Ayodhya: Over the weekend, when he reviewed the development plan for Ayodhya, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the temple town should manifest “the finest of our traditions and the best of our development”.
A PMO statement said Ayodhya’s development is being envisaged as a spiritual centre, global tourism hub and a sustainable smart city.
Early signs of that change are already visible on the ground.
A little over a year-and-a-half after the November 2019 Supreme Court verdict that cleared the way for the construction of the Ram Mandir, a once-sleepy little town in India’s most populous state has begun to ride the wave of a real estate boom.
Land prices have soared, land deals have multiplied, hotels, guest houses and infrastructure facilities are either being built or planned at breakneck speed – all under the influence of the Modi government’s big infrastructure push to develop Ayodhya into a “world famous pilgrimage site”.
It has even triggered controversy, with irregularities being alleged in high-denomination land sales to the Ram Janmabhoomi Trust which is entrusted with the task of building a grand Ram temple.
Tourist footfall to the temple town too has already gone up in the past one-and-a-half years, especially on days of religious significance such as Ram Navami.
Despite restrictions on the entry of tourists and pilgrims into the town during lockdowns imposed in the wake of the first and second Covid waves in the country, whenever visitors have been allowed in, the temple town has drawn a staggering crowd of worshippers, say those in the administration.
Meanwhile, state efforts to turn Ayodhya into a Vedic City — a town with a traditional soul and modern facilities — are on.
Visitors entering the town via National Highway 28 today are greeted by rows of palm trees that have been recently planted along the road as part of a beautification drive. Further inside the town, roads are getting upgraded, the river front redeveloped.
A new international airport is coming up, the railway station too has been renovated, there is a new bus terminus, and a dozen new guest houses have sprung up across the district in the last one year and a half.
All this hectic progress has brought in a never-seen-before real estate boom to this temple town.
Property prices within a 10-km radius of the Ram temple would once go up by five to seven per cent annually, but it has seen a hike of nearly four to six times since the November 2019 SC verdict, said property dealers and local residents.
Along with spiralling property prices, land transactions (property registrations) have also increased by over 200 per cent between 2017-18 and 2020-21, reveal figures provided by Ayodhya district’s stamp and registration department.
According to figures shared by the stamp and registration department, while a total of 5,962 land transactions got registered in the district in 2017-18, the number went up to 15,084 in 2018-19. In 2019-20, a total of 16,285 land transactions were registered in the district, which again went up to 19,818 in the 2020-21 fiscal.
Senior stamp and registration officials said the department earned Rs 112.35 crore as revenue from land registrations in 2018-19, which went up to Rs 125.51 crore in 2019-20, and Rs 151.68 crore in 2020-21.
Spiralling land prices & outside investors
The real estate boom, said officials, has also brought in businessmen from outside Uttar Pradesh to Ayodhya in search of land — a novelty in this temple town that saw little outside investment in the past.
“This is a recent trend. Earlier, there were very few people coming from outside to invest in land in Ayodhya,” S.B. Singh, Sub-Registrar, Ayodhya (Sadar and Tehsil), told ThePrint. “But in the last one year, many land transactions have been registered, where the owner is from Delhi, Chandigarh, Haryana and Gujarat.”
The Sadar and Tehsil handles land transactions registered in rural areas.
Akhtar Ali, a tailor living in Sutati Mohalla, Ram Kot, which is just 500 metres away from where the Ram temple is coming up, regrets selling a little over 1300 sq ft land near his house in 2016. “I needed money urgently and sold the one biswa (1360 sq ft) land I had for Rs 3 lakh. Today, the cost of the same plot has soared to Rs 26 lakh,” he told ThePrint.
Mohammad Irfan, one of Ayodhya’s biggest and oldest property dealers, uses the word ‘phenomenal’ to describe the difference in property prices here, before and after the SC verdict.
Irfan started his property business in early 2000 and has closely tracked the rise in property prices in Ayodhya since then.
“The rate of a plot of land in a 10-km radius of the Ram temple before November 2019 would be between Rs 600 and Rs 1,000 per square foot. After the SC verdict, this increased to Rs 2,200-Rs 3,500 per square foot,” said Irfan. “Today, in some of the areas near the temple, property rates are touching Rs 5,000 to Rs 7,000 per sq ft.”
Irfan’s son Sultan Ansari is one of the two individuals who first bought a 1,208 hectare plot for Rs 2.5 crore in 2017, and then sold it to the Ram Janmabhoomi Trust for Rs 18.5 crore in March 2021. Opposition parties have alleged irregularities in the transaction.
Until a few years ago, said Irfan, Ayodhya was like a village. “But then it started growing. Population increased. The Ram Mandir judgement gave a push to development. Nobody would have imagined before 2019 that land will fetch the price of gold here one day,” he said.
Old residents of Ayodhya agree.
Achal Gupta, 45, who operates the Chanda restaurant — with a seating capacity of 60 — in the town’s main thoroughfare, Sringarhat, is a third generation Ayodhya resident. In 2016, he had bought a 54,000 sq ft land near Majha Barhata for Rs 30 lakh, to build a three-star hotel. It is in Majha Barhata and adjoining areas that a much-touted greenfield township is coming up.
“Today I am getting calls from buyers from outside Ayodhya who are offering me over Rs 20 crore for that plot. That is how land prices have appreciated here in five years. Almost every other piece of land near my plot has been sold,” he said.
But Gupta is intent on building his hotel and is not the only one with that dream in Ayodhya today.
Residents here have been quick to respond to demand and many have already started building small guest houses and lodges.
“In the past six months, five lodges have come up in the locality where I live. So many new mid-and-small-sized hotels have come up here in the past one-and-a-half years,” he said.
Mehfooz Ahmed, another property dealer, said most of the vacant land inside Ayodhya as of today has been acquired by the government. “There are hardly any vacant plots left. Those who have are asking for sky high prices for selling it. High demand and limited supply is one of the main reasons behind the skyrocketing land prices inside the town,” he said.
Ahmed said he keeps getting calls by the dozen every month from businessmen or investors from Delhi, Mumbai, Patna, Agra, Kanpur and other places who want to buy land.
“Investors started making a beeline for Ayodhya after the 2019 SC order. I have taken so many of them to show land around the temple town. But the high prices have kept many of them away,” he said.
Many of them, Ahmed said, are also waiting for the greenfield township to come up before deciding to invest.
Building a Vedic City
The tourist flow to Ayodhya has also seen a huge spurt since 2019.
“On auspicious occasions like Ram Navami, the footfall reaches 1 lakh a day. We are expecting the crowd to go up to 15 lakh a day on special occasions, once the Ram temple is completed. We are developing the infrastructure to accommodate the growth in traffic expected here,” Anuj Kumar Jha, Ayodhya district magistrate told ThePrint.
Jha agreed that property rates in the temple town have increased mainly on account of the development work happening in the town.
“An international airport is coming up, for which 70 per cent of the land has been acquired. Two two-lane highways connecting Ayodhya to Rae Bareily and Varanasi are being upgraded to four lane-roads,” he said, to handle expected increased traffic to the town.
The greenfield township in Majha Barhata is coming up on a 1,200 acre plot at an initial cost of Rs 10,000 crore. Over 54 per cent of the required land for it has already been arranged. It will be a solar city and will have 80 state and international guest houses, 30 five and three star hotels, 30 budget hotels to accommodate the tourists expected to visit .
In Ayodhya, however, all development work has an underlying spiritualism, a blending of the traditional with the modern.
For example, the walls of a flyover in town have paintings depicting the various stages of Ram’s life.
“The idea is to develop Ayodhya into a Vedic City. All aspects of development have spirituality at their core,” said Vishal Singh, municipal commissioner and vice chairman, Ayodhya Development Authority
Singh said he read various scriptures, including Skanda Purana and Valmiki Ramayana, to understand what they said about Ayodhya.
“The idea is to recreate the old city and integrate it with modern facilities. We are also studying the best practices in other international and domestic pilgrimage cities like Jerusalem, Vatican, Mecca, Tirupati and Mathura, to see the kind of infrastructure they have set up and what we can learn from them,” he said.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)