How will the proposed Gandhi Ashram redevelopment affect the ashramwasis?

Gandhi established the original ashram at Kochrab following his return from South Africa in 1915. (File)

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi proposed plans for a larger Sabarmati Ashram complex in October 2019, there was much anxiety and consternation among residents and trustees. The ashramwasis — third or fourth generation residents of the ashram — even sat on protests fearing eviction. Authorities will have to relocate over 250 families living in Ahmedabad’s Gandhi Ashram for the redevelopment, to be executed by the Gujarat government and the Union Ministry of Culture, under supervision of the Prime Minister’s Office.

The ashramwasis
The ashramwasis currently living in the complex descend from the people Mahatma Gandhi had brought to his Harijan Ashram, established on the Sabarmati riverbank in 1917, to help run the premises. They continue to live in the ashram, controlled now by six trusts. These ashramwasis include members from all communities as Gandhi believed in equal respect for all religions, a resident told The Indian Express.

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The government will have to relocate 263 such families, who are tenants of respective trusts on whose land they live. The state government has made several offers to the ashramwasis, including a one-time compensation of Rs 60 lakh, an apartment in another part of Ahmedabad, or a dwelling just outside the proposed ashram complex after its expansion.

The ashramwasis’ jobs
Many of the ashramwasis are employed in jobs far removed from what their forefathers used to do during Gandhi’s time. One resident employed with the Gujarat government told The Indian Express that their grandfather kept the cows and delivered milk. Their father is now a member of one of the six trusts.

Octogenarian Ranchchodbhai Gohil worked at Kalam Kush, a handmade paper factory. The Gujarat government buys Rs 1 crore worth of Kalam Kush’s chemical-free products that are made from waste cotton fabric.

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Some residents weave Khadi such as a 62-year-old who still works on a wooden handloom. The ashram produces oil, soap, Ambar Charkha, including its accessories and looms. The Gujarat Khadi Gramudyog Mandal, one of the six trusts, sells these products.

The ashramwasi protest
When Modi suggested the redevelopment of the Gandhi ashram in October 2019, the residents, under the Gandhi Ashram Bachao Samiti banner, staged a sit-in at Hriday Kunj in January 2020. The Sabarmati Ashram Preservation and Memorial Trust (SAPMT) also released a statement that the absence of formal communication was causing concern, anxiety, and misunderstanding at many levels.

The Sabarmati Harijan Ashram Trust, the owner of a large chunk of land, wrote to Chief Minister Vijay Rupani in support of the residents and urged him to hold discussions with them about the plan.

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The six trusts between which the original land of the ashram was split are Sabarmati Harijan Ashram Trust, Gujarat Harijan Sevak Sangh, Gujarat Khadi Gramudyog Mandal, Sabarmati Ashram Gaushala Trust, SAPMT, and Khadi Gramudyog Prayog Samiti.

What next
One resident told The Indian Express that while they were not against the redevelopment, many wanted to retain ‘Gandhi Ashram’ as their address. The state government has acceded to this demand, with the proposed dwelling outside the larger complex being reserved for these residents. Around 50 families have already opted for the monetary compensation. Some of the families also want to associate with the ashram project. One resident told The Indian Express that the land was important for them and they didn’t want any compensation.

The original ashram
Gandhi established the original ashram at Kochrab following his return from South Africa in 1915. The ashram was then shifted to the Sabarmati riverbank in 1917 after the plague to experiment with animal husbandry, farming, cow breeding, Khadi, and other related activities.

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Called Harijan Ashram originally, it was spread over 120 acres that was later split among six trusts.

The Gandhi Ashram area is run by SAPMT and houses the Mahatma and Kasturba Gandhi’s residence — Hriday Kunj. It also manages the Vinoba-Mira kutir, Nandini (a guesthouse) where prominent personalities such as Rabindranath Tagore stayed, Gandhi’s nephew Maganlal Gandhi’s residence — Magan Nivas — apart from the Mahatma’s personal artefacts such as his writing desk and spinning wheel. It also has a museum of Gandhi’s correspondence, books, manuscripts, and photographs.

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