Raigad/ Mumbai: Three years ago Sarita Moreshwar Patil cashed in on an offer and sold half an acre, from the 5 acres the family owned, to the Mumbai special economic zone (MSEZ), earlier called Mahamumbai SEZ, for Rs6.45 lakh. Another 1,200 farmers, located in Raigad district, Maharashtra, similarly signed on to the land acquisition conducted by MSEZ, a unit owned by Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL) chairman Mukesh Ambani and his close associate Anand Jain, without any intervention by the state government. However, MSEZ fell short of its acquisition target of 25,000 acres.

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Consequently, the state government denotified the SEZ on 18 February, giving a new and piquant twist to the growing tussles onthe issue of land acquisition. Are the farmers, now that the project has been nullified, entitled to demand their land back? Or, since it was done privately, does it justify the private developers retaining the land they acquired? The answer varies depending on who you speak to.

Change of heart: Seetaram Molkal, a resident of Venevele village in Raigad district, who sold 1.25 acres of land to MSEZ, is now demanding his land back. Photo by Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint.

The problem

Patil, along with others of her ilk, is at the nucleus of the dilemma. Tucked in one corner of a congested and narrow bylane of Johe village, Patil owns a three-bedroom home. Belonging to the middle class, she has three sons, one of whom is an auto driver and two others have permanent jobs in a factory. Seated on a plastic chair, beside her husband Moreshwar Narayan Patil who lost his voice after a paralytic attack, she relates her side of the story. According to her, she sold the land to fund the medical bills of her husband.

“They misled us by saying that we should give our land to them at a good price or the state government would take it away forcibly from us at a much lower price," Patil said.

Shouting to be heard above the blaring television set in the room, Patil called it a “distress sale". “The land was notified to make sure we could make no dealings with the bank," she added. Land in three tehsils of Raigad—Pen, Uran and Panvel—was notified, which meant that the farmers were not able to sell or mortgage their land or buy other plots in the notified area.

Distress sale: Sarita Patil (left) with her husband Moreshwar at their house in Johe village. She says she sold the land to fund her husband’s medical bills, who lost his voice after a paralytic attack. Photo by Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint.

“Unlike other coastal areas in Maharashtra, here we do fishing in ponds," explains 25-year-old Abhay Moakal, who is a farmer and a fisherman in Venevele village. “Along with the land being acquired, the ponds also go away, affecting fisheries in the area, which employs a lot of people."

And then there are farmers who claim that they have not been adequately compensated. Klaoji Mokal, also from Johe village, who has sold 4 acres of his land, said he was told he would be paid a compensation of Rs13-14 lakh for each acre. “I signed and submitted the paper only to realize that they paid me Rs10 lakh for each acre," he added.

However, MSEZ said the land was acquired through “mutual understanding" and there was no forced acquisition. The state government, which is being called upon to intervene, asserts it is a case of “private negotiation".

Originally promoted by Nikhil Gandhi of Sea Kings Infrastructure Ltd in 2003, Jain and Ambani acquired a majority stake in Mumbai SEZ Pvt. Ltd and Navi Mumbai SEZ Pvt. Ltd (NMSEZ) in 2005. The promoters were expected to invest Rs35,000 crore in developing infrastructure for both MSEZ and NMSEZ such as roads, water supply system, sewage disposal and power plant, among others. The combined annual export from both SEZs was projected at Rs75,000 crore and two million direct and indirect jobs would be generated.

The uneasy status quo was disturbed when media reports attributed to Maharashtra’s deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar, who belongs to the Nationalist Congress Party, saying that the state government would be taking a policy view on the land acquisition.

Pawar clarified that his statements had been misinterpreted.

“Since the land was acquired through private negotiations with mutual consent, government cannot take any steps to give land back to farmers," Pawar said in an interview.

At the same time, he said the farmers could seek legal redress, either individually or collectively, if the company had failed to keep its side of the bargain which required that it give 10% of the land back as a developed plot and provide one person in each family with employment.

Jain has defended the land acquisition. “Whatever land we acquired was through mutual understanding and there was no forced acquisition. And I have nothing to say beyond this."

A precedent?

“There is no precedent to MSEZ that was going to come up in Raigad," said justice P.B. Sawant, former Supreme Court judge, based out of Pune and closely associated with anti-SEZ demonstrations at Raigad.

In such a precedent-setting situation, “where non-acquirable land was sought for acquisition, the farmers were given an impression which was wrong and, therefore, they can approach the court on the same grounds," he added.

The farmers have not ruled out seeking a legal recourse.

Ulka Mahajan, an activist with the Anti-Mahamumbai SEZ Action Committee, voices similar concerns. “We are planning to go to the Bombay high court to challenge the land acquisition through private negotiations, because the farmers were compelled to do so," she said.

Sunil Dighe, a Bombay high court lawyer and advocate on behalf of the farmers of Raigad who sold their land, said that “depending upon the situation" they may approach the court. “If the land is acquired or purchased for a purpose and if the land is not used for that purpose, then one can appeal in the court of law," he added.

Though Dighe said that they are “well-equipped", he declined to unveil the grounds on which the farmers can present a strong case for returning their land. “We don’t want to disclose our ground, it may modify later on," he said.

Kanchi Koli, an environment lawyer said that though Raigad is a case of distress sale where “there were restrictions on the choices of people to whom you can sell your land", it is also an example of a regular contract. “This is a private sale, a willing sale of a private land," she added.

Sawant said it required a fresh legal solution. “An unprecedented case like this calls for an unprecedented law to step in, the courts in this case shall have the final word."

If the matter does indeed go to court, it may be politically uncomfortable for the government as it will uncover details about the project that have not been disclosed so far. For instance, in September 2008, the government conducted a referendum in these 22 villages asking farmers whether they were willing to sell their land for setting up the SEZ. While the state government never declared the results, anti-SEZ activists claim more than 90% voted against it.

When asked why the results were not made public, additional chief secretary (revenue and forests), Anna Dani, said: “I am new to the department, so I am not aware of the details and won’t be able to comment unless I go through the papers."

The politics

Rahul Gandhi showed successfully through his intervention in the Bhatta-Parsaul incident in Noida that land rights are a highly emotive issue and can gain rapid political traction. In Raigad, too, this is apparent.

Initially, the protest was anchored by the Peasants and Workers Party of India (PWP), part of the Left front. “Sensing popular anti-SEZ mood on the ground, later the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party also joined," said Kashinath Patil, a civil contractor and PWP worker, based out of Johe village.

The Shiv Sena has been holding rallies in the district asking for rights for the project-affected people. Deputy chief of Shiv Sena’s Raigad district unit Kishore Jain said: “Land belongs to farmers, which was forcefully acquired by the state government and it should be handed over to them."

Arguing similarly, local member of the legislative assembly and PWP leader Dhairyasheel Patil said: “As the purpose for which land was acquired from farmers no longer exists, the government should take quick steps to give the land back to the farmers. And our party has firmly stood behind farmers who were misled to sell their land to SEZ."

However, some farmers who have sold their land and are demanding it back are not very hopeful. “The politicians keep coming and going, but nothing really happens," said Maruti Maya Maukal who belongs to Vadhav village in Raigad district and has sold off 1.45 acres of his land in near-by Venevele village. “No one from the government side ever comes to take stock of our situation," he said.