The 500-km-long high-speed rail link promises to cut travel time between the financial hub of Mumbai and the industrial city of Ahmedabad in Gujarat by more than half to under three hours.
The project, inaugurated earlier this month, will need about 2,000 acres of land. The government has said it will complete the line by 2022, even as farmers along the proposed route held protests against giving up their land.
They may have little say in the matter, as the state has a legal right to take private property for public purposes. But analysts say the definition of what constitutes public purpose needs revisiting, even for infrastructure projects. "When projects - airports, private colleges, bullet trains - benefit only a small percentage of the population, some debate over public purpose needs to be had, for moral if not legal reasons," said Aseem Shrivastava, an environmental economist. "When the state is brokering land deals, should only the state decide what is public purpose?"
A law passed in 2013 was meant to protect the rights of farmers, ensuring consensus over land acquisitions, rehabilitation for those displaced, and adequate compensation.
But several states have diluted these provisions to speed up acquisitions.
But land rights experts say defining such projects as public purpose leaves vulnerable people with little judicial recourse. "To say that jobs are created by setting up a factory, and that therefore it is public purpose, is a facetious argument," Mr Shrivastava told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
In a rare victory for campaigners, the Supreme Court last year ruled that land purchased for a Tata Motors factory in West Bengal could not be deemed to have been acquired for a "public purpose" and must be returned to farmers.
In an analysis of all land acquisition cases decided by the Supreme Court from 1950, the top court invalidated the government's view of public purpose in less than 1 percent of cases, according to think tank Centre for Policy Research."We have a virtual laundry list of what makes up public purpose now," said Namita Wahi, director of the centre's Land Rights Initiative. "This permissive interpretation is very problematic."
(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran, Editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)