Farmers victory

Published : Jul 03, 2009 00:00 IST

A farmer comes to participate in the September 2008 referendum on land acquisition for the SEZ.-VIVEK BENDRE

A farmer comes to participate in the September 2008 referendum on land acquisition for the SEZ.-VIVEK BENDRE

IT is not often that farmers score a victory over someone who was once billed as the worlds wealthiest man. But that is exactly what happened when the Supreme Court refused to extend the deadline for land acquisition for Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambanis Mumbai Special Economic Zone (SEZ).

On June 5, the Supreme Court dismissed a special leave petition of Mumbai SEZ Ltd (formerly known as the Maha Mumbai SEZ) seeking a stay on the land acquisition proceedings for its SEZ in Raigad district of Maharashtra. The company asked for a stay pleading that it had already sunk in Rs.600 crore in the project and that its entire acquisition process would lapse on June 8, which date marked the two-year deadline under the Land Acquisition Act for the purchase of the minimum required land. If the court had granted the stay, this deadline would not have been applicable and the company could have continued with its land acquisition exercise. Mumbai SEZ Ltd, which is promoted by Mukesh Ambani, his close associate and businessman Anand Jain and Jai Corp Ltd (promoted by Anand Jain), seeks to acquire 10,000 hectares for the project.

The ruling makes it almost impossible for the promoters to continue with their current plans. The verdict has shown that a farmer can fight a big corporate house. It has set a good precedent, said the Maha Mumbai Shetkari Sangharsh Samiti, a grassroots organisation that led the agitation against the land acquisition, in a statement issued after the verdict.

Ulka Mahajan, one of the Samitis leaders, called it a major and historic victory for the farmers. She added: After the Supreme Court verdict, it will not be possible for Reliance to set up the SEZ on the proposed land. (Mukesh Ambanis association with the SEZ led many to believe that this was a Reliance project. This is not so. It was being privately promoted by Ambani, Anand Jain and Jai Corp.)

If the company chooses to go ahead with the project, it will in all likelihood have to negotiate individually with each farmer a process that not only is painstaking but also likely to be a failure because farmers reluctance to sell their lands was at the root of the resistance. Ulka Mahajan said, If they want to go ahead, they will have to purchase 70 per cent of the land required, and farmers have already shown their opposition to this. The other option open to the promoters is to restart the process, though this too seems futile given the resistance. It is understood that the company is considering approaching the Union governments Board of Approval for SEZs for help. It is unlikely that the Maharashtra government will come to the rescue of the promoters. Insiders say that former Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh and Revenue Minister Patangrao Kadam were both not in favour of the SEZ but apparently Minister for Industries Narayan Rane was.

The resistance began four years ago when thousands of land acquisition notices were sent out to small and medium farmers, who form the majority of the agriculturists in Raigad district. The reaction was immediate. Villages banded together to form Vishesh Arthik Shetra Hatao Sangharsh Samitis (action committees against the SEZ). They thought they could just come here and get the poor farmers to accept their offers of money, but it did not turn out like that, said Ulka Mahajan.

But the promoters found an ally in the State government, which in 2007 applied Section 4 of the Land Acquisition Act, 1894. Under this, the state could purchase land from farmers for SEZs. The only stipulation in this law is that the land acquisition should be completed within a year. This can be extended to two years, but if the land is not acquired within that time period, the process lapses. Knowing the level of resistance among the farmers, the promoters applied for a stay. The promoters argued that if the process was not completed in the period stipulated by the law, they would undergo a financial loss of Rs.600 crore.

The promoters had already acquired some land from a few farmers who did not object to the SEZ. The promoters are in a bind now because the land they have acquired is inadequate for an SEZ; nor can they resell it to the farmers they had purchased it from. Those opposed to the SEZ said that if the promoters were unable to acquire land within two years, it was a clear indication that the people were not interested in selling and that the entire project should be scrapped.

The Mumbai SEZ project was first conceived as a massive foreign direct investment (FDI) magnet. It was billed as the worlds largest privately developed SEZ, with total investments estimated at Rs.400,000 crore. The SEZ was to be a 10,000-ha multi-product trade zone and a crucial Asian hub for commerce. The promoters had even thought of corollary infrastructure such as the Sewri-Nhava Sheva sea link bridge and the port at Rewas (Reliance was connected with both projects).

The SEZ would have affected 45 villages in Raigad district. The company initially offered Rs.25 lakh a hectare for productive land and Rs.12.5 lakh a hectare for wasteland plots. It promised to create 25 lakh jobs in over 10 years and improve infrastructure and health and education facilities. But the farmers of Pen, Uran and Panvel taluks were not interested. With tension running high, the State government held a referendum on the project on September 21, 2008. It was a first-of-its-kind voting exercise in the country, and 6,000 landowners from 22 villages participated in it. Its outcome was never made public, but the large turnout implied solidarity among the farmers against the project.

One possible reason for the failure of the land acquisition process was a lack of understanding of what the farmers wanted as well as the mistaken decision to try and acquire cultivable land. The promoters thought that throwing money around would win them the battle, pointed out activists associated with the fight.

Ulka Mahajan told Frontline: The promoters identified some young men from the villages and employed them as agents to try and get the land. Of course, this did not work. She noted that the attitude of the promoters was a big mistake. Ask any farmer and he will tell you that just because farming is not a profitable activity, it does not mean farmers want to give it up. The idea is to improve farming. Not to cement fields over, she said.

Farms in the coastal Raigad district are mainly small and medium holdings. Farmers get at least one crop of rice plus vegetables, pulses, coconuts and fruits annually. According to the statistics of the Department of Agriculture, the per hectare yield of rice is around 2,700 kilograms. Since rain-fed agriculture is sustainable in the region, farmers do not lead a hand-to-mouth existence. Irrigation facilities would have got them multiple crops a year. The Hetawane dam was proposed in the 1980s to provide irrigation to around 5,800 acres (1 acre is 0.4 ha) of agricultural land as well as drinking water to Pen and Navi Mumbai. Though the dam was built as per plan, the canals were only partially constructed and hence no irrigation water flows from the dam.

When the SEZ plans were put into action, 25 villages in the Hetawane command area also received land acquisition notices. This was illegal since SEZ rules state that land in a command area or irrigated land cannot be used for an SEZ. In a bid to overcome this, the Irrigation Department altered the water allocation of the Hetawane dam last year so that the water would first go for drinking purposes, then for industry, and lastly for agriculture. For farmers who had given up their land for the canals, this was the ultimate blow.

The Supreme Court order goes beyond an obvious victory for the Raigad farmers. Activists say they hope it will be an eye-opener for similar struggles all over the country. Ulka Mahajan said: Questions need to be asked before the government just sides with corporate interests. Farmers need to be consulted before acquisition notices are sent. There is an urgent need for long-term, large-scale planning that sees to livelihoods, land rights and food security, and does not impose decisions on people just because they are poor.

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