Anti-SEZ Struggle in Maharashtra

The Peasants have won the first phase but still have a long way to go!

On 13th December, 2009 a conference was organised by various parties and groups engaged in anti-SEZ (Special Economic Zone), displacement and land acquisition struggle in New Delhi. This correspondent of Revolutionary Democracy also attended the conference where we got a chance to interact with various activists and comrades struggling against the onslaught of Indian state against the poor people who are going to be evicted if these plans are materialised. Below is the excerpt of interview that was conducted with comrade Shashi Sonawane of MahaMumbai Shetkari Sangharsh Samiti (Greater Mumbai Peasant’s Struggle Committee), who have been successfully waging a struggle against the proposed 35,000 acre (141.64 sq. km.) multi-purpose Special Economic Zone promoted by India’s largest private sector enterprise with annual revenues in excess of US$ 28 billion the Mukesh Ambani led Reliance Group of industries.

RD: Please tell our readers about the anti-SEZ movement that you have been waging against the MahaMumbai SEZ and also about your group which is waging it?

Shashi Sonawane: We are waging the anti-SEZ movement against the MahaMumbai SEZ (Greater Mumbai SEZ) of Mukesh Ambani of Reliance industries. This multi-purpose SEZ is proposed to come up in Raigarh district of Maharashtra with a total area of thirty five thousand acres of land covering a total of 45 villages in three tehsils of Pen, Panvel and Uran. On 17th-18th April 2006, on an invitation of some local lawyers we went to the area where this proposed SEZ was to come up. The collector of Raigarh had said that all lands would be acquired in 45 days. The government tactic was to send notices to the land holders of the area under Section 4 of the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 and then acquire the lands in one go. Another important point worth noting is that during the initial phase Mukesh Ambani was not directly in the picture, but all the activities for this SEZ were being performed by another person called Nikhil Gandhi whom now we can say was acting as the front man of Ambani. But after we started the agitation Nikhil Gandhi went into the background and Mukesh Ambani himself came in front. Mukesh Ambani adopted a 2 pronged strategy: while on one hand he along with the help of the administration was involved in land acquisition by invoking the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 on the other hand he hired agents in villages as well as appointed ex-IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officers and other officials like Tehsildars and others to buy land directly from the peasants.

As I just mentioned we got involved in this struggle just after the land acquiring notification was issued. We formed the MahaMumbai Shetkari Sangharsh Samiti with Advocate Datta Patil (former leader of the opposition) as its President, Advocate Dhananjay Patil, Working President and Advocate Meghnath Patil as its Secretary, Justice P.B. Sawant and Justice Kolse-Patil along with Com. Vilas Sonawane as its advisors.

Our organisation the Yuva Bharat along with Lokshashan Andolan of Kolse Patil, Retired Justice P.B. Sawant and comrade Vilas started the agitation against this SEZ. In this struggle against the SEZ and against the biggest and wealthiest Indian industrialist, Com. Vilas Sonawane played pivotal role in formulating the strategy and tactics and leading the masses.

RD: How did the struggle start?

SS: When we first visited the area we almost thought we would never be successful as we were fighting against the biggest industrial conglomerate of the country which had the full backing of the state as well as the government at the centre. But then we looked at the land acquisition act and the various provisions of the act. It is to be noted that this act was promulgated during the colonial regime of the British way back in 1894. So, imagine a law enacted by the colonial power more than a century ago is being used today by the various state governments with the active connivance of the central government to evict the poor and marginal farmers.

So we conducted the struggle at various levels, from fighting a legal case against the land acquisition to educating the peasants about the impending ruin that they face if the proposed SEZ is created. Thus we conducted this struggle simultaneously on different fronts. There were two broad aspects of the struggle. The legal aspect and second the mass education and mobilisation, according to section 4 of this law, when a land is to be acquired then the existing owner can submit his/her objection. There has to be a proper hearing on objections, only then may the matter be pursued further. This entire process has to be finished in a time frame of one year.

Though the act came up to serve the interests of the colonial rulers and has been shamelessly used today to serve the interests of the big corporate houses, we tried to take advantage of some of the provisions of the act itself to block the acquisition process.

We studied the case of each and every farmer and helped them prepare their objection report. Each farmer submitted individually his own objection that naturally differed with that of others, thus every objection that was submitted raised different issues. The authority then had to redress this grievance individually.

When the proceeding started on hearing the objections raised by the farmers, we took a morcha of 1000 to 2000 farmers and they were well trained about what had to be said during the proceeding. The authority then had to give time to individual farmer and had to hear their case separately which went on from one to two hours for each farmer. This slowed down the process of land acquisition.

Seeing the slow acquisition process Ambani went to court and the case was transferred to the Supreme Court. After the passing of one year the land acquisition was not completed, then Ambani went to the High court to extend the time limit but we countered this move of his by arguing that already the case was in Supreme Court and thus a new case could not be filed. The Supreme Court refused to give an extension and asked Ambani to go to the government. When all this process was happening the election dates were announced and the government did not go ahead according to the wish of Ambani, hence he had to withdraw his petition.

The second aspect was that we had to conduct a consistent struggle on mass mobilisation and awareness. When we started the struggle we had thought that people would not give their land. But the people or a majority of them were inclined to sell their land. This shows the sad plight of agrarian situation in the area and India in general. It is worth mentioning here that some of the farmers of the area had given land to the container yard that has been constructed nearby, and the farmers saw this as an opportunity to earn some extra money. We had to convince them of the consequence of giving the land away, The real estate price was explained to them, We gave example of the Navi Mumbai, where the CIDCO had acquired land in the 1970s at Rupees Thirty Two thousand per acre and sold it at 3.50 Lakhs per acre to the real estate developers, so the original inhabitant of the area got nothing but displacement.

Another point worth remembering is that this area is the last bastion of some of the earliest inhabitants of the Mumbai, the Agri caste people. These people were evicted from Mumbai by the British, from Navi Mumbai by the government and now they are facing eviction from the corporate house.

We also had to bring the socio-cultural history of Raigarh and had to tell them that your baap-dada (ancestors’) land did not sell them and become landless but instead they should do self development. Raigarh has a long history of struggle. It was here that under the leadership of Narayan Nagu Patil that a struggle for land to tillers was carried on. Raigarh is probably the only district in Maharashtra where the land reforms have been effectively carried out due to this legacy.

Thus a cultural renaissance of sort was initiated. We met with huge success in that today the people are not ready to give their land and become displaced once again. They are ready to resist and are resisting.

RD: Medha Patkar and others had also raised this issue? Please let our readers know their strategy and simultaneously the response of the Left and other forces?

SS: When we were waging our struggle by preparing and helping the farmers to formulate their objections, Medha Patkar came into picture. She held a public meeting in July-August 2006, in Pen. And she, as usual, raised the issue of rehabilitation, and got a lot of media attention as has been the case with these NGOs and their leaders.

Her argument was that if for the Narmada dam evacuees, till date the rehabilitation has not happened then how could it be done by this SEZ which is a private project? So, how do we ensure that proper rehabilitation would happen in this case. But we opposed this stand and said that there is no question of giving land so the question of rehabilitation did not arise. We gave our first slogan ‘Nahi-Nahin Kadachi Nahin; Amcha Jameenee Denaar Nahin’ (No, no never, we would not give away our land). And the second slogan that we gave was ‘Shetkaryaneha Ekjuticha Vijay Aso!’ Long Live Peasant Unity!

The NGO forces had formed a separate 24-Gaon Bachoo Samiti (Save 24 villages committee). They had a ready-made objection printed that they asked the farmers of this area to deposit and as they were all having the same objections their entire case was heard in one go. As a result Reliance has been able to get land in this area. In another anti-SEZ struggle which was headed by Medha Patkar and other NGO forces in Chakan, they only raised the issue of rehabilitation and not of resistance to the SEZ. As a result today the struggle has almost fizzled out.

When the SEZ was declared then all the parties including the Left parties like CPI-M and PWP did not resist, rather the PWP had initially supported the SEZ and declared that the SEZ is good for the people. Later in the wake of our struggle it had to backtrack. Raigarh is traditionally a PWP bastion. But in local politics the PWP has an alliance with the rightist-communalist parties like the Shiv Sena. It is a common saying that in Raigarh the Red Flag and the Saffron flag have a tie up. Similar has been the role of the other parliamentary left parties, which I would come to later.

The reformist left forces led by the CPI (M) and the Peasants’ and Workers’ Party (PWP) have also joined hands with the NGO forces along with organisations like the People’s Democratic Front of India and have formed the Jagtilakaran Virodhi Kriti Samiti (Anti-Globalisation Activist Committee) and the Anti-SEZ committee is part of this.

The reformist left along with the NGOs tried to hijack and diffuse the agitation by bringing in Sitaram Yechury. Sitaram Yechury along with the leaders of PWP and some NGOs had a meeting in Raigarh. We made our stand clear that we support any party or organisation that opposes this SEZ. But we also said that when the SEZ act was passed by parliament then it was having even the CPI (M) support. We also demanded that Yechury as a Rajya Sabha member should move a private member bill in Rajya Sabha against the SEZ and declare this in the public meeting.

In a meeting held by the CPI (M), Yechury said that no fertile land (land with 2 crops) should be acquired for a SEZ. Now the point is in Raigarh there is only single crop land, there are no two crop lands! Apart from this the farmers do not want to give away their land. So this shows the real intention of CPI (M). This was the reality of the intervention of the CPI (M).

RD: What is the current state of the movement?

SS: After Mukesh Ambani’s withdrawal from the land acquisition act, we can say we have won a battle of sorts yet the farmers of the area are not in a victorious mood as they see this as a ‘one step backward’ policy of Reliance who would come back again with even greater vigour and this time they would be armed with new laws and have the backing of government policy. As you may know, the government is trying to bring a new land acquisition act in the next session of the parliament. This act may give the capitalist-industrialists new means to acquire the lands of the peasants, and help the industrialists even better. Thus the war is still to be won, and the coming days may witness even greater struggles between the peasants and the capitalist class that would intensify with each passing day. But people are also ready to resist against any impending onslaught by the corporate government against their right to livelihood.

The important aspect of the MahaMumbai SEZ struggle has been that the farmers have completely rejected the NGOs and the other such forces who wanted to reduce this struggle to that of only rehabilitation. The other political parties are trying to do their politics, and we have no issue with that. In fact we have categorically told out supporters that they may support any party but when it comes to the struggle they should leave their party affiliation aside and struggle as one. We believe that the fight is for maati (land) and should be kept away from party.

The grand alliance of PWP, CPI (M), CPI, other parliamentary and non-parliamentary forces including the PDFI along with the NGOs is working in tandem to divert the anti-SEZ agitation by reducing its anti-imperialist nature to the question of displacement and proper rehabilitation within the framework of the Welfare State for which responsibility the present ruling class has shamelessly given up. But unfortunately they are all moving closer to the agenda of the NGO forces which we believe are not a real alternative nor are they interested in protecting the land of the poor farmers.

The coming days are going to be crucial ones which would decide the future course of struggle.

RD: The future of the anti-SEZ struggle and the need for a united all India coordination forum.

SS: We like other anti-SEZ forces believe that in a broader sense all the SEZs are nothing but zones of exploitation of resources, both human and natural. But at the same time every SEZ struggle has its own peculiarities, hence every struggle against it would have different character, based on the concrete local situation.

We also believe that the anti-SEZ struggle cannot continue for long until the SEZ act is scrapped. The initial success that we have achieved at the MahaMumbai SEZ has definitely acted as a fillip for the other anti-SEZ struggles being waged in other parts of the country. It has a positive impact on them and we hope that we would get similar success in other struggles also across India. This anti-SEZ convention would help the other movements to come and share their experience and also help other movements to share from each other’s experiences. The forum should at the same time not degenerate into just a lip service academic platform and a proper coordination would need to be done if we have to collectively succeed.

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