Himachal Pradesh is known for its pharmaceutical hub in Baddi-Barotiwala-Nalagarh belt. Now, the state is set to take it to the next level with a mammoth new industrial bulk drug park in the Una district to manufacture the active pharmaceutical ingredients and other raw materials for India’s growing pharma industry.
And it has now become the ruling BJP’s trump card in the Himachal Pradesh assembly elections.
In the villages surrounding the land demarcated for the Una park, divisions based on the BJP-Congress political affiliations of the villagers are glaring. While the households supporting the BJP are hopeful of the park transforming the region and creating jobs, a group of villagers, supporting the Congress, have raised objections over the land acquisition for the project.
Lining the smooth tar roads leading to Una district’s Haroli region, big banners with photos of BJP candidate, Ram Kumar, are rising new hopes of a facelift if he is voted to power. The bulk drug park will bring 40,000 jobs to the region, his posters say. In homes supporting the BJP, photocopies of the map of the land demarcated for the park are doing rounds.
“This is perhaps the next big project in the state after Bhakra Nangal Dam. This opportunity for the district may not come again anytime soon,” an official in the Himachal Pradesh industries department who did much of the heavy-lifting for the project, said, displaying pride to be associated with the project.
For a nondescript office of the department of Industries in Una district identifying 1,400 acres of accumulated land, developing an industrial plan for it, and competing with big industrial states such as Maharashtra and Telangana, seemed an impossible task at first. But teams from various government departments, ranging from panchayat offices to the state cabinet, worked on it day and night.
In 2020, the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers invited bids for three bulk drug parks. And Himachal Pradesh wanted to be a strong contender.
Work for the park at the state departments spilled before and after office hours. Documents to be signed for the project were prepared on priority and files were received, signed, and transferred in record time from one office to the other.
“The final signature on the project file by the chief secretary was received at 2 am,” said the official at the department of industries, Una.
“It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the whole team to be part of a project of this scale. And without team effort, it would not have been possible,” he added.
Their hard work paid off. On 1 September, out of 13 bids from India, Himachal’s Haroli tehsil of Una district was selected as one of the three destinations for the bulk drugs park.
But when on 13 October, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone of the park at a rally in Una, a day before the model code of conduct set in for polls in the hill state, the project took a political twist. The Rs 1,900 crore project is one of the biggest announcements made in the state by the BJP.
Since the project has been in the pipeline for two years, the Congress is accusing the BJP of announcing it now to attract voters in a Congress-dominated seat.
“I know that this is a political motive. They are doing this only because this is the constituency of the leader of opposition,” said Mukesh Agnihotri, leader of opposition from Congress and four-time MLA of Haroli.
While the bulk drug park is eagerly awaited, the promise of jobs is taken with a pinch of salt.
“It will take a while before the park is ready and people start getting jobs,” said Nikhil Sharma from Jhakhera village, who works in Shimla. “It will serve its purpose if local people find jobs there and they don’t have to migrate,” he added.
Similar industrial experiments in the past in Una have left people bitter.
“The factories bring people from outside for the high-paying jobs. The local people get employed at the lowest level and are exploited the most,” said Satish Kumar, resident of Polian beet village, whose son worked at a factory at a food park in Tahliwal (about seven kilometres from the proposed bulk drug park) for five years as a quality control manager at a meagre pay of Rs 5,500.
But Sharma and Kumar agree that the industry will pin Haroli on the world map and the local people will reap the benefits of development, even if indirectly.
India exported pharmaceuticals, including bulk drugs, worth Rs. 1,75,040 crore in 2021-22. It is also one of the major producers of Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (API) in the world, exporting worth Rs 33,320 crore in the same year.
The need for self-reliance in APIs was realised soon after the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, when India faced a severe shortage of drugs. Though India produced APIs in the 1990s, because of economic reasons, the industry gradually moved to cheaper alternatives from China. The pandemic exposed India’s dependence on China for sourcing APIs, noted the Economic survey 2020-21.
“When the pharmaceutical industry is dependent for some critical ingredients on players outside India, the system at some level is at stake. If the player, who is a supplier, is not be in a position to supply, the nation suffers. And we are also not able to supply to the world,” said Dr Viranchi Shah, National President, Indian Drug Manufacturers’ Association (IDMA), an association of Indian pharmaceutical companies which has representation of over 1,000 companies producing APIs in India.
In order to make India self-reliant in API production, the idea of setting up bulk drug parks was floated in February 2020 by the government. The NITI Aayog held a meeting on 19 February, 2020 with pharmaceutical industry representatives on how to “turbo-charge the API industry”.
For a self-reliant Indian pharmaceutical industry, valued at $ 41 billion and expected to grow to about $ 120-130 billion by 2030, the department of pharmaceuticals invited bids for the bulk drug parks in 2020.
But benefitting from the impressive offers by the Union government, for instance, covering 90 per cent of the cost of the project for the hilly states and production linked incentives along with the main project, seemed far-fetched for Una.
Sharing its border with Punjab, Una has relatively flat topography compared to other hilly districts in the state but consolidated 1,400 acres land was hard to find. The district officials could identify two separate tracts of land in Haroli, but these were not enough. Competing with Una, Nalagarh in Solan district, was already ahead of the game.
“Nalagarh had managed to find the land required for the project. Since at Una we had less land, we first bid for the medical devices park instead, which needed about 700 acres,” said the official from the industries department.
Medical devices parks were also announced by the Centre to boost indigenous production around the same time when the bulk drug parks were announced.
But luck was in Una’s favour. The deadline for bidding for bulk drug park got extended by about 20 days and the district grabbed the opportunity to overcome its shortcomings to qualify for the tender.
The shortage of 40 acres of land between the two tracts of government land was met by buying private land of farmers from Kutharbeet village. And within days, the department of industries didn’t just consolidate the two separate patches of land, but also completed the 1,400 acres benchmark for the bidding process.
“The villagers gave us affidavits without taking a single penny. We have already paid them. We are grateful to them,” said Ram Kumar, BJP candidate from Haroli constituency, who played an instrumental role in mobilising people to help acquire private land.
With sandy soil and thick bushes’ cover, the land designated for the park in Haroli had low value, local people explained. Villagers collect firewood and fodder for their cattle from there as it is unfit for agriculture. For the land valuing Rs 50,000-60,000 per kanal (1 kanal = 0.125 acre), the government offered a rate of Rs 1 lakh per kanal to the owners.
But more than the money, the bulk drug park project is a matter of prestige for the villagers.
“The land was of no use to the villagers, so they didn’t mind selling it for the development of the region. The value of the land has now increased by 10 to 20 per cent,” said Ashok Thakur, Kutharbeet village’s sarpanch.
The government land in the area also had to be transferred to the industry department, after going through nine levels of state authority verifying and approving the land records.
This arduous land acquisition process, from getting no objection certificates (NOCs) from department of forests, electricity, pollution, water among others happened in record time, which otherwise takes two to three years. The state department teams would go up and down the hills from one city to another, where the other teams would be ready for the next set of documents to be signed and dispatched.
“I used to go to Dharamshala (116 kms from Una) at 5 am, get the files signed and reach Shimla (230 kms from Dharamshala) the same day before 4 pm for the Cabinet meeting,” recalled the official from the industries department.
But close to the deadline, Una beat Nalagarh to bid for the bulk drug park.
Though Nalagarh is closer to the drug-producing factories in Baddi, levelling the land there would be three times costlier than Una. Una is also blessed with ground water, which won the district brownie points. Points in the bidding process were also allotted to factors such as the rate at which electricity can be given by the state, connectivity to the airport and railway station.
Opposition & controversy
But all the hard work put in by the state departments to grab the bulk drug park deal was overshadowed by the politics in Una’s Haroli tehsil before the polls.
Haroli is a strong constituency of the Congress. Haroli’s MLA, Mukesh Agnihotri, Congress’ probable chief minister candidate, has retained this seat for the last four elections and is confident of winning it again this term. The non-existent bulk drug park, Agnihotri told ThePrint, would not deter his position.
“The governments must do the work during their tenure. BJP’s five years are completing and they announced the park 24 hours before the model code of conduct. If they were so confident of the project, they could have done it in five years. It shows how insecure they are,” he said.
The land bank to be given to industrial units in the state, he claimed, was created by him when he was the minister for industries.
“As an industry minister, I had identified government land in Himachal which can be given for industries. They have no contribution in this land bank,” said Agnihotri.
But BJP’s Kumar dismissed Agnihotri’s accusation of political motive behind bringing the park to Haroli.
“I created a land bank in the region. We developed 4,000 acre of land in Himachal which can be given to industries. 50 per cent of this is in Haroli. So, if we have the land, then the project will go where land is. Mukesh has not collected an inch of this land,” said Kumar.
The opposition to the bulk drug park, meanwhile, is coming strongly from Congress’ supporters in the villages as well. A group of villagers in Polian Beet village, who are associated with the Congress, have filed a writ petition in the Himachal Pradesh High Court and have moved the district court in Una claiming that the land allotted for the bulk drug park is their personal land and the government must compensate them for it.
“This is our ancestral land. In this bulk drug park project, about 11,000 kanal land of 200 families has been taken away without compensation to us,” said Harish Kumar, the petitioner, who lives in Polian Beet village.
“The state declared our private land as government land and took it for the project without consulting us. We are not opposing the park, but we need compensation,” he added.
He also claims that out of seven hamlets of the village, three of them fall on the land demarcated for the park, which have a population of about 600 people and the government has no plans of their relocation.
But when ThePrint visited two of these hamlets, the villagers said they were unaware of any bulk drug park coming on their land.
“We have not heard of any such project. No government teams visited here for any survey,” said Nirmala Devi from Janani village.
Meanwhile, Raj Thakur, the former sarpanch of Polian Beet village who was heading the village in 2020, said that due process was followed for acquiring the land from the village.
“All the land that has gone from the village is government land. The Sub Divisional Magistrate (SDM) office had sent a letter for it, I called a Gram Sabha and all the villagers consented and signed an NOC,” said Thakur, who is BJP’s vice president of Haroli mandal.
The office of the SDM in Haroli, also does not have any record of the land which Kumar and other in the village are claiming their rights on.
“If there was a dispute, then there should have been some records with the government on the land they are claiming. But there are none,” said Vikas Sharma, SDM, Haroli. “Had there been a conflict, the case would not have processed for the bidding,” he added.
The Deputy Commissioner of Una, Raghav Sharma, confirms this. “The government land was transferred from revenue department to the industries department after due process. And there are no records of private land in that region,” said Sharma.
The official from the industries department also explained that there is no habitation on the land that has been acquired. “There are no houses even close to the property. There are villages around the property, but these are not under the land we have acquired. No families will be relocated,” he said.
At a busy restaurant in Una, the official from the industries department is greeted by people. They want to know by when will people be able to buy plots in the bulk drug park.
The emphasis on the bulk drug park by the BJP in the assembly elections is also evident after PM Modi laid the foundation. Star campaigners, including home minister Amit Shah and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, have also campaigned in Una.
The development of the park, however, will not happen in a silo, said Shah from IDMA. The bulk drug park will give the much-needed push to the API producing companies, he added.
“Apart from the bulk drug park, if a company is bringing in newer molecules in India, there are a set of incentives which the government is offering. People will use these incentives to bring new technology to India,” said Shah.
First allotment of Rs 300 crore from the Centre has reached the state. At the bulk drug park, the state will provide common facilities like boilers and steamers, which the companies operating there will be able to use. It will also pump up the production of pharmaceuticals at Baddi by 10 to 20 per cent, said SDM Vikas Sharma.
Outside of the park, the whole tehsil of Haroli will transform, said Ram Kumar.
“Haroli has also been allotted another Rs. 2,000 crore for the overall development, which will be divided between the state and centre equally,” he said.
The roads will widen, allied industries like packaging, transportation, hospitality and residential complexes will be developed and people will start getting jobs even before the park is functional, add Ram Kumar and Shah.
The pitch of how much the bulk drug park can deliver is growing louder as the election inches closer. From a promise of 20,000 jobs in October, it has now increased to 40,000 in Kumar’s posters put up across Una. From the initial figure of Rs. 10,000 crore investment, which the park will attract, the figure has now become Rs. 50,000 crore.
“We believe that an investment of Rs 50,000 crore will come there. Where Rs 50,000 crore is spent, more than 50,000 people will also get jobs there,” said Satpal Satti, BJP’s candidate from Una, to ThePrint.
While the staff at the department of industries are waiting patiently for the polls to be over to start rolling out tenders to get the land levelled, the BJP is hoping that the mega project will get them the desired outcome.
“The bulk drugs park is BJP’s trump card,” said Kumar.
(Edited by Ratan Priya)