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'Does India belong to urban people only?'

By Sheela Bhatt
July 18, 2007 17:17 IST
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Ulka Mahajan of the Savahara Jan Andolan and the National Alliance of People's Movement is running around on a hot summer afternoon in Mumbai. Along with her is lawyer Surekha Dalvi of the Shramik Kranti Sanghathana from the Raigad district in Maharashtra and Prabhakar Narkar, a political activist. The three of them are trying to convince Maharashtra legislators to support their movement for the farmers of Raigad.

Reliance Industries has sought permission to build India's biggest Special Economic Zone near Mumbai comprising more than 14,000 hectares of land. Recently, Reliance received approval for the Navi Mumbai SEZ for which the company has already acquired land but Reliance's Maha Mumbai SEZ in Raighad needs around 14,000 hectares of land.

Mahajan and her colleagues are leading the intense struggle against Reliance which looks like a long drawn out affair.

The approval for the Navi Mumbai SEZ has rung alarm bells for farmers in Raigad district who are opposing the Reliance move. In the town of Pen, 18 farmers and labourers are on an indefinite fast to oppose the Reliance SEZ.

Although political support is not forthcoming, farmers opposed to the Maha Mumbai SEZ are determined to fight.

Mahajan, their leader with long years of work behind her to help the poor and downtrodden, spoke to Managing Editor (National Affairs) Sheela Bhatt about the struggle.

Can you shortlist the major objections to the proposed SEZ in Raigad?

India's largest SEZ, the Maha Mumbai SEZ, is coming up in Raigad district near Mumbai. It is being set up by Reliance Industries led by Mukesh Ambani. They are playing with the emotional, economical and cultural interests of farmers, fisherfolk, salt-pan workers and agriculturalists in the area.

Their entire livelihood is dependent on the farmland. It is an amazing feature of this exclusive area of India where people have farmlands and they also do inland fishing. The Reliance compensation package does not compensate the people who do inland fishing.

However, the real issue is not of compensation. When agriculture land, anywhere in India, is transferred for non-agriculture purpose not only farmers who own that land get affected but the entire rural economy vanishes.

Livelihood displacement is to such large extent that all of them can never be absorbed by any industrial sector and that is our experience in all corners of India.

This is a fact no one can dispute. This is the main grouse of the poor people living and depending on the farmland.

Reliance will only pay the landowner but when you wipe out villages after villages and create SEZs, what about the small and marginal people? What about those who don't own that land but have depended on that land since ages? So many people lose their livelihood, homes, shops, temples, schools and many other things.

Another serious issue is that the country's food security is affected because of the shrinking quantity of land being used for farming. Land reforms legislation that were passed by the states will also be changed now. Also, in Special Economic Zones labour laws will be relaxed, and workers' rights will have less and less protection. The number of tax concession being given to SEZs is a matter of worry and the Reserve Bank of India has also said so.

There are several economists who have spoken against it, also, some state planning boards have said that SEZs, in their present shape, will bring disparity in the country.

The Reliance industries package is one of the best, claims the company. It has not only given compensation for land but they have taken care of the employment aspect also.

We have burnt copies of the Reliance package. We condemn it. The land that Reliance is going to acquire is so close to Mumbai, and still they have undervalued it. The present cost of non-agricultural land in that area, as per the government's registrar's office where the value of land is mentioned, is Rs 13 lakh per acre.

Everyone in India knows that 'on the record' charges of land is always shown much below the actual market rates.

So if the recorded price of the land is Rs 13 lakhs what is Reliance talking about when they are paying only Rs 10 lakhs? This is much below the market rate.

But land price is one component of the package. What about the employment that is being promised?

Do you believe them, really? Who is going to give employment? So far industrial development corporations have not given jobs to the people who lost their land. A tiny faction of displaced people get absorbed and then people forget the plight of a large number of the remaining people.

Nowhere in India have local people been absorbed in industrial development despite being government institutions (State Industrial Development Corporations). Now, you want us to trust Ambani? Ambanis have private enterprises. How can we believe them? There is no legislation that says they must provide employment.

When a company says it on record and in writing why don't you believe them?

Do you believe the Ambanis? At present, the Maharashtra assembly's Public Accounts Committee is scrutinising Reliance, Videocon and many other companies. The allegation is that because of these companies Maharashtra has lost Rs 70,000 crores. They have exploited the concessions given to them.

Do you have political support?

The Congress party is absolutely against us and is not giving any support. The BJP is also not forthcoming. Only the Shiv Sena is supporting us somewhat, but 11 Left parties in Maharashtra are supporting us fully.

There is a section of people that believes you are anti-development. Displacement affects a small number of people and you are conducting an agitation to stop huge development. This is a perception about your agitation amongst the business class. What is your comment?

We are not at all anti-development, not even industrial development. We want employment for the affected people. What do farmers, who are sacrificing, get when they offer their land for development? Farmers and agricultural labourers have been sacrificing for years for the sake of India's development.

Recently, we had meeting with a wide variety of the displaced people. They were thrown out on the roads for the sake of irrigation, dams and road projects. They are still waiting for compensation and they haven't been given employment.

In an interview with Commerce Secretary G K Pillai said that all SEZs are not given even 2 per cent of India's agricultural land.

In terms of numbers they are taking away more than 5 lakh acres of land. In Maharashtra alone, more than 1.25 thousand acres have been transferred from agriculture to non-agriculture land. These are not issues concerning percentages.

India is no more independent for food. India is no more a self-reliant country managing its granaries.

When India is dependent on other countries for food and is being subjected to their terms and conditions for trading we can't go on reducing the area under farming. India no more has food security and can't afford to lose even an acre of agriculture land. They can throw numbers and figures on the face of common people but we realise that even China is facing the difficulty of food security.

India with 8% to 9% growth wants faster industrial development. Your kind of movement is seen as an obstacle to this growth.

Precisely. I am saying whose India and which India is talking like this? Who is objecting to our movement? Does India belong to the urban people only? Does India belong to people who only watch television? Does India belong to those who control television -- which shows only the brighter side of India? Or does India belong to the agricultural community that forms 70 per cent of this country? Which is the real India?

But the central government is going ahead with its plans for SEZs. What we understand is that the SEZs are on. Your agitation may not yield results.

Go to the grassroots! People are not accepting the packages offered by Reliance. What Reliance is doing at the local level is that they are indulging in fraudulent land transactions. The original farmer does not know that his land is being sold. The transaction is taking place without the owner's knowledge.

Do you have the evidence to back such a serious charge?

Yes, six First Information Reports have been filed after we collected evidence. Every week the collector should announce the transactions taking place for the information of the public. Farmers do not know that their land is being sold. It is so wrong.

Don't you think you are fighting a tough battle?

Exactly. This is a tough struggle. It was better when India was ruled by the British. Now it is ruled by our own people but the mentality is worse than British rulers.

People's representatives are not accountable to the people. The way they are ruling the country they are no more answerable to the people.

There are many urban Indians who have a conscience and they don't want to trample upon farmers rights. They would like to know if there is any win-win situation. Do you have some plan that can bring some compromise between farmers' rights and the need of the industrialists?

This entire issue of SEZs should be based on cost-benefit analysis. It should take off from the previous policy for export promotion. Those who have cheated the country during that time should be exposed but we should take the basis of that policy for the new policy.

Right now, there is no package for the people whose livelihood is affected. The economic packages are available only for those people who are the landowners. We need a rehabilitation policy for the people who are losing their livelihood.

In our country there is no rehabilitation act.

SEZ promoters may argue that at that rate no SEZ project can become viable. After all, it is all about commerce.

SEZ promoters are spending millions of rupees to purchase the opinion of people's representatives and ministers. The way the agents of Reliance are moving around in villages you should come and see. The amount of rupees being thrown to change farmers opinion should be channelised and utilised to increase the compensation of farmers.

How long can you fight?

I have trust in people's ability. If you really believe in democracy from the core then the people's struggle will succeed. We expect support from people who are educated, aware and who have benefited from the development of this country.

How do you feel about being pitted against Mukesh Ambani, India's richest man?

Oh, I feel we must utilise all our strength, our knowledge, our creative abilities to fight such a powerful person.

Have you ever met him?

Never, never. I don't think I should meet him also. He should come out and meet the people. Let him be face to face with people who are losing their land. I am nothing; we are just helping people to struggle for their rights.

Photograph: Sheela Bhatt

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