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Armed with the right to No

india Updated: Apr 11, 2009 23:05 IST
Ketaki Ghoge
Ketaki Ghoge
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

They were fighting the same battle. They used different weapons.

When 76-year-old Maruti Patil heard they were going to take 30 acres of his land for a special economic zone, he loaded his five guns and threatened to shoot anyone who tried to separate him from the land he had laboured over for 30 years in Alibaug in Raigad district, Maharashtra.

About 10 kilometres away, Admiral L Ramdas (76), a former naval chief, felt as strongly about his 10 acres in Alibaug, Raigad district, 130 kilometres south of Mumbai — land gifted to the 1971 Indo-Pak war hero by the Government of India.

He too decided to use the most powerful weapon he possessed: The Right to Information Act.

As an advisor to the Bawees Gaon Bachao Samiti (Save 22 Villages Committee), a registered body of farmers protesting the SEZ here, Admiral Ramdas also prodded farmers to file RTI applications.

Over 100 such requests had been filed, at last count — most of them demanding to know how 2,880 acres marked as a green zone was turn overnight into an industrial zone.

The RTI applications helped file a petition against the proposed 6,000-acre Indiabulls SEZ, eventually securing a stay on all land acquisition for the project.

And the law that empowered the farmers and landowners — passed by the UPA government in 2005 — could just cost the Congress-NCP state government a seat in Alibaug.

“I’m not suicidal, so I will not vote for the government that is planning to grab our land,” says Amit Patil, a civil engineer who owns six acres in Raigad. “My farmland helped pay the school bills for me and my two sisters. I will not part with this land to make way for bungalows for the rich. I will not stand by as the MIDC acts as a broker for real estate sharks.”

Patil has filed 35 RTI applications. And some of the findings were highly irregular: The lush rice fields and orchards acquired by the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation would be handed over to Indiabulls for a percentage of the profit — generally, private firms are compelled to acquire such land themselves, often paying more than the market rate, while the government can generally get away with paying less.

And the green zone would make way for an industrial unit, luxury commercial and residential spaces, landscaped gardens, a tennis academy, hotels and malls. Rehabilitation packages for the farmers would be whatever Indiabulls decided. Repeated calls, SMSes and emails received no reponse from Indiabulls officials.

Most surprising, the proposal was mooted by then chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, who directed the Industries Department to initiate acquisition proceedings without carrying out the mandatory survey or posting the plans before the public to invite suggestions and objections.

The villagers have now pinned their hopes on the judiciary. But, in an election year, they also plan to send a wake-up call to the government through their votes.

The beneficiaries could include local saffron party Shiv Sena’s candidate Anant Geete, or an Independent — farmer Sunil Naik from neighbouring Shahapur, who has been protesting land acquisition from a thermal power plant there.

Geete has support from the local Peasants and Workers Party, the only political outfit to take an openly anti-SEZ stance in Maharashtra.

“What Vilasrao Deshmukh has done goes against many of the state’s own rules of business, environment norms and development plans,” says Chinmaya Vaidya, Pune-based advocate who filed the petition on behalf of Admiral Ramdas in 2007.

Vaidya is also trustee of 30 acres here that have been in his family for generations.

For now, the MIDC and IndiaBulls request to quash the petition as premature has been turned down.

“It’s not a huge victory,” says Vaidya. “But we’ve got them worried and that’s a start.”