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Tossed aside in the fast lane to growth

By Manshi Asher

Case studies from Gujarat, the SEZ capital of India, where vast tracts of land have transitioned from agricultural to non-agricultural use. The losers are not the landowners but nomadic pastoralists, small livestock farmers and dalit agricultural labourers who did not own land but were still dependent on it

 

 

Vallabhbhai, a young Patel farmer of Jaswantpura village in Bhavnagar district, Gujarat, zooms into his courtyard on a new Enfield. With saffron ribbons in one hand and BJP flyers in the other, he exudes confidence as he walks into his spartan cowshed and seats himself on a rickety wooden chair. "The state Assembly elections are around the corner. The ribbons are for those who support the BJP and extra ones for those who we plan to convert into supporters," he explains. But the prosperous look is not merely to do with his alliance with the ruling party which subsequently won the elections for a third term. Vallabhbhai, the son of a big farmer, is also the agent for anyone who wants to buy land, which is in great demand these days in Jaswantpura.

Says Kantibhai Patel, Vallabh's father: "Almost 50% of the private land in the village has been bought off by a mota seth (literally translating to 'big rich man') from Kutch. He offered us almost Rs 1 to 1.5 lakh a bigha." But Kantibhai was smart enough to hold his own land back. He says he will not sell his land for anything less than Rs 2 lakh a bigha. "We know that a project is coming up here and will wait for the rates to go up." The project he is referring to is a private port and SEZ spread over 1,000 hectares, being set up by the Adani group at Dholera near Bhavnagar.

Land in the area is being bought by different sets of people, at varying rates. A smaller farmer from the same village, Dharam Singh, sold 15 bighas of land at Rs 54,000 per bigha three months ago to Rajubhai Jain, an agent from a nearby village. In turn, he bought about 20 bighas at a price of Rs 12,000 per bigha from a dalit family in another taluka. "We still have some land here, and our home, so we continue living here. We will stay here until the project comes." Devuben Pandya, of a small NGO called Mahiti based in Dholera, says: "About 25 villages from three talukas -- Dhanduka, Dhodka and Bhavnagar -- are expected to be affected by the SEZ." So far, the Land Acquisition Act 1894 is not being used to acquire land from the villagers, but land purchase and speculation is at an all-time high.

But why are the farmers eager to sell their agricultural land?

This region is known to be a tidal flat area, with seawater inundating huge areas of land during high tide and rainwater inundating it in the monsoons. Villages where agriculture is the main occupation are located on the periphery of the tidal flats. Over the years, as more and more lands are rendered infertile due to saline ingress, these communities, especially households with smaller landholdings, have been dependent on daily wages in nearby towns and cities. The salinity issue has remained unaddressed by the government, which sees the area as a potential industrial hub. In 1998, over 600 acres of land were bought here for a chemical complex by Gujarat Heavy Chemicals Ltd. The chemical hub was never developed and the land remained unused. This land will most likely be handed over for the SEZ.

 While there has been a slow and steady decline in agriculture as the mainstay for the Koli Patels, the project will displace other land-based livelihoods too. The tidal flats are inhabited by pastoral nomadic communities, referred to as Jaths, which graze their camels on these lands. The high-salt-content grass is considered good fodder and the scrub forests of the region are famous for their ability to support cattle in times of drought. This community is essentially dependent on common property resources, or grazing lands. The legal status of this land is either revenue wasteland or panchayat grazing land which is being bought directly by companies from the government, irrespective of land-use. "Over the past years we have had to reduce the number of camels. The grazing grounds are shrinking. On the one hand, the forest department does not allow us to graze our animals and on the other are the companies which are building factories. No one even asks us before a project is sanctioned, and there are no provisions for alternative employment for us," says Naseeb Jath. Apart from the Jaths, there are the Bharwads or buffalo-rearers that depend on the fodder grown on farms, and the dalits who are essentially dependent on agricultural labour.

These three communities would be the most vulnerable if lands are diverted for the SEZ. But they have no idea what is in store for them. Vallabhbhai and his father represent the dominant creamy layer of village society in Gujarat. They get their cut on every land deal they mediate. They have party support in ensuring that they do not get 'No' for an answer. They are grassroots symbols of the corporate-government nexus in a state that is in the fast lane of the 'growth' expressway.

In a scenario where the market takes over, the State is no longer the mediator but is reduced to being a bystander. Little wonder then that, last year, in Rajula taluka of Amreli district, a private company actually issued a 'Land Acquisition Notice' to a panchayat, specifying the Khasra numbers of the land it proposed to acquire and demanding that the owners of the land be present on the date notified by the company to deal on the land. The matter was taken to the press and the district collector by the farmers, who had no idea that such a notice had been issued by a private company! When the story was blown up by the media, the company went into damage control mode and issued another letter to the panchayat withdrawing the first notice but still appealing for land. "The company officials even had the gall to actually visit the villages, expecting to discuss the matter on the dates proposed in the first notice issued by them. After they were given the cold shoulder they have been attempting to negotiate for land through some agents in the nearby villages," says Chetan Vyas, a resident of the area.

Today, Rajula taluka is an upcoming industrial hub in south Gujarat. A coastal region, this taluka is where Pipavav port, developed over the past 15 years by Gujarat Pipavav Port Limited (GPPL), is located. The area has five jetties and one more under construction. Proposed projects in the area include a thermal power plant by Ultratech, GPPC's gas-based power plant, Visa Power's power project, a project by Videocon and others. Two power plants are already operational in the area. An SEZ project is also being considered. Twenty villages that lie along the Pipavav coast have been and will be directly affected by the industrial 'development'.

The trend of selling land to industries started with the Ultratech cement plant. The landed groups sold off their land and bought land in the uplands of the district from the Bharwads and Koli Patels at much lower rates. Some of them took up contracts in the packaging and ancillary units in GPPL. Most of them shifted out of the villages and moved to Rajula town. It is essentially communities dependent on marginal farming, fishing and livestock-rearing, which had no land to sell but were dependent on it anyway, that have had the most problems. Some of the key issues they face include air pollution (from the thermal power plants), encroachments on grazing lands by GPPL through the dumping of solid waste, restrictions on mobility on a day-to-day basis, and appropriation of fishing grounds by the port area. The Agariyas, a 'lower-caste' community comprising saltpan workers, are also affected as saltpan lands too are being taken over by industry.

But then the state of Gujarat does not always play the silent spectator. It chooses to intervene when it thinks it appropriate -- mostly in favour of companies. Shailendra Khalasi, a resident of Hazeera, now an industrial area a few kilometres from Surat city, says: "Essar Steel came to Hazeera in 1990 and the first response of the people was to oppose the project. They wanted to purchase agricultural lands but people were absolutely not ready to sell. It was then that the government, through the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation (GIDC), took on the responsibility of acquiring the lands using the Land Acquisition Act 1894." Today, Essar has been granted SEZ status and has spread itself over about 25% of the land in Hazeera. Essar opened the floodgates for other companies like ONGC, Ultratech, Reliance, NTPC, NICO, Shell, GSPC and others.

And what happened to all the farmers and other residents in the area?

 The richest in the village moved to Surat city; the rest used up the compensation money in house renovation, buying vehicles and setting up paan-beedi shops. Only around 10% of the local population is engaged in direct economic activity related to the companies. With the increasing takeover of natural resources, traditional livelihoods have been more or less lost. The biggest loss has been the fishing-based livelihoods of the Khalasis. "Not only did we lose areas to fish in and our routes were blocked, but with Essar letting their effluents out into the Tapi estuary the catch has reduced and the fish aren't even edible anymore." In the last few years there have been seven cases of suicide within the Khalasi community alone.

Additionally, the air pollution, dust and fly ash released from the steel plant have affected productivity in the remaining fields. In fact this is how more and more lands enter the revenue records as 'uncultivable wastelands' open for diversion to non-agricultural purposes in most industrial areas. "Hazeera was famous in Surat for its vegetables; now we have to buy vegetables from Surat since all the vegetables get covered in dust and production has sharply declined," says Aruna Patel, explaining how the 2.5 acres of land that her father retained after selling the rest have been rendered useless due to the dumping of waste and excessive pollution.

The Halapatis, a dalit community, are amongst the poorest communities in the area who worked essentially as agricultural labour. They were not eligible for any compensation, but were rendered jobless. The most vulnerable are the women. Says Sudha Prajapati from Mora village, where the migrant population outnumbers locals: "With increasing in-migration, a whole new set of social problems has emerged. The poorest women, especially widows and single women, sold small amounts of land and built up quarters which they have rented out to the migrants. Sexual exploitation of women is common. Those who have no choice sell themselves for just Rs 5 a night."

Gujarat may have been rated as the "safest" state for corporate investors, but whether it is so for its own people is doubtful. Salim Lambu of Sukhpar village in Mundra taluka, Kutch, where the Adanis are setting up their sprawling port and SEZ, says: "The people of Mundra have gained nothing from this project." The Waghers, a Muslim fishing community in the area, are losing their access to traditional fishing harbours with the setting up of the Mundra port and SEZ at one end and the expanding Kandla port and SEZ on the other. "As it is the dominant majority (Hindu Jains) considers fishing an immoral occupation. If we stand up to protest we are referred to as 'terrorists'," Salim adds. In the case of the Adani port and SEZ, most of the land used has been revenue wasteland, forest and grazing lands or private land directly purchased by the company. Each one of these land categories was being used by the local communities for their day-to-day survival, as in the other cases. But the additional issue that this specific SEZ raises is the purchase of land in parts -- first for the port, then ancillary activities, followed by container stations, power plant, railhead and airport. All this together would be part of one SEZ project (which has now been split into two) and ideally should have had a single master plan approved and cleared by various government departments to start with. Instead, the company, which first came into the area in the mid-1990s with a plan for a jetty, has, on a piecemeal basis, expanded its territory as and how it wished, flouting even the basic conditions under which it was granted land by the revenue department.

A study by the Vadodara-based Centre for Culture and Development (CCD) states that 32 lakh hectares of land were used up for development projects in Gujarat between 1947 and 2004, as a result of which 2 million people, a good 5% of the state's population, were displaced. In light of the above examples, if displacement is seen as more than the number of physically displaced, the figure would probably be much higher. In order to gauge the real impact of a project, any displacement of livelihoods as a result of appropriation and diversion of resources (including land) from their traditional (and original) use, whether or not it involves 'land acquisition' and moving populations out of the proposed project area needs to be taken into account. This must be done before a project is sanctioned. The question is: who will make a fair assessment? The State, which is obsessed only with economic growth rates?

(Manshi Asher is an independent researcher and campaigner)

InfoChange News & Features, April 2008