Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Residents of Nakhon


Residents of Nakhon

Nayok's tranquil Ban Na district wonder whether Thaksin's plans to build a new city there will ever come to fruition.

Remember the days when you were busy catching up with the new projects and initiatives launched when Thaksin Shinawatra was in power? Apart from a variety of populist schemes, there was also a series of megaprojects which always sparked debate in society.

However, after the Sept 19, 2006 coup which ousted Mr Thaksin's government, the fate of these controversial projects was left hanging in the balance and many have wondered what is happening with them.

One of the deposed prime minister's ambitious plans was the creation of the ''new town'' project in Nakhon Nayok's Ban Na district.

Located about 100km northeast of Bangkok, Ban Na _ which literally means ''home of paddy fields'' _ is a little world of its own where farmers work all day in paddy fields and buffalos graze on grassland. Mr Thaksin planned to turn this farmland district into a modern metropolis. He even coined a name for it _Nakhon Nayok Muang Mai, or New Town.

After all the publicity given to Mr Thaksin's plans for the area, land prices increased tenfold to as much as one million baht per rai, especially in the central parts of the district, with most of the property speculators coming from Bangkok.

''The New Town project was good news to me,'' says Charoenporn Bamrungkij, the kamnan of tambon Ban Na. He was among groups of local and provincial leaders who enthusiastically attended meetings at the provincial hall last year to discuss the project.

The 47-year-old kamnan started to compile a list of land owners in the tambon who want to sell their plots of land to build New Town.

''I still have the list of land owners who want to sell about 500 to 600 rai of land altogether,'' he says.

Plots of land located far from roads may have sold for 200,000 to 300,000 baht per rai, while those plots closer to roads may have sold for up to one million baht per rai.

''Now I really don't know what has become of that project,'' says Mr Charoenporn.

To cater to the ever increasing population of Bangkok, which now has more than nine million people, the Thaksin administration initiated the new city project on approximately 60,000 rai of land in Ban Na district, plus some adjacent areas of Wihan Daeng and Kaeng Khoi districts of Saraburi.

However, not much progress has been made with urban planning. The town planning has been altered time and again along with changes to cabinet members in charge of the project, not to mention the change of government after the coup.

Former interior minister Wan Muhammad Nor Matha was the first to supervise the scheme. He once said the new city would be modelled on Japan's Tama district, where government offices, public schools, hospitals and first-class hotels would be built.

Then, following a cabinet reshuffle, former deputy prime minister Visanu Krue-Ngam came up with the idea of making it a satellite town of Bangkok where an information technology centre would be built.

Imitating 'cyber cities' abroad, under Mr Visanu's plan the Ban Na IT town would be divided into four zones.

Zone 1 would house a residential area, Zone 2 would be a cultural zone featuring sports and entertainment complexes, Zone 3 would become a commercial complex and Zone 4 would house libraries and schools. But that plan went nowhere and ended in inconclusive seminars.

The last time villagers in Nakhon Nayok heard about the stalled project was in March, 2006, when Mr Thaksin, then the caretaker prime minister, pledged to revive it during his election campaign in the central and eastern regions. The former Thai Rak Thai leader insisted he would bring prosperity to the whole province by reviving the new city project, which would have such mass transit systems as a skytrain and high-speed train.

Since the end of the Thaksin government, the Ban Na city project has apparently been shelved again.

Nobody has heard anything about it. Officials and residents of Nakhon Nayok assumed the entire project had finally been scrapped.

However, relevant agencies insisted the heavily-promoted project was still alive.

''The project has not been scrapped. It's just been shelved temporarily,'' said Suporn Vechakorn, an official at the Department of Public Works and Town and Country Planning.

''In fact, we have already finished the concept design of the new town,'' she said, adding that the design and planning sheets had already been forwarded to the Office of the Public Sector Development Commission.

To save costs on land expropriation, the committee _ consisting of officials of the Nakhon Nayok provincial hall and the Department of Public Works and Town and Country Planning _ resolved not to build major facilities or a government office centre on any privately owned plots of land, she said.

To turn Ban Na district's paddy fields into a modern town, the committee plans to build a mass transit system in addition to existing roads and highways. The mass transit system has been designed to link the new town with the capital city and Suvarnabhumi international airport.

''Among those mass transit systems which we have planned is a high-speed train like the one in Shanghai, China,'' she said.

Confirmation by the relevant agencies that Mr Thaksin's project is not dead, and the likelihood that the Thaksin-backed People Power party will form the next government, might give new hope to those eager to reap benefits from such a megaproject. But those who don't want to see the tranquil, green district of Ban Na transformed into another metropolis, or don't want to see vast amounts of taxpayers' money spent on the new town, will have to pray that the new government will not dust off the project.

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