Special Economic Zones and People’s Struggles in Gujarat
Gujarat, one of the most industrialized states in India, is at the forefront of the creation of Special Economic Zones. While the state, ruled by the rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for the last decade, has been promoting the industrialization of Gujarat as a success story, coining the term “Vibrant Gujarat,” it is worth surveying the contours of a particular pattern of development. The mushrooming of SEZs and rapid industrialization along the ecologically-sensitive coastline have adversely impacted the coastal ecology of the region, as well as the communities living there. Several marginalized communities, especially small and medium farmers, fishing communities, traditional saltpan workers and grazers, are affected.
This article will focus on the people’s struggles against the establishment of SEZs, the impact of SEZs on communities, and the anti-people policies of the state, which forcibly separate marginalized communities from their traditional sources of livelihood.
India was one of the first countries in Asia to set up exclusive Export Processing Zones (EPZs) to boost export and promote economic growth. In 1965, the first EPZ came up at Kandla port in Gujarat. Several others followed in various parts of the country. However, the EPZs could not deliver the expected economic returns due to lack of proper management.
The liberalization of the Indian economy in the 1990s drastically changed the way business was conducted in India. To boost the Indian economy and attract Foreign Direct Investments (FDI), the government came up with a new economic business model. Thus, the concept of Special Economic Zones (SEZ) originated. The main objective of this model was to create specially delineated, duty-free enclaves for processing and exports. In April 2000, the SEZ policy was announced, and in May 2005, the Indian parliament unanimously passed the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) Act, 2005.
At the state level, even before India’s SEZ Act, 2005 came into effect, an over-enthusiastic government of Gujarat had already enacted a state-specific Special Economic Zone policy (1). Since then, Gujarat has been at the forefront of SEZ creation. Situated in the westernmost part of India and surrounded by the Arabian Sea, Gujarat is gifted with a 1600-kilometer coastline, which supports a large number of natural harbors and ports. Because of this geography, which is ideal for the promotion of exports, most of the SEZs in Gujarat are concentrated on the coastal corridor of Mundra, Dahej, Jamnagar, Jambusar and Hazira.
Kutch district, one of the largest in Gujarat and once an ecological paradise, is now under severe threat due to excessive human intervention. The rich, unique ecosystem of Kutch is full of mudflats, salt marshes and mangrove swamps. The semi-desert region is home to several species of migratory birds during the winter season and provides a safe haven for hundreds of thousands of flamingos, herons, egrets, and sandpipers.
Recently, the Kutch region has been experiencing dangerous threats to its unique ecosystem from SEZs that are mushrooming along its coastal corridor. Petroleum, cement and chemical factories, mechanized salt works, and coal-fired thermal power plants have all come up along the coastal belt. In addition to posing great danger to the ecological diversity of the region, the SEZs adversely affect the fishing community of the Kutch region, locally known as Waghers, who have – in many cases – lost their access to the sea. For the Waghers, whose lives are closely connected with the sea and who are heavily dependent on fishing, the upcoming SEZs have severely disrupted their life.
The SEZ at Mundra Port
The Mundra Port and Special Economic Zone (MPSEZ), promoted by the Adani Group (a huge corporate conglomerate), is India’s largest port-led SEZ. The MPSEZ, which falls in the Kutch region, is being developed over a sprawling 100-square-kilometer area as a privately-operated, multi-project, diversified SEZ.
The state government has allocated the Adani Group 2,008.41 hectares reserve forest land in Mundra for the MPSEZ at a cost of 966 million rupees (21.3 million USD). It is estimated that the Adani Group got the land in Kutch at the extremely low cost of 10 rupees (0.22 USD) per square meter. The land has been given on a right-to-use basis by a Government of India order dated September 30, 2009. Shockingly, just a year earlier, the same land was being sold off and leased out at the rate of between 700-800 rupees (15.5-17.7 USD) per square meter.
Much of the opposition to SEZs in India has centered on issues of land acquisition, compensation and rehabilitation. To implement development projects, land is acquired using the draconian, colonial-era Land Acquisition Act of 1894. In most acquisitions, the compensation paid to the farmers or communities is either too low or non-existent. The Land Acquisition Act has come under severe criticism, especially because the government often employs repressive measures to acquire poor people’s land, including the use of violent methods. When there is no redress for the affected people’s woes, people are left with no other option but to agitate and at times become aggressive and even violent.
The fisherfolk in the Kutch region are also agitating because they are frustrated by a development and infrastructure-building model that compels them to fight for their survival. They are questioning the government’s development and land acquisition strategies, which fill the pockets of private corporations and private individuals in the name of the public good, while the state exchequer and the people’s own capital are being drawn down in the name of development.
The fisherfolk all along the Kutch coastline are vehemently opposing the MPSEZ. In Kutch district alone, around 1,000 people affected by the MPSEZ have pledged to use non-violent methods of satyagraha (originally pioneered by Gandhi) to regain their land lost to the SEZ.
The fisherfolk’s major allegation against the MPSEZ is that the Adani Group has systematically violated the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) laws by undertaking activities that have wreaked havoc on the unique ecosystem of Kutch, including the illegal filling of creeks, the reckless destruction of mangroves, and various illegal constructions.
In 2008, the fishing community of Kutch, in a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed in the Supreme Court of India, pointed out the violations at the Mundra Port. The PIL highlighted the illegal filling of creeks that affected the fishing community. The fishermen accused the Adani group of grabbing their grazing land as well as blocking their path to the sea. Several environmental activists and NGOs working in the area supported these claims. In court, they submitted satellite maps and photographs of the region before and after the construction of the SEZ, which show the extent of the damage done to the local ecology.
The Supreme Court issued a stay order temporarily stopping work at the MPSEZ and asked the port management authority to investigate the allegations. Surprisingly, the Supreme Court of India soon vacated (that is, canceled) the stay order. The court did, however, issue a notice to the Adani Group requesting it not to fill the natural creek in the area. However, the local fishermen are accusing the Adani Group of violating the court’s order by continuously filling the creeks in order to develop the MPSEZ. Meanwhile, in 2008, the Gujarat High Court directed both the Kutch District Collector and the Gujarat Maritime Board (GMB) to inspect disputed creeks near Mundra port.
The struggles of the community did not end there. The fishermen in the area have been protesting against another project coming up as part of the MPSEZ, the Water Front Development Project at Mundra Port. In April 2009, more than 5,000 fishermen across the Kutch region threatened to boycott the Lok Sabha polls (parliamentary elections). They demanded an immediate stoppage of the project, which adversely affected their livelihood.
For the fisherfolk in the Kutch region, protecting their livelihood in the recent past has involved a chain of struggles against the rapid industrial development in the area. In August 2009, a violent incident took place in Bhadreshwar, a small hamlet in Kutch, between the villagers and the security men of OPG Power Ventures, a company building a coal-fired thermal power plant. The villagers have been protesting against illegal constructions undertaken by OPG. The upcoming power plant in Bhadreshwar, the second largest fishing centre in the Kutch region, would displace the fisherfolk in the area and block their livelihood.
In yet another struggle, people in Navinal village filed a PIL demanding a huge chunk of the gaucher (grazing) land allotted to MPSEZ be returned to them. The villagers allege that MPSEZ is illegally undertaking constructions without clearances and is destroying the precious mangroves in the region. The villagers are also claiming that the state government’s sale of land to the Mundra SEZ is illegal. The state government had sold the gaucher land for industrial use. This is in contravention to various notifications that require certain amounts of land to be allocated to each village for grazing, in proportion to the number of cattle in each village. They are urging the state High Court to quash the land sale to MPSEZ and vest the gaucher land to Navinal’s Gram Panchayat (local governing body).
Meanwhile, responding to a long series of submissions, memoranda and requests from tireless local struggle groups and fisherfolk, a Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) delegation visited Bhadreshwar for a site inspection. The report of this inspection, published in December 2010, points out that there have been violations in the MPSEZ project, and in several places there has been large-scale destruction of mangroves, especially at the northern port. The report further points out that the MPSEZ has systematically obstructed the creeks systems and the natural flow of seawater by illegal reclamations along the creeks.
The report also looked at some other projects in the MPSEZ and pointed out that the ongoing airport construction is being done without proper environmental clearances. The same goes for the upcoming Samundra Township in the MPSEZ area, which falls within the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) area and has no proper clearances under the 1991 CRZ notification.
During the Vibrant Gujarat summit in 2010, the Government of Gujarat made investment promises worth several billion rupees in hope of attracting huge FDI inflows in the coming years. The development projects in the pipeline include the continuing expansion of the MPSEZ, as well as several other SEZs in the region. Conclaves like Vibrant Gujarat intend to solicit huge inflows of FDI, without addressing the toll that this skewed development pattern takes minorities and other affected communities.
In February 2011, Abusaleh Shariff, the chief economist of the National Council for Applied Economic Research (NCAER), released a report showing that Gujarat has astonishingly emerged as a state with high levels of hunger. Although Gujarat boasts about high per capita income and consistent income stability, the hunger levels in Gujarat are higher than in many other Indian states, including Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, and even Uttar Pradesh, a state known for its poverty.
The SEZs in Gujarat have dispossessed fishing communities, agricultural farmers, grazers and salt pan workers and have made them destitute in a state that boasts of high development. The proponents of SEZs believe that these duty-free enclaves will bring in huge FDI and boost economic growth. Despite these claims, one must realize that the state has committed a grave error in handing over an ecologically unique and sensitive area like Kutch to private corporations for reckless construction of SEZs, while turning a blind eye to flagrant violations of Coastal Zone regulations. The SEZs in Mundra and elsewhere in Kutch have made it almost impossible for the lowest in the social strata to eke out a living, separating them from their traditional source of livelihood and blocking their access to the sea. Although both the government and the corporate lobby are giving a big push for construction of SEZs across the country, there is an ever-growing effort by people’s movements to ensure that the people’s access to common property resources is not taken away from them.