Corporates vs People — The fight for land continues

Yesterday, Ground Reality had carried a report from Shubhranshu Choudhury which clearly showed how the companies were trying to forcibly aquire land from the tribals in Chhatisgarh. While the tribals are resisting the takeover of their land, their only economic security, somehow the impression we get in the cities (through the media reports) is that the poor are more than eager to sell off their land.

Even the Ministry of Commerce carries this wrong impression. A few days back I happened to meet a joint secretary in the Ministry of Commerce. During the course of our discussion he said that I was probably the first person who he met who is saying that the SEZ are anti-people and are merely an excuse to grab land from the poor and marginalised. I wasn’t shocked. I know these bureaucrats live in their own make believe world, which has nothing to do with the ground realities.

A news report today in The Hindustan Times comes out with another story on people’s resistance against the takeover of their land under the guise of SEZ, in Maharashtra. This report, read in continuation with what Shubhranshu wrote yesterday from Chhatisgrah, tells us clearly that people are fighting to protect their land rights. They do not want to part with their land at any cost. I see it happening everywhere. Take Mangalore in Karnataka, for instance, where people are still resisting their land being taken over by KSIDC for the second phase of the SEZ being promoted by ONGC. Social activist Vidya Dinker, who raised the voice of the poor inhabitants (who were in any case voiceless) has now 9 legal cases slapped against her. This is the way to silence dissent, this is the way to enforce Corporate governance — a clear-cut indication of the dreaded future (sans public liberty and freedom) the nation is fast heading towards.

I wonder when will the people of this country be able to take these erring companies to the court? When will justice prevail, with strong punishment for those who played havoc with the environment and destroyed thousands of livelihoods.

Meanwhile, it is the media and the big business that is somehow spreading a false message that people want to part with their land if given adequate compensation. This report in The Hindustan Times is an exception because the newspaper had fanned 30 correspondents to different parts of the country to report on the changing scenario in the light of the ensuing elections. If only the newspaper had ensured that its correspondent sent reports from every nook and corner of the country all through the year, we would have got a different picture.

Also read Siddharth Vardarajan’s opinion piece in The Hindu: In Kalahandi, battle for livelihoods trumps war for votes

Here is the report from Raigad in Maharashtra:

Armed with the right to No

By Ketaki Ghoge

Raigad: They were fighting the same battle. They used different weapons.

When 76-year-old Maruti Patil heard they were going to take 30 acres of his land for a special economic zone, he loaded his five guns and threatened to shoot anyone who tried to separate him from the land he had laboured over for 30 years in Alibaug in Raigad district, Maharashtra.

About 10 kilometres away, Admiral L Ramdas (76), a former naval chief, felt as strongly about his 10 acres in Alibaug, Raigad district, 130 kilometres south of Mumbai — land gifted to the 1971 Indo-Pak war hero by the Government of India.

He too decided to use the most powerful weapon he possessed: The Right to Information Act.
As an advisor to the Bawees Gaon Bachao Samiti (Save 22 Villages Committee), a registered body of farmers protesting the SEZ here, Admiral Ramdas also prodded farmers to file RTI applications.

Over 100 such requests had been filed, at last count — most of them demanding to know how 2,880 acres marked as a green zone was turn overnight into an industrial zone.

The RTI applications helped file a petition against the proposed 6,000-acre Indiabulls SEZ, eventually securing a stay on all land acquisition for the project.

And the law that empowered the farmers and landowners — passed by the UPA government in 2005 — could just cost the Congress-NCP state government a seat in Alibaug.

“I’m not suicidal, so I will not vote for the government that is planning to grab our land,” says Amit Patil, a civil engineer who owns six acres in Raigad. “My farmland helped pay the school bills for me and my two sisters. I will not part with this land to make way for bungalows for the rich. I will not stand by as the MIDC acts as a broker for real estate sharks.”

Patil has filed 35 RTI applications. And some of the findings were highly irregular: The lush rice fields and orchards acquired by the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation would be handed over to Indiabulls for a percentage of the profit — generally, private firms are compelled to acquire such land themselves, often paying more than the market rate, while the government can generally get away with paying less.

And the green zone would make way for an industrial unit, luxury commercial and residential spaces, landscaped gardens, a tennis academy, hotels and malls. Rehabilitation packages for the farmers would be whatever Indiabulls decided. Repeated calls, SMSes and emails received no reponse from Indiabulls officials.

Most surprising, the proposal was mooted by then chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, who directed the Industries Department to initiate acquisition proceedings without carrying out the mandatory survey or posting the plans before the public to invite suggestions and objections.
The villagers have now pinned their hopes on the judiciary. But, in an election year, they also plan to send a wake-up call to the government through their votes.

The beneficiaries could include local saffron party Shiv Sena’s candidate Anant Geete, or an Independent — farmer Sunil Naik from neighbouring Shahapur, who has been protesting land acquisition from a thermal power plant there.

Geete has support from the local Peasants and Workers Party, the only political outfit to take an openly anti-SEZ stance in Maharashtra.

“What Vilasrao Deshmukh has done goes against many of the state’s own rules of business, environment norms and development plans,” says Chinmaya Vaidya, Pune-based advocate who filed the petition on behalf of Admiral Ramdas in 2007.

Vaidya is also trustee of 30 acres here that have been in his family for generations.
For now, the MIDC and IndiaBulls request to quash the petition as premature has been turned down.

“It’s not a huge victory,” says Vaidya. “But we’ve got them worried and that’s a start.”

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