact, the government recently requested Elaben to oversee the restoration and preservation of all the heritage buildings situated on the premises of the Sabarmati Ashram.

The government has already started paying displacement compensation of Rs 60 lakh each to the tenants residing in buildings located on the 110 acres. Of the 200 Dalit families who have signed consent letters to vacate their house, so far only 45 persons have accepted the money.

There are over 100 families residing in buildings constructed illegally - without securing permission from the municipal corporation – who consider the compensation amount too small compared with the value of their property.

After getting the houses vacated by the tenants, the government is sealing and putting a pad lock on them. Though the house is on the land belonging to the five trusts, government has not intimated of its action of having taken possession of the house.

Kunal Rathod, 45, has refused to vacate his ancestral house which industrialist Jamnalal Bajaj had bequeathed to his great grandfather Jerambhai Rathod. The Jamna Kutir, as the house where Jamnalal Bajaj and his family lived before moving to Wardha and also after Gandhiji had left the Sabarmati Ashram in 1930, is a heritage building which stands unaltered even today.

In fact, Kunal has become a whistle-blower. He has filed a 25-page complaint before the charity commissioner of Gujarat giving details of how Jayesh Ishwarbhai Patel, the son-in-law of former Gujarat Chief Minister Anandiben Patel, who is a trustee of two of the five trusts that own the land and buildings in the precincts of the Sabarmati Ashram as also of another trust floated by his father in 1995 from the premises of the Sabarmati Harijan Ashram has amassed wealth by allowing illegal buildings even on heritage sites.

Following Kunal’s complaint, Charity commissioner of Gujarat Y M Shukla has ordered an inquiry into the allegation that Jayesh’s father Ishwarbhai Patel had floated Manav Sadhana Trust in 1995 to siphon off funds from the Sabarmati Harijan Ashram Trust.

The complaint has cited audit reports of both Sabarmati Harijan Ashram Trust and Manav Sadhana Trust in support of the allegation. While the Sabarmati Harijan Ashram Trust, established in 1926 had a reserve of Rs 57 lakh from 2001 to 2019, the Manav Sadhana Trust, which was established in 1995, had accumulated a reserve of Rs 6.27 crore in 2018.

Manav Sadhana Trust not only shares its office with the Sabarmati Harijan Ashram Trust but the two trusts have three common trustees, one being Jayesh Patel.

Jayesh Patel not only inherited the trusteeship of Sabarmati Harijan Ashram from his father Ishwarbhai Patel but is also a trustee of All India Harijan Sevak Sangh and Gujarat Harijan Sevak Sangh which together own the highest chunk of landed property from out of the total 110 acres Gandhiji and his nephew Maganlal Gandhi had bought in 1916 to set up the Satyagraha Ashram.

It is on the land belonging to the Sabarmati Harijan Ashram that illegal commercial and residential buildings, many of them multi-storied, have come up in collusion with the trustees.

“After crores of rupees were collected by the trustees of Sabarmati Harijan Ashram from real estate developers and private investors, the government is now paying crores to the tenants to get these buildings vacated,” points of Kunal Rathod.

The government is aware of the irregularities and corruption committed by the Sabarmati Harijan Ashram Trust. Armed with incriminating information, the government is arm-twisting the Ashram trustees to make them accept the government’s plan for redeveloping the Gandhi ashram on its terms.

Incidentally, Jayesh Patel is also on the advisory board of Gujarat Tourism and the government committee which supervises heritage cites.

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