Anti-SEZ Struggle and the referendum against Maha Mumbai SEZ, RAIGAD
Raigad, Maharashtra has over the last few years seen a flood of companies interested in setting up SEZs
move into the district. The district currently has 29 SEZ proposals spread over almost 50,000 acres of land. While the government estimates that only 50,000 people will be affected by SEZs in Raigad, more than 2 lakh people are directly or indirectly dependent on local economies and would thereby be impacted by such projects.
Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) is one company which has proposed setting up a multi-service SEZ in Raigad. RIL has sought to acquire approximately 14,000 hectares of land for its Maha Mumbai SEZ. Local residents, who largely belong to the adivasi Katkari tribe, the Koli (fisher) community and the OBC Aagri community, currently use this land for agriculture, salt production, and grazing.
Villagers in 22 villages in Pen and Uran talukas in Raigad began opposing RIL’s Maha Mumbai project as soon as land acquisition notices were served in 2006. Protests against the SEZ were led by local farmers, workers’ unions, civil society groups, and organizations such as the 24 Gaon SEZ Virodhi Sangarsh Samiti, Jagtikikaran Virodhi Kruti Samiti, Peasants and Workers Party, National Alliance for People’s Movement, Janata Dal, Samajwadi Jan Parishad, and Rashtra Seva Dal.
The first agitation of farmers was organised by the local Pen Panchkroshi Sheti Bachao Samiti (Committee to Save the Farmland) and National Centre for Advocacy Studies (NCAS) 24-25 June 2006 at Bardawadi near Pen. This initial meeting was attended by various organizations in the Konkan region, including representatives of National Alliance of People’s Movement (NAPM), People’s Political Front (PPF) and Shoshit Jan Andolan. Those present at the meeting began planning a detailed campaign against RIL, intended to widen the struggle against Maha Mumbai SEZ by involving affected people throughout Maharashtra and India7.
Local activist Arun Shivkar expressed the spirit behind the meeting: “There is no question of increased
compensation for the land – we just do not want to give our land to Reliance.” Ganesh Thakur reiterated this sentiment, noting "we have given our land for development for public purposes, especially roads, harbours, airports, railways, dams, [and] schools…we will do that even now, but we will not give our land to private companies."
The Government of Maharashtra was initially responsive to these protests against the RIL SEZ. On 12
December 2006, a people’s delegation led by the Jagtikarn Virodhi Kruti Samiti met the then CM Mr. Vilasrao Deshmukh and Rehabilitation Minister Mr. Patangrao Kadam in Nagpur during the winter session of the Maharashtra Assembly. Government officials assured the anti-SEZ delegation that irrigated and agricultural lands connected with the Hetwane Dam would not be acquired for development projects. They also gave their word that the government would not acquire land without prior consultation with landowners. Despite these announcements, no action was taken to withdraw the project acquisition notices.
Following this failure on the part of the Maharashtra Government, the Jagtikikaran Virodhi Kruti Samiti organized a state level Jagar Yatra from 3-12 January 2007 to create and build public awareness on t issues relating to Maha Mumbai and other SEZs in the region. The Yatra covered Raigad, Mumbai, Pune, Aurangabad, Parbhani, Nanded, Chandrapur, Amaravati and Nagpur districts. Leading activists, farmers, labourers, and others participated in the Yatra, chanting slogans like ‘Repeal the SEZ Act’ and ‘Save our sovereignty’.
On 14 February 2007, the 24 Gaon SEZ Virodhi Sangarsh Samiti organized a relay hunger strike to further protest government inaction on unjust land acquisition for RIL’s Maha Mumbai SEZ. The strike lasted until 5 March and helped persuade the state government to again promise action on the issue. On 23 March 2007 in a Rasta roko in Raigad, government officials told leaders of the Peasants Workers’ Party and the Jagtikikaran Virodhi Kruti Samiti that the matter of forced land acquisition would be discussed in a Cabinet Meeting. Whilst activists expected a hearing on the issue, the government avoided any public discussion and instead issued a notification under the LAA stating that the land at Pen and other areas would be acquired for Maha Mumbai
In addition to failing to respond to protests about land acquisition, the Maharashtra State government also failed to follow its own procedural policies. After having issued initial land acquisition notice section
4 (1) to farmers of Raigad on 9 June 2006, the state government was supposed to have issued a second notice within the year. The farmers were glad that their opposition to government policy had stalled the land acquisition process but there were also apprehensions that the government’s delayed response could as well mean that the government was up to some tricks against the farmers. On 21 June 2007, approximately one thousand farmers gathered to express their continued opposition to RIL’s SEZ to force a response from the government and to set at rest the exact government position on the issue. Protestors, who were part of the Anti-Land Acquisition and Anti-SEZ Committee (ALAASC), demonstrated against the government by burning land acquisition notifications in front of the Special Land Acquisition Office at Pen. The protest was organized under the leadership of Prof. N.D Patil, Mr. Mohan Patil, Mr. Manav Kamble, Ms. Ulka Mahajan, Ms. Vaishali Patil, Ms. Surekha Dalvi, Mr. Ganesh Thakur, and Mr. Dhariyasheel Patil.
At the protest, ALAASC member and senior lawyer Surekha Dalvi explained that the Maha Mumbai SEZ "is a government sponsored land grab by the rich and powerful. Already we are engaged in a struggle against such serious land related issues as implementation of Land Reforms and the restoration of dali,or eksali lands in Konkan or on adivasi lands in other forest-land area. And here the government has been allotting large tracts of lands, mostly by acquiring through Land Acquisition Act and passing it on to the private parties". Ulka Mahajan, the national convener of NAPM, furthered argued, "When the government has been cutting subsidies for farmers, workers and middle classes, then when it cannot assign a fraction of funds for rural employment guarantee scheme, the public distribution system is being dismantled. The people will not take it lying down”.
Some farmers protesting with ALAASC expressed more intense frustration and anger over the SEZ issue. Mr. Ganesh Thakur claimed, ‘the government is supporting SEZ companies … and using government as an instruments to oppress farmers’. According to Thakur, opposition to SEZs would ‘show our Aagri Bheja [anger]’, and force the government to be accountable. Ms. Ulka Mahajan shared Thakur’s sentiments and listed many promises broken by the government. She noted that the government had promised farmers water from the Hetwane Dam, but subsequently refused to build canals. The government began canceling local irrigation projects in order to maintain water supply for the SEZ and to ensure easy land acquisition. Although the government was refusing people their land and water rights, Mahajan emphasized that villagers ‘will not give our mother land to any private company, whatever may happen’. Mahajan was joined by other farmers in chanting slogans, like: “Aamacha bhat aamacha masa reliance gal ghaltoch kasa! Denar nahi denar nahi aamchi kali aai denar nahi! Aamacha ladha nayayasathi manoos mahnhun jagnyasathi” (roughly translated as: Our rice and our fish. How dare Reliance throw a bait! We will not give our land which is like our mother. Our struggle is for justice and life with dignity.)
Protests against RIL Maha Mumbai SEZ continued until 18 July 2007 at Pen, with almost 17 farmers and activists joining Professor Patil in an indefinite fast. The activists demanded that their 22 villages be excluded from the SEZ; that section 6 (1) of the land acquisition notification be scrapped; and that canals immediately be built on the Hetwane dam. On 24 July, Deputy Chief Minister Mr. R. R. Patil and Mr. Patangrao Kadam, on behalf of Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, promised that the government would exclude the 22 villages from Maha Mumbai. The protesters called off their hunger strike on the evening of
24 July in the presence of Medha Patkar, Prof. N.D. Patil and hundreds of farmers from Pen.
One year later, the government again failed to uphold its promises and the Jagtikikaran Virodhi Kruti Samiti organized another Rasta roko at Vashi Naka on 17 June 2008. During the Rasta roka, hundreds of farmers were arrested. Officials also arrested Prof. Patil, who declared that he would begin another indefinite fast in Mumbai against the apathy and broken promises of the Government of Maharashtra. Prof. Patil – an 82 year old with serious kidney related health problems – began his indefinite fast on 24 July
2008 at Aazad Maidan Mumbai. As his health deteriorated, he was admitted to J. J. Hospital, where he continued his fast.
To support Prof. Patil, farmers from Raigad, Pune, Gorai, Aurangabad, Dhule, Nandurbar, Beed, Nanded, Kolhapur and Nashik joined the fast. Amongst those who undertook the fast were Mr. Pannalal Surana, Mr. Dada Samant, Mr. Manav Kamble, Mr. Maruti Bhapkar, Mr. Janardhan Patil, President of the 24 Gaon SEZ Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti, Mr. Ganpatrao Patil MLA from Sangola, Mr. Vivek Patil MLA from Panvel and Uran, Mr. Gajanan Khatu leader of Lokrajniti Manch, Mrunaltai Gore, Medha Patkar leader of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, Mrs. Neelima Patil the Zilla Parishad President of Raigad and more than 2000 anti-SEZ activists. For three days, activists and others chanted slogans, sang songs and made speeches against Maha Mumbai and other proposed SEZs.
On 24 July, Chief Minister Mr. Vilasrao Deshmukh met a delegation of farmers to discuss the RIL SEZ. The hour long discussion revealed that the CM had been misled by his Revenue and Water Resources Secretary. They had told Mr. Deshmukh that irrigated land from the Hetwane Dam did not overlap with land being acquired for Maha Mumbai. Farmers explained that 22 villages in Pen actually received water from the dam and the government should not take their land. Upon learning this, the CM offered to bring the issue to the Legislative Assembly.
On 25 July, the issue of land acquisition for RIL’s Maha Mumbai SEZ was finally raised in the Legislative Assembly. Pressured by activists and farmers, several MLAs insisted that the 22 villages in question be excluded from SEZ immediately. Questions were raised in the Assembly by the legislators of the Peasants and Workers Party, Communist Party of India, Shiv Sena, and Bhartiya Janta Party. Both the Revenue and Water Resources Ministers participated in the discussion, which concerned their Ministries. However, in the absence of the CM the Ministers were unwilling to make a definite announcement and the opposition stalled the work and led a walk out of the Assembly.
Twenty sixth July 2008 marked the concluding day of the monsoon session and the third day of the indefinite fast. The Maharashtra State Government, under pressure to end the Assembly session, announced a decision on the Maha Mumbai SEZ. After the Revenue, Rehabilitation and Water Resources Ministers consulted, the Assembly announced that they would exclude the 22 villages from RIL’s SEZ. Pressure from opposition parties in both the lower and upper houses of the legislature and the protesting farmers had persuaded the Government to respond to farmers and activists.
Legislators proposed a referendum to determine whether farmers wanted to sell their land to RIL. The government notified the Forest and Revenue Departments to prepare the referendum and provided one month notice to the 30,000 land holders in the Pen Block. On 21 September 2008, the government held the referendum and 6,199 of 30,000 farmers filed their opposition to the Maha Mumbai SEZ. Since each of these voters held an average of three plots of land, approximately 2/3 of all land owners actually opposed selling land to the SEZ.
While citizens clearly voiced their opposition to RIL’s Maha Mumbai SEZ at Pen, the government has not yet declared the result of the referendum. However, the referendum itself has provided hope for many across India who are demanding similar votes before the establishment of development projects in their communities.