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Inside the SEZ cauldron

By Anosh Malekar

Our correspondent reports on the “historic” referendum in 22 villages of Raigad district, Maharashtra, where on September 21 over 6,000 landholders voted against the acquisition of their lands for an SEZ. The farmers insist they want to continue farming. But will they hold out when the compensation package is upped? And will the promised waters from the Hetavane dam flow into their fields before they sell out?

Maha-Mumbai Special Economic Zone

Early in the morning on September 21, 2008 I was on my way to the small town of Pen in Raigad district on the Konkan coast. I had to be there by 8 am to catch the early action as 22 villages in Pen tehsil participated in a landmark referendum on the Maha-Mumbai Special Economic Zone (MMSEZ). This ‘first-of-its-kind’ voting exercise in the country would not only impact the future of the ‘world’s largest privately developed SEZ’ with total investments estimated at Rs 400,000 crore, but could set a trend for contentious industrial projects across the country like the recent one at Singur in West Bengal to manufacture the world’s cheapest car.

Anti-SEZ activists in Pen suggested I take the expressway rather than the old Mumbai-Pune highway. “It will take you hardly two hours by the expressway. You exit it at Khopoli and then take the state highway to Pen,” said Govardhan Patil of the anti-SEZ action committee. Patil was concerned I would miss the ‘historic moment’.

I couldn’t help but notice the irony. Over a decade ago, in June 1997 to be precise, I had covered an agitation of farmers opposed to the acquisition of their lands by the state government to build this very same expressway that would reduce travel time between the cities of Mumbai and Pune. Now, here were the anti-SEZ activists insisting that I use the expressway!

The battle lines are drawn with each project announcement. Then follow the agitations against land acquisition and for adequate compensation. In Pen, the battle lines have been drawn over almost a decade. The Konkan region is a narrow strip of land, about 50 km at its widest, with the Sahyadri mountain range of the Western Ghats forming the eastern boundary and the Arabian Sea marking the western boundary. It stretches from Raigad in Maharashtra to Mangalore in Karnataka. Raigad district has been under pressure to urbanise since the 1990s due to its proximity with Mumbai. The Khalapur, Panvel and Uran tehsils of Raigad district are included in Mumbai region’s development plan which talks of industrialisation and the development of tourist spots.

The immediate cause for concern in Pen tehsil is Reliance Industries’ multi-product SEZ. The location of the MMSEZ, which is now divided into two zones called Navi Mumbai SEZ and Mumbai SEZ, is approximately 6 to 8 km from the Dronagiri node in Navi Mumbai and about 60 km from South Mumbai. The two zones are conceived and developed as “a futuristic business hub and global gateway for trade, commerce, industry, service activities and tourism in India”.

The Navi Mumbai SEZ is a joint venture with City & Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO), a nodal agency of the Maharashtra government, which has most of the required 2,140 hectares of land in its possession. The Mumbai SEZ will be developed by Mumbai SEZ Limited, promoted by Mukesh Ambani, Anand Jain and Jai Corp, and involves the acquisition of 10,000 hectares across 45 villages in Pen (24 villages), Uran (20 villages) and Panvel (1 village). The promoters have offered Rs 10 lakh an acre for productive land, 5 lakh for unproductive plots, employment, and a 12.5% stake in the developed zone. The state government has invoked the Land Acquisition Act which allows acquisition of land for ‘public interest projects’.

The decision to seek a people’s referendum was announced by the government early-August 2008 after some 40 agitations sustained over three years by the local landholders seeking exclusion of about 3,100 hectares spanning 22 villages that fall in the command area of a dam in Pen tehsil. The premise, as articulated in local Marathi daily Krushivel, was that the 22 villages to be ‘sacrificed’ for the SEZ were actually earmarked for irrigation by the Hetawane irrigation project under construction since 1988.

Krushivel editor S M Deshmukh says the people of Pen have had their hopes pinned on the dam waters for the past two decades. A senior irrigation officer says that the dam waters would be available for agricultural use soon. “Nearly 31,000 million cubic metres (TMC) of the dam’s 137 TMC capacity has been reserved for irrigation. Only 4% of the dam work is left and the canals will be completed by this year-end,” the officer adds.

landholders voted against the acquisition

Deshmukh says: “The irrigation authorities had, in an official communication dated September 13, 2006, objected to agricultural land being acquired for the SEZ from the command area of Hetawane, which holds the potential to irrigate 6,668 hectares across 53 villages in the tehsil and includes the 22 villages. The cost of the project as on date is Rs 329.90 crore. All of it will be wasted if villagers are forced to surrender their agricultural land for the SEZ.”

Like the rest of the Konkan region, Raigad is a rice cultivating area. Agriculture department figures for the district show that of total foodgrain production in 1960-61 and 2001-02, rice constituted 90.51% and 95.07% respectively. Per hectare yield of rice in 1960-61 was 1,487 kg, which rose to 2,669 kg in 2001-02. There is deep pride in the produce of the land among the Pen farmers who insist on showing you their portions of the vast expanse of paddy fields lining the horizon. “Our land is so rich and fertile. Can you believe the government calls this saline and barren land, just to promote an SEZ,” says Vishwas Mhatre of Mothe Vadhav village.

Mhatre says: “Generations have toiled to transform the saline soil to fertile arable land. How can anyone take it away from us now?” Agriculture department officials say the soils of this region are extremely saline in the vicinity of the creeks and non-saline at other places. The non-saline land, besides producing a single paddy crop during the monsoon, grows little else except some mango and coconut, and limited vegetables. Only those with well-irrigation facility go for legumes like 'tur' and beans. The saline soils or ‘khar’ soils formed due to the deposition of salts by the sea are traditionally used to produce natural salt.

The creeks provide fish, crabs and prawns, though the quantities of each are not significant. Surplus, if any, from domestic consumption is sold in markets at Belapur and Thane. In recent years, there has been a drastic decline in the catch due to increased pollution and overfishing. With the advent of industries and growing urbanisation in the region, and with consequent deterioration of water quality, agriculture too is under threat. The only hope for the farmers appears to be the water from the Hetawane project. Kamlakar Vartak, a farmer and police patil of Mothe Vadhav, says: “I’ve always wanted to harvest multiple crops and the dam waters will make it possible. The only hurdle is the SEZ, which threatens to eat up our land before the water reaches us.”

“We know so many people from our villages who have become beggars after selling their land. We farmers are not good with money; the few lakhs will get blown up in a year or two. So we want to stick to our lands even if we lose crores in the bargain,” adds Vartak as he does the rounds of the 700-odd houses in his village urging the residents to vote against the SEZ. By 10 am, 51 of the 1,848 land titleholders in Mothe Vadhav had turned out to record their statements. Starting at 8 am, the referendum process conducted by the district administration continued till 5 pm at 23 Zilla Parishad schools in the 22 villages.

The streets here are usually deserted on weekends, except for those shopping for the week’s groceries and some meat for a special Sunday meal, says Prakash Mhatre, former deputy sarpanch of Vashi village and an activist of Peasants’ and Workers’ Party (PWP), a Maharashtra-based party that counts Raigad as one of its strongholds. “Look at the response today to our call to vote out the SEZ,” Mhatre says, pointing to the narrow village streets crowded with onlookers and sundry activists of the anti-SEZ committee.

he farmers insist they want to continue farming

The strong police and media presence lent itself to the general atmosphere of tense anticipation on the streets. The Raigad district police authorities are clearly on guard with as many as 45 officers and 500-odd constables deployed for bandobast. The prominent activists are making the most of the battery of television cameras and curious locals surrounding them. The second-rung activists are busy doing the rounds of the 23 Zilla Parishad schools, most of them modest village structures and some in a dilapidated state, serving as polling booths.

Mhatre explains: “This is the culmination of a three-year battle against the might of global corporations. At the end of the day we would have defeated them. The few locals nurtured by Reliance as their agents will have to either join us or leave the tehsil.” The former deputy sarpanch says he too was initially impressed by the grand SEZ plan. But better sense prevailed and he converted to the anti-SEZ side.

Locals say Reliance officials were always discreet in their dealings with them and mostly operated through local agents, sponsoring health and eye-camps, and funding popular celebrations like the Ganpati festival. The government machinery was hand-in-glove with the corporates and had obliged by writing off the agricultural lands as saline area. Hence local activists were on the alert to thwart any bid to sabotage the referendum.

The anti-SEZ activists were hunting out and silencing pro-SEZ voices in the crowds at Vadhav and Vashi villages. More dramatic was the gag on the media, which was prevented from entering Kaleshri village. Every vehicle was checked at the single entry point by groups of young men who felt no one had really bothered about them for the past three years. “This action was in the public interest. Because Kaleshri is D M Patil’s village,” explains Mhatre. Patil is president of the Nationalist Congress Party’s Pen unit and is known for his pro-SEZ activities. I later learnt that three Reliance agents too were manhandled and forced to leave Vadhav village.

As I stood watching the drama unfold before my eyes in Vashi village, a youth approached me for a sip from the water bottle I was carrying. “This must be a good time-pass for you on a Sunday,” he quips, giving me a drunken smile. He owns a six-seater minidor, a popular public transport mode operating privately in rural Maharashtra. His vehicle is idle and so is he. That’s the reason he chose to drink early in the morning. “The activists owning vehicles won’t allow us to operate. It is a sensitive matter here, especially when voting is underway. Everybody wants to transport their supporters, and sabotage the opposition, you know,” he gives me a knowing smile.

Except for these minor glitches, the referendum process was on peacefully till noon. Then, suddenly there was confusion. The land titleholders began to question the validity of their votes as the polling staff at the booths were refusing to stamp the voting forms. Some activists contacted the district collector who clarified that the forms would be taken back to the tehsildar and would be duly stamped. However, as proof of voting, the polling officials were directed to acknowledge the forms or statements submitted as votes.

The referendum exercise had no formal ballots, only a format. The district administration had asked the land titleholders to give in writing their responses to three queries -- do they support the SEZ; are they willing to give up their land for the SEZ; and reasons for saying yes or no. The land titleholders responded in printed formats handed to them by the anti-SEZ activists. They came in three colours; the white copy was for the administration, the pink was for the activists’ record, and the peach-coloured was for the voter to keep.

It was a signed statement: “I (name of the landholder) oppose giving my land for the SEZ. As per its assurance, the government should exclude the area under irrigation from the SEZ and withdraw the land acquisition process. Also, they should withdraw the notification of land acquisition and cancel the SEZ. My family members and I have decided to do farming and farm-related business on our land. I am giving this statement by my consent without any pressure.”

Some pro-SEZ agents also distributed printed forms, which mentioned around 10 conditions that needed to be met by the promoters of the SEZ before a farmer agreed to sell his land. The conditions were; greater transparency in releasing details of the SEZ, a price of Rs 1 crore per acre, 15% stake in the developed land, direct jobs in the SEZ or a sustenance allowance of Rs 10 lakh, and Rs 250 daily allowance for landless labourers.

By evening, 6,151 people of the total 30,057 land titleholders in the 22 concerned villages had taken part in the referendum. The majority of them have sought exclusion from the SEZ project as is apparent from the peach-coloured copies they were carrying home. “We don’t want Reliance here. Instead the government should take the responsibility of irrigating our agricultural land and help us set up income-generation activities like poultry and fish farming,” says Sadashiv Mhatre and his young son, Ganesh.

Anti-SEZ activists claim that trends at the end of the day indicated that 90% of the land titleholders were against giving up their land. “The mood in the 22 villages appeared to be strongly against the SEZ,” says senior activist Ulka Mahajan. However, a Reliance official claimed that the rather low turnout rendered the entire exercise meaningless. In Mumbai, Mukesh Ambani himself welcomed the referendum. “We must have the trust of people. Referendum is a good thing. It increases transparency…We would also only want to deal with willing sellers," he says as reported by the Press Trust of India.

The verdict on the Reliance SEZ has been sealed for now. According to Raigad district collector Nipun Vinayak: “We will collate the data and send a report to the state government within a fortnight.” PWP veteran leader N D Patil, who was instrumental in pursuing the state government to hold the referendum, says: “We had earlier forwarded 24,000 objections to the SEZ, but the government tried to go ahead with the acquisition. Now they have felt the need to seek opinions from the land titleholders directly. We welcomed it.”

Patil was confident it was time for Reliance to hunt for land somewhere else. “There are 17,000 hectares of uncultivable land in the state. Why do you want to take fertile land for your SEZ? During the last six years, the government and the promoters have succeeded in acquiring only 13% of the land. I won't be surprised if the company declares an enhanced compensation package in the next two or three days.” Former High Court judge Justice B G Kolse Patil adds, “RIL has spent hundreds of crores on purchasing each acre of land for the Bandra Kurla Complex. Here they are paying a measly Rs 10 lakh per acre for such fertile land. They know tomorrow this land will be prime real estate after the construction of the Sewri-Nhava Sheva sea link.”

An official source in Mantralaya in Mumbai believes that the issue of setting up the SEZ remains open. The High Court has deferred its hearing on a petition by Reliance Industries Limited asking for a stay on the referendum in Pen. The state administration has clarified that there were only hearings from farmers on their opinions regarding the SEZ, says the official, insisting that public opinion is not the only issue that holds the key to the fate of the project.

The state government is also awaiting a report from the irrigation department, which will reveal the status of the Hetawane dam, before taking a final decision on inclusion of these 22 villages in the SEZ. This report is expected later this month. The official, who did not wish to be named, says: “The Hetawane dam is mostly complete. But it can be used to capacity only when the canals are finally laid. And priorities in allocation of water have changed over the years. Earlier, agriculture had top priority. Now the bulk of the water is used for drinking purpose. The second priority is industry and the third is agriculture now. The allocation worked out by the irrigation department follows this protocol.”

Since 2001, the Hetawane dam has been supplying water to CIDCO in Navi Mumbai under a contract of permanent validity. The irrigation department is in the process of signing permanent or time-bound agreements for supply of water with other industries and development projects like the Mumbai SEZ itself. “These contracts are in the process of being finalised and they are unlikely to undergo any change,” says the official.

Apparently, the state government is only playing it safe, not wanting to alienate the people in the process of setting up an SEZ. The social impact assessment of MMSEZ, carried out by Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in 2005, has advised against total alienation of the project affected peoples (PAPs) from their lands. But officials also point out what Dr Abdul Shaban of TISS, who has co-authored the impact assessment report along with R N Sharma, had to say: "There is an urgent need to transform life in the rural areas and there was no need for romanticising village life. In case development is denied, after 10 years the same villages would revolt on seeing their stagnation."

The irony of it all is too obvious to miss.

Infochange News & Features, September 2008