Uran, Maharashtra: Paddy farmer Baburao Patil admits he has never seen Rs70 lakh.
That’s the money he’s been offered by Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance group if he gives up his seven sylvan acres in the coastal village of Urnoli, nestled 34km northeast of India’s financial capital Mumbai’s lush northern hinterland.
“My land will last me and my family of five for a lifetime,” said Patil, who says paddy farming earns him about Rs10 lakh a year. “That’s the only investment I know. How long will that money last between me and my three sons (one is a doctor) when we have no other means of livelihood and few other skills?”
Brought up on a diet of rice and fish from the nearby creek, Patil is a sinewy man who looks younger than his 74 years. There is a sofa, refrigerator and dish television in a brick and red-tiled home typical of the area’s quiet, palm-fringed coastal villages.
Patil is one of nearly one lakh locals across 45 coastal villages in the Raigad district that Reliance hopes to buy out to eventually create the 10,000 acre Mahamumbai Special Economic Zone on its own, and the 4,377-acre Navi Mumbai SEZ in collaboration with the state.
Mahamumbai will be among the world’s largest privately built cities. Reliance hopes to build everything from sewage lines, roads, housing towers, schools, industrial zones, jetty and power plant at a cost of Rs30,000 crore and eventually auction it to companies.
Mahamumbai is close to Mumbai’s proposed new international airport site and the Mumbai-Pune expressway and will also be connected to the metropolis by India’s most ambitious oversea highway, the 22.5km Trans-harbour Sealink from Nhava on the mainland to Sewri in the island city. Combined, the two cities will form the world’s second largest urban agglomeration after Tokyo.
That is, if Mahamumbai is ever built.
The bloody struggle to stop the SEZ of Nandigram in West Bengal has unnerved Maharashtra’s Congress government. On 30 March, chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh announced that the acquisition of 10,000 acres of land needed to create Mahamumbai would be frozen.
This, after a three-member Congress committee last week criticized its own government over acquiring land in Raigad.
“Despite our high command’s order that fertile land will not be taken, local officials are going ahead with land acquisition,” said Congress spokesperson Sanjay Nirupam.
“The government decision is an internal affair and has no bearing on the land that we are privately buying in this region,” said a Reliance spokesperson who did not want to be named as per the company policy. “We have not been informed of any development. There have been many takers since we announced the compensation package. We have so far signed sale agreements for more than 1,000 acres of land.”
Apart from offering Rs10 lakh per acre, Reliance is offering each family a job—or permission to keep 12% of rice-paddy land, which the company will anyway pay for.
Reliance has commissioned an army of young men to sell its compensation package. Paddy farmer Vikas Mhatre, 35, is one of them. He’s paid Rs1.2 lakh a year by Reliance and tries to convince sceptical—if not downright hostile—villagers to part with their land. Reliance’s evangelists travel in utility vehicles, which they say, are provided to them by the company.
The hardsell is pitting many young men against older residents, who are already pitted against their government.
Mhatre is one of the few openly siding with Reliance here in Pen. “The compensation is great,” said Mhatre. “Even if the farmers invest this in a fixed deposit they can earn more than what they earn now. And there is scope for new jobs and opportunities.’’
Mhatre doled out unemployment statistics and the district’s low agriculture productivity, and garnished his arguments with news on China’s SEZs, as he explained why he backs the project.
“Every village here has one or two youngsters working for the developer,” said Surekha Dalvi, a lawyer who is leading the anti-SEZ protest under an anti-globalization banner. “But overall sentiment here is staunchly against the SEZ. They are against a policy that makes use of their land but leaves them out of the overall progress.”
She said high literacy levels, migration and the proximity to Mumbai had heightened awareness of globalization and land acquisition among the local population.
Since colonial times, Raigad has had a history of violent protest, the latest a decade back when police fired on villagers violently protesting the acquisition of land for the Jawarharlal Nehru Port, now India’s largest.
So, across Raigad district, this reporter found many like Patil unwilling to accept or trust the transformation that Reliance promises. Their reasoning is that there will be no place for them on Mahamumbai’s smooth roads or in its housing towers.
Farmers said they have always paid the price for being Mumbai’s neighbour. Their land has been acquired to develop Navi Mumbai, or New Mumbai, the JNPT, the Mumbai-Pune expressway and a power plant. Now, there’s also the new airport, apart from Mahamumbai.
“We are not the stakeholders in this so-called progress,” said a visibly angry Bhairav Fuferkar of Chirner village. “Our children may be graduates, but they land low-level jobs like handymen and fitters, like some do now at the Jawaharlal Nehru Port.”
Fuferkar, a fitter in the railways, said he could not have supported his family on his monthly income of Rs9,000.
“My one and a half acres of paddy is an alternative source of income for us,” he said. “There is always scope that we can invest more in this land and reap its benefits tomorrow.”
Chirner’s village council has passed a resolution opposing the SEZ. Khar Patil, the village sarpanch or headman said, “we will not give up this land without a fight.” Hindustan Times