The Centre promised on Monday to “refine” its controversial policy to set up special economic zones (SEZs), a week after 14 people trying to stop the compulsory purchase of their land were killed by police in West Bengal.
“The SEZ policy will be refined in consultation with the state government, the farmers who own the land and industrialists,” said Union home minister Shivraj Patil.
Protesters in Nandigram—a village 120km south of Kolkata—were killed on 14 March when police opened fire in the bloodiest demonstration yet against state government plans to buy land to set up the zones.
The shooting deaths led to a one-day general strike in the communist-ruled state of West Bengal where Nandigram, the proposed site for a chemical industry hub backed by Indonesia’s Salim Group, is located.
Patil told reporters that the government has an “open mind” on the policy of setting up SEZs that are meant to be privately-run enclaves with world-class infrastructure and tax breaks to attract foreign investment.
Patil’s cabinet colleague, commerce and industry minister Kamal Nath, said his government was “committed” to setting up SEZs.
“There is no political wriggling out. It is an Act of Parliament, and the Cabinet has considered it,” said Nath.
“But there is the issue of land acquisition, which must be equitable, must be fair, must be at the right prices must be inclusive of the people,” he said.
Meanwhile, in Kolkata, police fired teargas shells and used batons on Monday to disperse about 20,000 protesters who marched towards the headquarters of the ruling Communist party, deputy commissioner of police P.K. Chatterjee said.
The police action followed demonstrators smashing two police cars and injuring a dozen security guards, he said.
West Bengal last week ordered police to break a blockade by villagers at Nandigram, which had been a no-go area for authorities since seven people died in protests there against SEZs in January. The unrest in January led the Centre to suspend plans for scores of SEZs, and prompted Bengal’s ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) to announce that the proposed Nandigram zone would be scrapped.
Under fire from critics, the party on Monday said police were sent to Nandigram because thousands of villagers known to be its supporters had been driven out of their homes after the January unrest.
The party, which has ruled the state for 30 years, also hinted at the involvement in the episode of Maoist rebels, who killed 55 policemen on 15 March in Chhattisgarh.
“The other day, I saw a statement by their leader saying, ‘We are there in Nandigram’,” CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat told reporters on Monday, in reference to Maoists who operate in 15 states.
In New Delhi, Parliament adjourned several times on Monday over the Nandigram shootings, with Opposition members trooping into the well of the House and demanding regular business be set aside for a special debate on the killings.
Opposition leader L.K. Advani threatened to stall proceedings again if the Union government did not agree to a special debate.
The violence in Nandigram has renewed debate over whether farmland should be used for industry in India, where some two-thirds of the billion-plus population lives off agriculture.