Sep 25, 2008

India - Divisive economic zones

The Indian government has approved the creation of 250 Special Economic Zones (SEZs) across the country. Inspired by similar zones established in China, the tax-free enclaves are seen as a way to promote trade. Big companies, including Reliance Industries and Wipro, are among those keen for SEZs to go ahead.
But farmers and landowners are not so enthusiastic, arguing that their land will be compulsorily bought at unfair prices. Debate about SEZs is heated in Maharashtra, one of India's wealthiest states, reports Prachi Pinglay in Mumbai (Bombay).

For BA Patil, a rice farmer in Vashi, a village about 80km (50 miles) away from Mumbai, it is a matter of principle, exercising his rights and safeguarding his livelihood.
He has come early to Vashi village school to submit his opinion in writing before the state government - the first time such a consultation process has taken place in Maharashtra.
The state government has carried out an elaborate exercise to seek public opinion in 22 villages that stand to lose a total of 5,700 acres of land to make way for an SEZ proposed by Reliance Industries.
This SEZ, called Maha Mumbai SEZ (Great Mumbai SEZ), is planned to spread over 45 villages and over 20,000 acres of land.
However, opposition from these 22 villages has been stiff. They say it is wrong to develop them when a nearby dam - almost complete - will ensure high quality irrigation and a double crop on this fertile farmland.

Tense atmosphere
Officials say more than 6,000 farmers have submitted their comments on the proposed SEZ. The data will be collated and forwarded to higher authorities in the coming days.
However, the mandate is not legally binding on the government.
"I had a government job. My children too may do other jobs. But we will never quit farming," said Mr Patil, who is in his early 60s.
"Before taking a decision on our land, someone should have asked us what we wanted. It is not just about more money or compensation. It is my land, my farm and something I cannot give up."
The lush rice fields swaying over several hundred acres of land cannot disguise the tense atmosphere in these villages.
As farmers took part in the consultation process, there was a heavy police presence - at least 700 personnel were deployed in the area.
"There are more police today than on days of elections. This is just to gauge my opinions about my land but see how there is at least one policeman per person," one farmer in the queue said.

'No health care'

Several activists and groups from nearby areas have been mobilizing public support for this exercise since it was first announced in August 2008.
DM Mhatre, who owns seven acres of farmland, is in favour of the SEZ, but at a much higher cost - at least $210,000 per acre - instead of an offer from the authorities of $21,000.
"Women still walk three kilometres to get drinking water," he says.
"There are no health care or education facilities. If we are getting all this and a good price for our land, why should I not want it? We have to change with times. Why should we be denied that option?"
The rehabilitation package recently offered included better financial compensation, better healthcare, more jobs and some percentage of the profits from the developed land.
But a large number of agricultural workers are sceptical about such promises.
"This exercise will show what the farmers want in this region. But it still does not include thousands of landless labourers who earn their livelihood by toiling on other people's farms," said Vaishali Patil, an activist for farmers' and tribal rights.
"Then there are several small businesses depending on the agriculture here. What will they do?" he asked.
Meanwhile, Reliance Industries has filed a petition in the Mumbai (Bombay) High Court challenging the government's decision to hold this kind of vote.
They say after the central government's approval for the SEZ, the state government cannot carry out such a public hearing.
Legal experts say that under the terms of the Land Acquisition Act, the government has powers to acquire any privately owned land in the public interest after a due process which involves notices, hearings and further official declarations.
They say that the whole process should be completed within three years.
At the same time, until the land is actually acquired, the government also has the powers to withdraw the acquisition process.
Most of farmers have not been told about - or do not understand - what they see as these tedious details of the law.
Several, who cannot read or write, have only put a thumb impression on the forms rejecting the SEZ. Nothing convinces them about the merits of giving up their land.
Many feel the same way as 68-year-old Pandurang Thavai, who has been growing rice on his three-acre plot all his life.
For him, this land is not something that can be bought, at any cost.
"I grow enough rice for my family and even more which I sell. We farmers provide food to society. We produce one of the best varieties of rice in this region. It tastes so good. Why take such a good thing away?" he asks.

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