NEW DELHI:Regional battles over land, especially farm land, being acquired for industrial projects are about to go all-India in a big way.
A slew of civil society groups, trade unions, non-governmental organizations and grassroots activists have quietly joined hands to plan what will be a concerted national campaign, dubbed Action 2007, to fight these so-called special economic zones (SEZ). The groups plan to formally ask the government on Sunday that the entire SEZ policy be scrapped.
Representatives of national networks, including activist Medha Patkar’s National Alliance For People’s Movements, Kolkata-based trade union Paschim Banga Khet Samiti (PBKS) and the National Alliance of Agricultural Workers Union, New Trade Union Initiative, People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and Communist Party of India-led National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW), along with myriad other regional groups from across India, have agreed to meet here on 8 February to prepare the strategy for a concerted national campaign. A second meeting, later in the month, is expected to finalize their gameplan.
SEZs are government-sanctioned economic areas, with significant tax concessions, aimed at promoting industrial and commercial activity. But their spread—several hundred are now on hold—has run into serious political troubles because they were seen as acquiring agricultural land from farmers without transparent or consistent remuneration policies.
“The aim of the whole endeavour is to influence government policy,” said Anuradha Talwar, president of PBKS, a 22,000-strong non-political trade union with strong roots in eastern India. West Bengal has been in the limelight because of sustained protests against a non-SEZ industrial project in Singur and an SEZ project in Nandigram.
M. J. Vijayan, a Delhi-based member of the movements’ national coordination committee said, “We will frame a larger, more ambitious plan to negotiate (with the government) on one platform. We want to appeal to the middle class too, so that it grows beyond just a movement of the affected.”
As a prelude to the meetings, some of the groups participated in a symbolic day of fasting at Rajghat on 30 January. The groups plan to hold similar protests all over the country to build momentum towards a national convention in June this year. Some 200 groups from across the country, including the Northeast, are also scheduled to meet Patkar at Wardha in Maharashtra from 9 February to 11 February to discuss next steps. The strategy of the coalition is not to attack specific projects, but to question the central government’s industrialization policy, which they believe will lead to the displacement of people who won’t have adequate safetynets.
With an important budget session of Parliament coming up, and elections in several key states on the horizon, the timing of the group effort is significant.
Sensing unrest, the government has already suspended new approvals of such economic zones. Some 63 of these SEZs have been previously notified across many states.
In recent weeks, there have been regional battles over the zones, especially in West Bengal, and politicians of all hues have started jumping on the anti-SEZ bandwagon. More than 60% of India lives in rural areas, mostly as farmers, and political parties of all hues now fear that this large group could be galvanized through this kind of an emotive issue.
“The agitations we are now witnessing are only the tip of the iceberg,” said eminent agriculture scientist M.S. Swaminathan. “Land and water conflicts will be our most serious internal security problems,” Swaminathan added.
In addition to their collective numbers, the grassroots groups’ meeting in Delhi have not ruled out challenging various provisions of land acquisition in courts, particularly in Singur, where the dispute is over land set aside for a small-car factory by Tata Motors.
Among early proposals being bandied about by the activist groups, ahead of their confab, are those stipulating that industry should negotiate directly with the local self-governments of the affected villages on specific terms and conditions for setting up such projects.