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Between the line

Land locked in zones
May 05, 2010


It was land which forced India to effect its first constitutional amendment. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, a socialist, was furious when the Supreme Court reluctantly conceded that the state had the right to take over any private property for ‘public purpose’ but after paying the ‘just compensation’.

Nehru had the constitution amended to consecrate the government’s right to acquire land and to categorically state it had the authority to determine the ‘just compensation’. He did not want the legislation to be challenged and had, therefore, put the amendment in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution to keep it beyond the pale of law courts. When land reforms were introduced to abolish zamindari, a feudal system that allowed an individual to have unlimited land, Nehru fixed the ceiling at 30 acres.

Nearly 60 years later, terms like ‘just price’ and ‘public purpose’ have come to be questioned. Some 300 leaders of farmers, men and women, from all over the country gathered this week at Delhi to declare that the ‘just price’ had to be negotiated with the person whose land was sought to be acquired. Farmers also wanted the government to spell out the ‘public purpose’ clearly and categorically so that it is not misused.

The farmers’ meet, after several months of preparations, was primarily meant to ventilate their anger against the Special Economic Zone (SEZ). Five years ago, parliament had passed the SEZ act at the instance of the Manmohan Singh government, right-of-the centre, to attract foreign investment. Acres of land was acquired for industrialists or investors in the name of ‘public purpose’ and given it to them at the price which the government considered ‘just’. This was far less than the market price.

Farmers have learnt from their experience that the land acquired was a fraud committed on them. The SEZ turned out to be another kind of land grab, another instance of a nexus between the state and the corporate sector. A SEZ was a state within the state. In reality, the SEZ was the owner’s fiefdom. No law of the country operated there. Nor had the owner to pay any tax or duty for the goods produced within his area. The owner had so much of land in the name of industrialization that he used it to build deluxe hotels, plush flats and cinema halls or provided recreation facilities to the visitors at a fancy price.

The tragic part is that the government takes no action against those who have taken the land for “industrialization, technological development and export growth” but have flouted all the conditions governing SEZ. Since most of them are located near the mines of coal, iron ore and bauxite or on the sites of natural resources, the owners have more or less appropriated the country’s wealth. The government has found to its embarrassment that both domestic and global corporations which bought the SEZs are not fulfilling their obligations, including those in exports.

A report by a team of citizens, including academicians and action groups, who toured the country, has described the SEZ as “a recipe for disaster and instability.” There are as many as 341 SEZs that have begun functioning. Nearly half of them are in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. The report says that the government has used the “force of sate machinery, coercion and fraudulent means to subvert and suppress people’s protests” to acquire land at various places.

Farmer’s resistance—some have lost their lives as well—made the government declare that no land would be acquired without the permission of the person who tills or owns it. But this assurance has stayed on paper alone. Facts are different. Action on the ground shows that the states are forcibly creating the SEZs which apparently is profitable for politicians and bureaucrats who are in league with the corporate sector. Police are being used first to threaten the farmers. If they do not give in, then the force is used to evict them.

The farmer leaders who assembled at Delhi described how the authorities have used all illegal methods to ‘acquire’ the land. One woman leader said that the women’s heads were shaved off to humiliate them so as to force their men folk to sell the land. Some women wept as they narrated the story of their harassment. Authorities took away whatever skimpy belongings they had in their house.

At a public hearing at Delhi, the same story was repeated. Farmers from practically every state said that hundreds of acres were still being acquired and the tillers were forcibly ousted from their fields, some of which are the irrigated ones. Some 550 more projects have been sanctioned and some more are in the process getting the governor nod.

It is apparent that the SEZ, as it functions at present, provides legislative and judicial support to privatization of the county’s resources. This was never the intention of parliamentarians when they gave the approval to SEZs. The fact today is that the owners of SEZs can destabilize the democratic system of governance. They are individually quite powerful but now they have joined hands to put pressure collectively to get more concessions. Surely, the government does not want this type of economic growth which, if at all achieved, will be through dubious means.

The outcry in the country over the forcible occupation of land, if not the formation of SEZs, has somewhat shaken the civil society which feels that there is something wrong in what the government is doing. The recommendation of the Parliamentary Standing Committee says that the people wanting to buy land for SEZ should buy it from farmers directly and settle the price at which they want. This should have been done earlier. Even now it is not being done for setting up new SEZs because the state governments have become party to the loot. At least New Delhi should scrutinize the existing SEZs to assess whether they are serving the purpose for which they were sanctioned.

The democratically elected government should respond to the interests of its citizens and people than those of companies and developers. This was the message of farmer leaders who met at Delhi. The ultimate move should be to repeal the legislation because of its unconstitutional nature. Nonetheless, the problems which the creation of SEZs has brought before the government should make it think of another exercise at land reforms. The ceiling of 30 acres per individual is unrealistic when the number of the landless is increasing and when the uneconomic holdings are forcing the farmers to sell their land and become labourers. This trend will only strengthen the Maoists who believe that gun is the answer to all the grievances over development.

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