The gory killing of villagers—including women and children by a combined force of police and Communist Party of India (Marxist) cadres at Nandigram—has shocked the nation. CPI (M), which prides itself as the voice of the poor, the peasantry and the minorities, had all these sections ranged against it in Nandigram, where a 14,000-acre special economic zone, or SEZ, had been planned.
Nandigram is symptomatic of the larger SEZ malaise. SEZs elsewhere, too, have emerged as political flash points. Land acquision for SEZs has led to farmer unrest in many parts of the country, as farmers believe the governments are “hand-in-glove” with the real-estate developers and industries, and are “cheating” them out of their lands.
In SEZs, many farmers see a political conspiracy to drive them out of their lands by invoking archaic laws, thus depriving them of their livelihoods. Farmers in many places are questioning the “dubious” role played by the state governments and are demanding that governments should let them deal directly with the private players. The political implications of the farmer unrest have prompted the government to put the implementation in abeyance.
There are 164 zones that have got in-principle nod, as they do not have the land in their possession, and 300 proposals are yet to be considered for approval by the Union commerce ministry.
The moot issue is not whether SEZs are good for the country but the manner in which the SEZ policy is to be implemented, particularly in respect of the type of land that should be used for the purpose and the manner of its acquisition.
The rural development ministry—which has been asked by the Prime Minister to do so—has proposed changes in the archaic and imperialistic Land Acquisition Act that presumes that all land belongs to the state by redefining the “public purpose”. It has recommended that the government shall not act as a land-acquisition agent for any private business, except in just helping them to establish contiguity after the private entrepreneurs have acquired a substantial part of the land by themselves.
But, acquisition of land by private players is not going to be easy if the poor response to the Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance Industries Ltd’s “attractive” relief and rehabilitation package for Maha Mumbai SEZ near Mumbai is any indication. The company is believed to have acquired just around 200 acres until recently, against a target of 25,000 acres.
The National Commission on Farmers, headed by M.S. Swaminathan, has recommended that only wastelands unsuitable for cultivation shall be used for the zones, noting that “it is in our national interest that both agriculture and industry prosper in a mutually reinforcing manner”. The rural development ministry concurs that SEZs should be established, preferably on wastelands. Only where use of agricultural land cannot be avoided, single-crop land in rainfed areas may be used.
The present government—much like its predecessor, the National Democratic Alliance government—is perceived to be anti-farmer. Farmers in many parts of the country are unhappy with the Union government for high diesel and fertilizer prices, and poor availability of fertilizers, apart from a host of other issues relating to state governments.
Unrest among farmers is one of the principal reasons of electoral volatility in the country over the last two decades. Although the number of farmers losing land to SEZs may be small, it sends a negative message to the electorally crucial farmer class. It is to blunt such perceptions that Sonia Gandhi has cautioned the ruling United Progressive Alliance government to carefully examine issues concerning rehabilitation and resettlement.
Despite the farmer furore, if the government presses ahead full steam with SEZs without making suitable changes in policy, there are possibly two explanations. The charitable explanation is a “realization” that whatever the governments do, they will be voted out. Therefore, why not do something that is in national interest? The uncharitable explanation is that the governments—Union and state included—are rooting for real-estate developers and industries to mop up massive resources to fight elections that are becoming increasingly expensive. In many cases, politicians have themselves turned to the real-estate business as they see a huge synergy between politics and the realty business, and now SEZs are also being used as a conduit in promoting dubious realty plans.
It is perhaps a travesty of times that the protesting farmers have nowhere to go and are politically orphaned.
Today, there is neither any political party—be it national or regional—nor a political leader of any stature firmly committed to the welfare of the farmers.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director, Development & Research Services, a research and consulting firm in New Delhi. Comments are welcome at email@example.com