Here is a village tale: a moneyman comes to a sugarcane farm with the local bully and tells the farmer to sell his field. The moneyman buys the farm, builds a shop and makes ten times more profit.
Opponents of Special Economic Zones say this is the story of high-growth enclaves in many parts of India — thousands of jobs might be created in the future, but they are creating turmoil for now. The government says it is taking steps to address those concerns.
Vast swathes of land are required for the SEZs. That has pitted corporations against farmers who own most of the land, and, in many cases, do not want to sell.
So state governments have been helping corporations acquire land from farmers, using special laws under which they can forcibly buy private property if it is for a public cause.
The Commerce Ministry says that these companies, which will develop the SEZ infrastructure, cannot sell them further. They will lease or rent out offices and factories. Still, that has created an uproar.
“This is the biggest land grab in India — a crude and brutal exploitation of farmers,” said farmers’ rights activist Vandana Shiva. “They are using the coercive powers of the state to transfer land, which has not been transacted at market rates.”
State governments seem more receptive to farmers’ concerns after a crucial intervention from Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who cautioned last month at her party’s
Nainital conclave that prime agricultural land should not be used to build SEZs.
Within days, Commerce Minister Kamal Nath wrote to chief ministers, requesting them to ensure that land acquired for SEZs was “primarily waste or barren land”, and agricultural land should not be more than 10 per cent of the SEZ area.
If that is not done, there could be severe consequences, agriculture officials warn.
“Since land area is limited and agricultural land is the most precious,
one must be very careful. One will have to take into cognizance the long-term effects of the food security of this country,” said Mangala Rai, director-general of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. “Food security of India is an integral part of national security.”
But those concerns have not been uppermost in the land acquisition so far, and there is no proposal immediately to review the previous land transfers.
“Our land is very fertile. We used to grow sugarcane, cotton, wheat, mustard and millets,” said Raj Pal, resident of Mohammedpur village outside Gurgaon whose land was taken over by the state government for an SEZ. “We might have got money now, but how will our coming generations feed their children without land? Land is everything.”