SEZ who? Not the farmers

By Nidhi Jamwal
Published: Thursday 15 October 2009

Down to Earth  
The government claimed it had acquired 1,500 ha in our village for an airstrip. But we will continue to grow crops on it
- Kumar Khobragade
Shivagaon village, Nagpur

Down to Earth
The government tried to sell SEZS saying they would bring development. But our village is developed already
- Dilip Patil
Kanegaon village, Raigad

Down to Earth
Our land is our mother. It has sustained us for generations. The government can take my life, but not my land
- Dhakibai Thakur
Vadhav village, Raigad

First public audit of special economic zones in Maharashtra kickstarts a nation-wide effort

"Zameen aamcha hakkachi,
naahi konachya baapa chi
(This land is ours, not somebody else's)

On September 15, this slogan rent the air of Div village, 100 km from Mumbai. Over 300 farmers from eight districts of Maharashtra met at Div in Raigad district to participate in the first-ever public audit of special economic zones (sezs). A group of non-profits initiated the public audit.

The message was farmers would not give away their land to industry or government for sezs. "The government can take my life, but not my land," said Dhakibai Thakur, 60-year-old farmer from Raigad's Vadhav village. She made this clear to a panel--comprising former bureaucrats, academics, journalists, industrialists--conducting the audit.

"The idea behind the audit is to take people's voice to the government and question the validity of the sez Act," said Aruna Roy, founder of the non-profit Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan. "Maharashtra's audit is a beginning. Similar audits will be carried out in other states," she warned.

Brains behind the initiative
In July this year, the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (tiss) in Mumbai, National Centre for Advocacy Studies in Pune and others initiated plans. The organizations identified and gave affected villagers questionnaires seeking their opinion on the sez in their area and how it affected their lives.

"The questionnaire was in Marathi. If a farmer was illiterate, volunteers assisted. Discussions were held and reports compiled. Villagers presented the reports to the panel at Div," said Surekha Dalvi, advocate and land rights activist involved in planning the public audit.

Maharashtra has the largest number of sezs approved in the country--202--and was the groups' obvious choice for the first audit. The decision to meet in Raigad was symbolic. "Farmers here have put up a bold front in the past and are opposing Reliance Group's Mumbai sez Ltd," said Roy. "It was because of their stiff resistance the state held a referendum on sez. Though 96 per cent villagers voted against the sez, the government has not made the results public," she added. (See 'Our voice', Down To Earth, October 15, 2008).

At the audit, farmers called sezs a suicide pact. A group from Nagpur presented their case against mihan ( Multi-modal International Hub Airport at Nagpur) sez. "The project will consume 14 villages' land--4,025 hectare. Half the land is acquired and lying vacant," said Babaji Dawre of Shivagaon village. "The land acquired was fertile. Since 2000, over a million orange trees have been cut down," said Dawre whose village would be used for the airstrip. "The government can build the airstrip over our dead bodies," he added. The airstrip would also mean the end of a robust milk economy of Shivagaon, which earns Rs 25-29 crore annually.

Farmer groups from Nashik and Pune narrated similar stories of losses, meagre compensations and cheating. A farmer from Amravati district alleged the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation had acquired land from farmers on the pretext of 'public good' and given it to private companies for sezs.

"The situation is grim. The government must pause and ponder," said Swapna Banerjee-Guha, professor at tiss, after hearing out farmers at the day-long audit. "We will compile our report and release it soon," he said.

Audits will next be organized in Goa, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Orissa and West Bengal. Activists and farmers will then go to Delhi and demand dismissal of sezs. "We do not want sezs pushed from one district to the other. People's concerns are the same across the country," said Ulka Mahajan of sez -Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti, Raigad.

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