Temple Construction Meant Small Business Owners in Ayodhya Lost Money – and Hope

While construction and painting are still ongoing in Ayodhya’s three main roads now known as the ‘Ram Path’, ‘Ram Janmabhoomi Path’ and ‘Bhakti Path’, an estimate of between 4,000 and 4,500 shops and homes reportedly have been broken down or displaced.

Ayodhya: The 13-kilometre stretch of Ayodhya’s arterial road, newly christened the ‘Ram Path’, is all lit up, with facades of each building, home and shop covered in a similar set of symbols and painted a uniform white and beige. In what many hail as a sign of development, the town’s shiny new roads and ongoing construction activities have all focused on the consecration ceremony of the Ram Mandir on January 22.

While construction of the Ram temple complex – built after the demolition of the Babri Masjid – is yet to be finished and will reportedly go on until 2025, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s presence at the consecration ceremony has been advertised in almost every corner, across posters, billboards and advertisements in town.

But for Rakesh Kumar Gupta, life has only gone from “bad to worse”. Sixty-three-year-old Gupta lives in the locality of Niyawan, where authorities demolished dozens of establishments with the aim of widening the stretch of the road that now forms the ‘Ram Path’. A former grocery shop owner, he now finds himself struggling to find work.

“They (the SDM and police) came at night, we were not even given a prior date, and our homes here were demolished. We were only given prior information about them looking to widen the roads, but we had no idea it would happen this way,” a beleaguered Gupta said.

In January 2023, a JCB bulldozed his three-storey establishment, in the presence of police officers and district authorities. The ground floor functioned as a grocery store, and the storeys above were his residence and supplies storage area. More than a year since the demolition, Gupta and his wife now live elsewhere in the home of their son, their own home yet to be rebuilt. “I have four children who are thankfully all independent. If they were still in school, my wife and I would be actually homeless because we’d have nowhere to live. But there are hundreds of such shopkeepers in this area, in Janoura, Ramnagar and so many other localities who’ve lost their homes or are now living on rent,” he told The Wire.

Rakesh Kumar Gupta stands outside the remains of his three-storey shop and residence, yet to be rebuilt even a year since it was demolished. Photo: Sabah Gurmat

The advent of the Ram temple has given the entire town a facelift, with the building and widening of roads, a revamped drainage system and railway station, and an airport. These changes are also ushering in a boom in property prices and real estate deals, along with hotel owners and leading corporate houses investing in this new temple town.

But, despite a whopping Rs 30,000 crore being spent on this ‘new Ayodhya’, locals like Gupta are now paying the price of this development. Gupta, who built his three-storey residence in 1998, estimates the total value of his home and the land at “Rs 80 lakh”, but claims that authorities compensated him with a paltry Rs 9 lakh.

“They just gave us compensation for the bricks, not for the land which the government claims is theirs. I see no hope of getting more, it’s been over a year now. They also said they’d widen the road by 10 metres, but actually took away 12 metres,” he said despondently.

A few shops down the same road in Niyawan is Satyaprakash Gupta’s small storefront. The 45 year old also owned a three-storey home, with the ground floor serving as his shop and workplace, but the home whose value he estimates at over Rs 40 lakh was compensated with just Rs 9 lakh. Even as he used the compensation amount to rebuild his shop, he now lives on rent with his wife and three children, owing to the inability to rebuild the upper floors that once used to be the family’s residence.

“I was the only earning member in the family. Ever since the demolition, we haven’t had the resources to rebuild this entirely, so I decided to rent a place for us to live. For 10 months, I didn’t even have this shop, I drove an e-rickshaw to make ends meet and only got back to this now”, he said wearily. Satprakash’s three children are in school and college, with his eldest son having to stop his MA degree, because he “did not have the money to fill his fees”. 

Satyaprakash Gupta sits next to his tea kiosk in the newly-constructed kirana shop of a single storey, where once a three-storey shop as well as his family home existed. Photo: Sabah Gurmat

While construction and painting are still ongoing in Ayodhya’s three main roads now known as the ‘Ram Path’, ‘Ram Janmabhoomi Path’ and ‘Bhakti Path’, an estimate of between 4,000 and 4,500 shops and homes have been broken down or displaced, according to Nand Kumar Gupta who heads the Ayodhya Udyog Vyapar Mandal traders’ union.

In Jalpa, women like Sumitra Devi claimed to have “protested at first”, but have now been silenced into submission. Like Rakesh and Satya Prakash Gupta, she too owned a home and shop selling general supplies, only to see it razed. When contacted, the office of Ayodhya Development Authority’s chairman Vishal Singh said that questions of compensation and road-building were under the district magistrate and PWD department’s office. The Wire has reached out to them for a comment and this story shall be updated when they respond.

For Muslim-owned businesses, it’s not just economic loss and damages

Even as the lack of fair compensation has led to a sense of disillusionment, many shop owners like the Guptas continued to echo the belief that the temple would bring in an influx of religious tourism and cash flow. Despite his own resentment at the loss of his home and shop, Rakesh Kumar Gupta expressed enthusiasm for the Ram temple.

“We are Hindus, there is no question about our beliefs in the Ram temple,” he said, adding that he was a child who witnessed firsthand when violence broke out as karsevaks demolished the Babri mosque on December 6, 1992. “That was bound to happen,” he said, but refused to comment on whether he endorsed the violence that ensued. To those like him, the temple itself feels like a matter of personal faith and belief for Lord Ram, separate from their scrambling to save their demolished homes and businesses destroyed under the proposed development plan for the town.

But others are not so sure, with Muslim-owned businesses having incurred losses not only in the process of construction work, but also as the promise of a temple town brings with it the exclusion of certain professions and communities. Virtually every shop in Ayodhya’s Bakra Mandi locality has been shut for the past week, with butchers from the area claiming that supplies that came from Bareilly have stopped.

“There’s no official notice or orders, we ourselves have stopped work for this week because devotees from all over India will be coming here, and we don’t want to offend anyone in a way that’ll cause harm to our shops,” said Farid Qureshi, who emphasised that the decision was taken of their own accord.

The state government has meanwhile issued orders for the closure of all meat shops in the state on January 22. Chief secretary D.S. Mishra reportedly directed all district magistrates to order meat and alcohol shops to remain shut for the day. While chief minister Adityanath has repeatedly emphasised in the past that the sale of meat and liquor will be banned for good in the “dharamnagri” of Ayodhya, so far there has been no official order to that effect.

“There has been a prohibition on selling non-veg and alcohol for the 4-5 km radius around the temple, this has been the case for decades even under the Samajwadi Party government,” a local butcher told The Wire. But it’s the start of notices and increase in talks with district administration that has many worried that this prohibition is expected to be expanded to 15 km.

Mohammad Irfan, a meat-supplier and activist affiliated to the Tanzimul Quraish union of meat-sellers, said that as of now, the Food Security and Drug Administration department had sent notice regarding a ban on the sale of freshly cut meat in the open. “We have been told not to cut meat in the open on the roads since it is a holy town, but to instead sell packaged frozen meat. There is no ban on meat as such yet, but we do not know what’ll happen ultimately. It’s all going to become clear after the 22nd of January,” he noted.

A photo of the latest notice issued regarding guidelines for the sale of meat, even as no official ban exists. Photo: Special arrangement

Despite no official ban, an estimated 150 to 175 butchers and shops have been hit by the FSDA norms. Irfan pointed out that the decision could affect the livelihood of more than 500 families, especially causing job losses to those establishments with “3-4 extra hands working in each shop”.

In Niyawan, Faizan Qureshi, who continues to operate his shop and sell freshly cut meat for now, expressed concern that his employees would lose out. “They say it’s a holy place, so we should respect sentiments by not cutting or displaying meat in the open. I understand that for the area near the temple, but how can they extend this for up to 15 km? Even if I can afford to switch to prepackaged and frozen meat, then I will need less manpower and will have to fire the other staff,” he said.

Qureshi also believes that such a ban, if implemented, wouldn’t sustain in correlation with the rise in hotels and real estate ventures. With hotel chains like the Radisson, Oberoi and Taj groups having already begun or lining up to set up shop in the town, the young meat seller still holds hope that ongoing talks with district authorities could see fruition.

Yet, it’s not just the Muslim-dominated meat trade which could see prospects dim, as a climate of fear and chilling effect looms over the nearly four lakh Muslims in the region even otherwise. In Asharfi Bhavan, a neighbourhood located close to the Ram Janmabhoomi complex, rumours are abuzz that the proximity to the temple can cause physical and communal tensions to simmer.

“This area was targeted in 1992, there are many Muslim families living here. I wasn’t born back then, but me and my cousins are worried that devotees from outside can come and try provoking people here on purpose,” said 24-year-old Mohammad Aamir.

Rising fears and forced uniformity

As tensions heighten across the town, reports suggest that residents have demanded police protection and additional security measures in “sensitive” neighbourhoods like Verma Colony, Tedhi Bazar and Baheliya Tola neighbourhoods beside the AC Masjid and the Asharfi Bhawan water tank, among other places, all of which saw communal violence in 1992 as well.

Across the arterial roads as well, every shop’s shutter has been painted a uniform set of Hindu religious symbols and iconography from the Ramayana. MH, a Muslim shopkeeper who did not wish to disclose his name, told The Wire that he was given a list of “five to six options of symbols to choose from, including a mace, shankh (conch), swastika, Jai Shri Ram slogan, and damru”, by the contractors who had come to paint. He chose a symbol of the mace, with another Muslim shopowner in the lane opting for a damru.

Across Ayodhya’s arterial roads, the shutters of every shop bears religious iconography from the Ramayana, with a uniformly planned look. Photo: Sabah Gurmat

Even as several across the country watch the consecration and its aftermath with bated breath, these spatial changes and socio-economic losses experienced by Ayodhya’s locals leave several questions. ZR, a Muslim man in his 40s who runs a marble and tiles business, said in resignation that they had “no choice but to comply” because all of this is part of the redevelopment and new layout.

He added, “Everyone is talking about the airport and hotels, about Amitabh Bachchan coming here and buying property now. But what about us locals? And not just Muslims, even Hindu shopkeepers have suffered. Homes and shops have been demolished, the entire look and feel of the place has been changed and forced to look all alike. Will this development bring back all these livelihoods?”

Sabah Gurmat is an independent journalist based in New Delhi.