As he walks through a narrow lane in his village, Tukaram Bhoir points to a heap of dhan (rice) in the courtyard of one house.
“This is Karjat kolam rice. It is sold for Rs 23 per kg in shops. People here eat this and not some cheap rice sold through ration shops,” he says, illustrating proudly that theirs is not a backward area.
Bhoir (70), a retired schoolteacher who owns 15 acres of paddy fields, is among a number of Kane villagers who have refused to sell their land for the Mumbai Special Economic Zone promoted by Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani and close aide Anand Jain.
Kane, about 100 kilometres south of Mumbai, is one of the 45 villages in Raigad district that have been notified by the government.
But villagers here do not want to sell their fertile land for India’s biggest private city.
“Before they try to force us, they should remember what happened in Singur,” says Bhoir, referring to the violent agitations over a proposed Tata plant that claimed a number of lives in that West Bengal town and ended with the mega corporation pulling out.
As the election campaign gains momentum here, one thing is certain: Whichever combine comes to power — the Congress-NCP or the Shiv Sena-BJP — will have to think carefully before approaching the problem that is the proposed 10,000-hectare special zone planned in coastal Uran and Pen.
About 5 km from Kane, in Vashi village, Rajan Zemse (46) smiles awkwardly when asked who will get his vote this election.
“I am an NCP worker, but I am not participating in the rallies this time,” he says.
The NCP has taken a pro-SEZ stand, while his village is opposing it. And Zemse will not go against his village.
“They should take SEZs to areas where development is needed,” he says. “Here, we are doing very well traditional occupations like paddy farming and fishing.”
Vashi is just 6 km from the coast, where the sea is rich in lobsters and crabs.
“On a good day, a good catch can fetch up to Rs 2 lakh for a group of villagers,” says Zemse. “Some farmers in the area are also into aquaculture now, cultivating tiger prawns that are in great demand in Mumbai.”
Vashi was one of 22 villages that participated in a referendum on the SEZ a year ago, a secret ballot organised by the government last October to silence claims that it was acting in a pro-corporation manner against the wishes and interests of the local population.
About 6,000 landowners filed into special booths to participate.
“Most of us voted against the SEZ, but the government has not disclosed the result,” says Zemse.
Now, a fresh controversy is taking hold here, in the cluster of villages in the catchment area of the Hetawane dam.
“The government doesn’t want to give us water from the dam,” says Ashok Madhvi (35), another resident of Vashi, “because if they do, we will do wonders with our land and then they will have no excuse for forcing us out.”
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on Reliance’s mega plan.
The land acquisition notices issued by the government will lapse by mid-November. And only 10 per cent of the land needed for the SEZ has been acquired so far.
Once the notices lapse, the government will have to begin the whole procedure afresh.
While the spokesperson for the Mumbai SEZ said his company did not wish to comment on the issue, the government land acquisition office in Pen spoke for itself.
Dusty and deserted, a few government staffers mill about inside.
The promoters of the Mumbai SEZ have approached the Central government’s Board of Approval for a third extension — it wants the validity of the SEZ approval extended till August 2010.
“There is no point in extending the validity,” says Ulka Mahajan of the SEZ Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti (Anti-SEZ Agitation Committee). “In three years, they couldn’t convince more than a handful of farmers to sell out. One more year will not help them.”