We, the people, say ‘no’

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The push back on the Raigad Special Economic Zone has many lessons. Anyone in government listening?

By Nidhi Jamwal
Freelance Journalist

Illustration: Anand Naorem

BEATING DRUMS and fireworks underline the jubilation in 45 villages of Raigad district in Maharashtra. The occasion: the denotification of the Maha Mumbai special economic zone (SEZ). Over 10,000 hectares allotted for the SEZ are to be restored to farmers from whom it was taken away. Since 2006, when the Centre cleared the SEZ with conditions, farmers in these 45 villages lost rights over their ancestral land. While the SEZ received three extensions from the Central Board of Approval, farmers were legally debarred from transferring, selling, mortgaging, dividing or redeveloping their land.

Jointly promoted by Reliance Industries Ltd chairman Mukesh Ambani and his associate Anand Jain, the SEZ faced strong opposition from the word go. The promoters acquired a part of the land, and the state government was to procure the remaining. In the past four years, the promoters managed to buy merely 14 percent of the land required. When the state government started the land acquisition, farmers erupted in protest, refusing Reliance’s offer of Rs 10 lakh per acre and other benefits for their fertile, irrigated land. For several years, the government had promised them water from the Hetavane dam; just as the dam got completed, the government wanted to take away their land.

In June 2008, 24 villages held a large protest march, blocking the Mumbai-Goa highway. Many villagers were arrested and later released. Protests carried on almost on a daily basis, with ND Patil, senior leader of Peasants and Workers Party, threatening to go on a hunger strike if the state government did not stop the SEZ.

The pressure resulted in the state government deciding to hold a referendum. On 21 September 2008, India’s first referendum on an SEZ happened here. Over 6,000 farmers and landowners from 22 villages voted, with an estimated 90 percent refusing to part with their land. The state government has not made public the final result of the referendum.

The promoters objected, moving the Bombay High Court. They claimed they had already invested Rs. 573 crore. After the high court turned them away, they appealed in the Supreme Court, with no luck there either. It had become clear that the farmers would not back down, but the state government still did not denotify the SEZ. In January, farmers organised a morcha and met the chief minister demanding denotification of the SEZ. The government finally conceded on 18 February.

Farmers want agro-based industrialisation that doesn’t deprive them of their land

But this may not be the end of the Maha Mumbai SEZ. Officials at the commerce ministry have said the project can still take off provided the promoters scale it down. A truncated version of the SEZ could be presented to the Board of Approval for consent. But the Maha Mumbai SEZ has already received extensions and another one may just not be possible. There may be legal hurdles as well. This project is a multipurpose SEZ; the law requires such projects have a minimum of 1,000 hectares of contiguous land, which the company does not have. Moreover, the farmers who had sold their land to the company are now planning to approach the high court and demand it back.

Farmers and activists of the area are not worried, though. “It is not about a big or a small SEZ. Neither is it about singling out one company and protesting against it. The SEZ Act is draconian and anti-people. This is only the beginning; we will continue to fight and get the SEZ Act repealed,” says Surekha Dalvi, land rights activist who led the protests. She remarks that Goa was the first state to cancel an SEZ project due to popular protests; Goa has decided not to set up any SEZs.

“The manner in which SEZs are sprouting across India is not industrialisation. It is real estate business. We want agro-based industrialisation that does not displace the people and distance them from their ancestral land,” says Ashok Madwi, leader of Vashi village in Pen taluka.

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