March 18, 2008

life in general: SEZs - Selective Exclusive Zamindaris

On 11 January this year, as a part of a potential article on follow-up to special economi
c zones (SEZs) issues in the magazine I write for, I had visited Alibagh (about 140 kms from Bombay) to meet Admiral (retired) Laxminarayan (Ramu) Ramdas, a former chief of the Naval Staff in the Indian defence forces, who stays in his farmhouse residence in Alibagh.

Along with hundreds of other local villagers his home also comes in a notified SEZ area in Alibagh without their approval having been acquired. I was visiting him to request him
to contribute a column article for the potential follow-up story on SEZs in the magazine.

He did. I present it below:


It is by now well known that the original concept of government acquiring land on behalf of private parties, companies and industries for SEZs has met with stiff opposition and resistance from members of the public in most parts of the country. For me and my neighbouring 5000 households from 22 surrounding villages and wadis here in Alibagh taluka of Raigad district in Maharashtra, it all began after the state government notified the Gazette Extraordinary dated 27th October 2006. Without public discussion or notice, overnight 22 villages were declared an industrial area by invoking the MIDC (Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation) Act for use as an SEZ by private developer Indiabulls Infrastructure Development Company.

It was fairly obvious that this sudden and extraordinary method employed by an industrial development legislation that led to re-designating a green belt area into an industrial one – was a thinly disguised action to meet the same ends of SEZ requirements, and avoid public reaction.

That Gazette notification has not been removed. It is shocking and deeply disturbing to note that a department of a state government was apparently playing the role of a broker to acquire these lands which will be passed on to the interested parties later. No farmer should be forced to part with valuable, fertile, developed agricultural land by any government of the day.

It is common knowledge that there are thousands of hectares of land already declared as industrial areas under MIDC in Maharashtra, which are under-utilised or occupied by sick industry. If any additional land or space was needed with such urgency, the logical course of action would have been to identify all existing unused areas under MIDC control and make plans for full and effective utilization of the same.

The areas under SEZs in Raigad, Thane and greater Mumbai are in proximity to the urban mecca of Mumbai city. Here in brief is the story – not new, but ingenious in the devious ways in which high powered land grabbing is engineered across our `free and democratic’ country. It is ironic when we remember that over 500 Princely States were merged with the Union of India after our Independence in 1947. Today we are rapidly re-creating fiefdoms or SEZs which I call as `Selective Exclusive Zamindaris’. It is not just the real estate developers and industrialists. Behind them are politicians or their wards. In various cases they are actually just agents of their political masters.

Citizens of the Raigad villages have come together to form an association for the protection of their land and property – and have decided to embark on a struggle to prevent this unjust take over. They have also decided to wage this struggle without the help of any political party. At the very first meeting people were categorically told to leave their `party affiliations’ outside the hall along with their chappals! A group of seven villages, the most immediately affected by a Tata-Reliance power project in a SEZ covering their villages, have decided to boycott all forthcoming state and national elections. There is a raging storm in their hearts against being forced to evict their lands and homes for no fault of theirs. Someone asked whether we were living in a democracy or in a dictatorship. There is a united commitment to fight this monstrous decision.

Across the country, this anger is building to a quiet crescendo the repercussions of which can be anything. Our commerce minister bluffs his way through about millions of jobs in SEZs, but the SEZ-affected people of India are calling his bluff. They are asking is a return to status quo with regard to their lands, homes and their livelihoods. Is it too much to ask for?

Surely, there are limitations. Young villagers are being seduced by temptations of lumpsum money to sell their land which they can spend in a year or two on bikes and other distractions and then end up in penury. But not all villagers are gullible.

It also seems that the policy makers have not appreciated that a very large number of serving soldiers, sailors and airmen of our Armed Forces come from the villages of India. Indeed many of their families would or have already become victims of this land grab. Needless to say this would adversely affect the morale of our valiant Jawans, who are standing vigil round the clock. The irony is that whilst our Jawans are defending our borders; the SEZ,s enjoy the nomenclature of being treated as “foreign territories” and being handed over on a platter. It took the great Sardar Patel and Mr V.P Menon, Secretary to The Government of India, many days and nights to integrate over five hundred Princely States into the Union of India. Here we are reversing the entire process and selling both our self respect and sovereignty and creating these SEZ’s.

It is now the turn of the ‘West India Company’ which seems to have convinced us to open up our markets and our territory for their exclusive use! Let us not repeat the same mistake all over again. Here too the corporate world wants special facilities, as did the East India Company; no taxes, no labour laws, no courts, but wants instead golf courses, five star hotels, bars and casinos!

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