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'Instead of Special Economic Zones, why not Special Agricultural Zones?'

By Meena Menon

Resentment against the Mumbai Special Economic Zone has been building up in Pen, Uran and Panvel talukas of Raigad district, where over 10,000 hectares of land across 45 villages are being acquired. Thousands have filed objections to the land acquisition notices, asking why their lands and livelihoods should be sacrificed to promote world trade

‘India’s new farmers!’ screams a glossy business magazine cover, with pictures of industrialists Mukesh Ambani and Sunil Mittal. ‘The Big Indian Land Rush’ is the cover of another business weekly, with highlights, in red, on how much land corporate houses are acquiring for Special Economic Zones (SEZs). Along with agribusiness, SEZ is the big new buzzword in corporate circles, and in the media too.

While these new Indian farmers are being hailed, the existing ones seem all but forgotten. However, farmers’ struggles are intensifying and have attracted a lot of political support as well -- at Singur in West Bengal, for instance, things have reached a flashpoint, making national headlines. In fact, reports in the media seem to suggest that farming in India is not lucrative any more, using the spate of farmer suicides, poor soil quality and increasing land erosion or salinity to illustrate the point.

No one is asking the farmers what they think of the whole idea. There is little mention of the kind of land that is being acquired, how the acquisition will affect the people concerned, and where all the displaced farmers will go after they get their compensation, generous as it may be. On the other hand, there was a debate about how single-crop land can be acquired for SEZs. Such is the arbitrary nature of what is legitimate and what is not, as far as SEZs are concerned. 

The imperious manner in which legislation relating to SEZs was passed last year, and the way the government is going about acquiring land under the Land Acquisition Act for corporate houses to set up duty-free trade and real estate zones, are worth thinking about. The more one thinks, the less reason one finds for the government’s actions. The Special Economic Zone (SEZ) Act 2005 was passed without debate or discussion. There is no provision for a public hearing or for an environment impact assessment. Now the Left has woken up and is demanding changes in the Act. Yet the SEZ Act is a mere complement to India’s existing policies on trade and export/import (exim) in the era of globalisation. According to a report by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and Ernst & Young, the SEZ Act has presented a lucrative development alternative for players in the realty business.

The Economic Survey 2005-06 lauds the SEZ Act, saying it provides for very attractive fiscal incentives and tax concessions for developers as well as manufacturers. Other salient features of the law relate to the establishment of free trade and warehousing zones to create world-class trade-related infrastructure, apart from the setting up of a separate authority for each SEZ, to ensure greater administrative autonomy. “The Act will provide confidence and stability to domestic and foreign investors, and signal the government’s commitment to the SEZ policy framework.” (Economic Survey 2005-06)

In a global environment where trade and export are magic mantras, it seems as if nothing can stop the SEZ juggernaut. Of course, there are some rehabilitation plans in the offing, at least in Maharashtra, for SEZ oustees, although they are not yet in the public domain. The state government has also set up committees to examine rehabilitation proposals and determine whether or not so much land is really required for the SEZs. However, there is an implicit understanding within the bureaucracy and the corporate sector that SEZs are inevitable and that, without them, the country cannot really progress. The example of China is always offered as a justification. As a result, the government is refusing to acknowledge the opposition to SEZs from farmers and other local communities.

SEZs will also be “world class” cities for those who can afford them. However, the fate of people already living in these areas is hardly debated. It is likely that villages will become small clusters in a posh urbanised landscape. In the Mumbai SEZ, proposed by the Reliance group in Raigad district, the company claims that people will not be displaced from their houses: only farmland will be acquired and people will be allowed to continue living there. However, the villagers contest this, saying that their movement will be restricted and that they will eventually have to move out. According to the company, the SEZ has been planned to ease the congestion in Mumbai. Not only will there be no displacement, says the company, but infrastructure will be upgraded to improve road connectivity, education and health. In addition, around 25 lakh jobs will be directly or indirectly generated over a period of 10 years.  

The bulk of SEZs approved in India are in Maharashtra, and the number continues to rise. The way clearances are being given and the manner in which SEZs are mushrooming on a daily basis seems slightly unreal. However, the land acquisition notices peremptorily sent to hundreds of people whose lands will be acquired for the proposed SEZs are certainly real. In Raigad, where the Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance group is proposing the 10,000-hectare-plus Mumbai SEZ (earlier called the Mahamumbai SEZ), thousands of farmers have opposed the acquisition of their lands. But the key question is whether or not their opinions will be taken into account.

While SEZs are being touted as engines of economic growth that can boost manufacturing, augment exports and generate employment, the nature of this employment remains a mystery. While guaranteeing “hassle-free” regimes to private parties to develop large tracts of farmland into glitzy real estate areas or industries with an eye on exports, the problems of the farmers are glossed over.

Opposition to SEZs has snowballed all over the country, with more and more people viewing corporates as the new colonisers, aided and abetted by the government. On September 25 every year, the people of Chirner village in Uran taluka, Raigad district, and the surrounding areas, remember the eight martyrs who were killed on that day in 1930 in what has become famous as the Chirner Jungle Satyagraha. A memorial with bronze casts of the eight men, inaugurated last year, is a hallowed spot. This year, the 76th commemorative function was marked by vows of a fresh satyagraha, this time against Reliance.

Resentment against this SEZ has been building up in Pen, Uran and Panvel talukas of Raigad district, where over 10,000 hectares of land, encompassing 45 villages, will be acquired for the purpose. Notices have been sent to over 1 lakh landowners in these villages. Thousands of people have filed objections to the individual notices they have received, under Section 4 (1) of the Land Acquisition Act, which informs them that the state intends to acquire their land for a “public purpose” -- namely the SEZ -- and asks them to file their responses.

Chirner, the land of satyagraha and freedom fighters, is the largest village to be affected, with over 1,400 hectares set to be acquired. “We sent the British packing but they seem to have come back in the guise of Reliance,” says Yeshwant Narangikar who made a special placard for martyrs’ day, asking Reliance to go away. The first the people heard about the project was through a notice in a local paper, on June 19, 2006, which clearly stated that land was being acquired under the Land Acquisition Act 1894, for a public project -- the SEZ. Neither the company nor the government bothered to inform the villagers about the project, let alone take them into confidence, says Santaji Gondhali. “What’s wrong with our area? We have two crops, education, plenty of water. Since the city is close by, we also get jobs. Why does the government want to take away all this,” he asks.

Each village has set up a farmers’ action committee, and two umbrella organisations are spearheading the struggle against the SEZ. Says Savita Subhash Thakur, a gram panchayat member from Chirner: “If we give up our land, what will we eat? They will not give us any jobs and finally we will have to give up our homes. People are willing to sacrifice their lives to oppose this SEZ. Our land is productive and fertile -- why should we give it up to a private company?”

Like most people, Hiraman Patil of Pirkon village thought SEZ was the name of a company that was going to set up a factory in the area. “People did come to survey our village and they kept asking us for various details. They probably worked for Reliance. But now we don’t allow anyone to enter,” he says. A massive morcha in September in Navi Mumbai has only strengthened people’s resolve not to give up their land. About two truckloads of people from Pirkon went to the demonstration.

“People here are clear that they don’t want to give up their land -- we don’t want this money. When we give up land for godowns at the nearby Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust, we at least get jobs as compensation. Can this SEZ give all of us jobs,” asks Patil, a leader of the Shiv Sena. Most people in Pirkon have filed their objections to giving up their land. “Whose side is the government on? Why are they giving a private company so many concessions,” Patil asks.

In Vashi village, Pen taluka, Raigad district, the farmers’ thoughts are far from suicide. Vashi is among the 24 villages in Pen taluka faced with the prospect of its fertile agricultural land being acquired for the Mumbai SEZ. Resistance to the project is fierce here; no official from Reliance can set foot in these parts. Already, Vishesh Arthik Shetra Hatao Sangharsh Samitis (action committees against the SEZ) have been formed in every village in the region. “We will commit hatya (murder), not atmahatya (suicide) like the farmers in Vidarbha,” says Jaywant Madhvi, a Vashi farmer.

The region has witnessed many militant agitations. Over the last two decades, farmers have been fighting for water from the Hetawane dam. Instead of the promised water, they have been offered an SEZ. Janardhan Mhatre, a 72-year-old Gandhian from Vashi village, has been leading the Antyodaya Chalval farmers’ struggle for water from the dam for the past 20 years. There are 52 villages in the command area of the Hetawane project, which was proposed in 1980 to irrigate around 5,750 hectares in the area, apart from providing drinking water to Pen and Navi Mumbai. Although the region enjoys good rainfall and is famous for its rice, farmers here get only a single crop without irrigation.

According to Mhatre, the government has served land-acquisition notices for the SEZ in over 20 of the 52 villages. He claims this is illegal. “There is a law that land located in the command area of an irrigation project cannot be used for any other purpose,” he explains. Since 1983, work has been in progress on the dam, and already Rs 221 crore has been spent on it. Villagers who took out a morcha to the dam authorities in Kalwa, on June 21, 2006 were told in writing that no one could sell land in the command area and that it could not be used for any other purpose without the express permission of the irrigation department. But, at an August 18 meeting between district officials in Raigad and activists, an official clarified that 20 villages in the command area of the Hetawane dam were being acquired for the proposed SEZ. If that happens, all the money spent on the irrigation plan will go waste.

Farmers in the region have their own plans to develop the area once they get water. Mhatre says that if they have irrigation, sugar beet, a five-month crop, could be grown and sugar could be produced locally if the government sets up a processing factory. Also, they could grow basmati if irrigation is assured. “Instead of an SEZ, why not a special agriculture zone (SAZ) for us? Wouldn’t that be more useful?” he asks. Fishing is also a major activity here, and that could be another focus for economic development.

On the drive from Vashi to Mothebhal, lush green paddy fields stretch as far as the eye can see. In the distance are the hills of Uran. In Vithalwadi, on the coast, the fields are nine feet below sea level. People fear that once the SEZ comes up, the inevitable landfills will have an adverse impact on their houses.

In Mothebhal, too, people are hostile. They suspect every vehicle that enters the area, and treat Reliance with disdain. Uppermost in their minds is the drinking water problem. Kusum Mhatre, a former panchayat member, says: “There is no drinking water and sometimes we have to walk up to Vashi, eight kilometres away, for water. In the summer we have to buy water,” she adds. Most of the 1,200 farmers who have got notices for the SEZ oppose the land acquisition. Eighty-five-year-old Ramubai Patil still works for a living. “I am a landless labourer and live by myself. What will happen to people like me? Generations have lived off agriculture, but suddenly the government feels it’s all wrong,” she says. Bhaukamal Mhatre and others say: “We will shed blood but not give up our land. Once we give this up what do we have?” Most people in the area are small and marginal farmers; about 30% of them are landless. “I do not think the SEZ can give us any jobs -- we don’t have the skills or the education they require. So, finally, we will be displaced from here,” says Mhatre. 

The mystery surrounding SEZs and the arbitrary manner in which land is being acquired, without even the semblance of a public debate, have caused a lot of resentment among the already beleaguered farming community. This must be corrected soon if India is to live up to its claims of being a democracy. No democracy can allow large projects to be initiated without a public debate and without the participation of affected people in the discussions and decision-making. If the SEZ Act goes against these democratic principles it needs to be revised, if not repealed. Laws are meant to serve the interests of citizens, not only to enrich industry and encourage world trade.

(Meena Menon is Special Correspondent at The Hindu)

InfoChange News & Features, February 2007