Photographs: Uttam Ghosh
Fighting for the poor and underprivileged has become the mission of her life ever since she quit the Indian Administrative Services in 1975 and set up base in Rajasthan.
After she recently lashed out against the champions of SEZs in India in Div village in Maharashtra's Raigad district rediff.com's Prasanna D Zore quizzed her about why she is opposed to the SEZ Act.
Why do you say the Special Economic Zones Act 2005 is unconstitutional?
The SEZ Act 2005 denies Indian citizens the fundamental right to freedom of movement. First of all, there is no right of entry into these projects without permission. Now in the whole of India, as an Indian citizen, I can go anywhere. This is not China. I am not banned from leaving my state and moving into another state.
There is freedom of movement in Jammu & Kashmir, even in Sikkim. I can go anywhere. But in the SEZs created in my own hinterland I can only enter if I have a pass issued by a civil servant who is appointed as the caretaker of that SEZ.
There are no elections possible in an SEZ; there are no labour laws applicable inside these SEZs; the owner of the SEZ pays no taxes to the government and the bank loans (money lent by Indian banks) are going to be treated as foreign loans, with all the sops that a foreign bank will give to such borrowers.
So, if you look at the sum of it,the SEZ law is appalling. And then, of course, the SEZ owner pays almost nothing for the electricity, nothing for the water, and gets all the advantages for exports.
Wy is it in contravention of the Constitution? What is so wrong with the Act?
The Indian Constitution gives you the right to learn, right to form associations, right to vote. These are all your constitutional rights within the territorial jurisdiction of this country and they just can't be taken away by an Act.
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'China has two SEZs, India has more than 450. What is this?'
I didn't say that. What I did say was that the entire democratic system needs to be cleansed and reclaimed by the people. We want democracy, but this kind of democracy is fascism.
What we really need to do is then therefore use the tools of accountability, transparency and the Right to Information Act in all walks of public life. I need to know where my money is going, what is being done with my money.
What I will therefore say is we need a public audit of the SEZs. If they (SEZs) have had the mandate to export, after getting the land from those who till the land, we need to know what are they exporting. Who does the audit of those companies?
Ultimately what they do is they don't produce anything and after some years they will just become real estate agents. And that's not for what the government gives them the land at subsidised rates, chucks out people from their land and snatch their living.
You want to say that SEZ developers are not accountable to anybody?
Absolutely not. Not even in terms of how much they will produce and sell abroad. They must be told that if you invest X amount of money then you must have production and exports of so much amount and tell them how much to export out of that. Even that's not being done in this Act. (Arre), this is absurd.
In China there are two SEZs and in India we have got more than 450. What is this?
'In democracy it is our business to see that the country works properly'
No, I haven't lost my faith in democracy. I have lost my faith in the way democracy is used by the people who go into certain institutions (Parliament) in this manner.
I think it's like the parson's egg which is good in parts. Even our government is good in parts in the sense that the same Parliament gave us the Right to Information Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act as well as the Special Economic Zone Act.
But then we need to educate our parliamentarians; we need to educate our politicians. Their levels of literacy is so low, their levels of exposure (to people's problems) are so low.
After all, politicians are really the custodians of our Constitution, of the people but today they have become custodians of themselves.
Getting a new political party will not solve the problem; it is the interaction with the people that will help. After all, where will we go?
It is my country, an independent country. I can't ask for any outside intervention to cleanse it. I think it is the failure of the so-called literate people, of my generation, the generation after me and also the current generation who think that running the country is not their business.
In a democracy it is your business and my business to see that the country works properly.
What next? Where do you plan to hold the next People's Audit?
It's a big route that we have charted out. The next audit I think could be in Gujarat or Mangalore and after that we will go to all other areas in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and when we come to Delhi with our findings which won't be impressionistic; we will present facts, hard evidence.
Even today we have hard evidence, but the hard evidence is not posited in the manner where people can say yes or no (to the SEZs).
But will this government move on the hard evidence that you plan to present?
That is your guess and mine. If we are strong enough, it will move. I really think that if the entire peasantry of Maharashtra goes for a hartal (strike) for three days there will be no SEZ in Maharashtra.