Ever since Cairn struck oil in 2004, land prices in Barmer surged

Pata nahin unth kis karvat bhaithta hai (no one knows where the camel will turn), Rajasthanis have long said. In Barmer, the metaphorical camel is turning cartwheels. Tucked away in the barren sand dunes of the Thar desert, the town was once a fly-ridden hell-hole… where inconvenient bureaucrats were dispatched by their political masters… where farmers could count on decent rainfall one year in five.

Ever since the British firm Cairn struck oil in 2004, the dust has turned to gold. Land prices have surged; no property is available in a 20 km radius. The city has 35 hotels, several in the 3-star category and above; rooms cannot at times be had for money, or love.

Air-conditioners whir in ever growing numbers of city homes. There are nearly two dozen BMWs-not counting more “run of the mill” luxury automobiles. Flights land regularly at the Uttarlai air-base, once used only by Indian Air Force combat jets, and luxury buses now shuttle to and from Jaipur, 530 km away.

The current affluence of the people here are mainly from the big prices the land fetched during the acquisitions carried out by Cairn India and Barmer Lignite Mining Company Limited, jointly owned by the Rajasthan State Mines and Minerals Limited (RSMML) and Raj West Power Limited, a Jindal Group company. Cairn India, now fully owned by the Vedanta Group, has acquired 8,000 bighas of land, while the Jindals, in all, acquired a mind boggling 44,000 bighas of land at prices ranging from Rs.24,200 per bigha to Rs.3.30 lakh per bigha.

“A bigha [17,424 sq. feet] of land near the town which would have fetched Rs.24,000 in 2006 now will cost Rs.25 lakh,” points out Lalit Kumar Kiri, who made a fortune not from land but from providing supplies and services to Cairn India. “My 70 bigha plot near Chohtan Chouraha 10 years ago was worth only Rs.7 lakh but now I will not sell it for Rs.21 crore,” said Mr. Kiri, once a small time entrepreneur who made a name in bunk making industry working with Cairn India.

“The land rates here are higher than in Jaipur or in Mumbai,” claims Mukesh Matharani, editor of local newspaper Janata Sahakar. “The DLC rate — fixed by the district level committee — used to be Rs.4,200 per bigha. During acquisition of land at Ishwarpura Bhadresh village in 2007, the people protested against the low rates. Then it was agreed that the government would give Rs.4,200 and the Jindals would provide an additional Rs.20,000 for each bigha. That was the beginning. During 2011-12, with the intervention of Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, the land price was hiked to Rs.3.30 lakh,” he reveals.

Sources close to the Jindals say that on a single day — September 15, 2009 — the company disbursed cheques worth Rs.256 crore as compensation for land. During 2011-12, another Rs.500 crore was paid to the land owners. In the case of individual farmers the remuneration from land sales ranged from a few lakhs to an astonishing Rs.9.75 crore.

On the oil front, the processes initiated in 1995 by the government of India partnering Shell gained momentum with Cairn joining in by 1999 and the discovery of Saraswati oil fields in 2001. In January 2004, less than a year after Cairn acquired 100 per cent share in the venture, a colossal find, Mangala, which is being termed the biggest off shore discovery in India in a quarter of a century, took place.

During the peak construction period of Mangala, spread over 400 acres, 15,000 staff and labourers worked relentlessly. This was the time when a simple house in Barmer town fetched a rent of Rs.1 lakh a month and hotels charged Rs. 5, 000 daily for every room they could offer.

The oil production, which began after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh dedicated the Mangala oil field to the nation in August 2009, now accounts for 20 per cent of the country’s total off shore production.

Now with production commencing in the oil field, Bhagyam and development work under way in Aishwariya, Cairn India is optimistic of touching 3,00,000 barrels a day from the current 1,75,000 barrels.

“This would amount to 35 per cent of India’s current crude production,” an enthused new chairman of the company, Navin Agarwal, told the annual general body meeting last month.

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