Villagers’ struggle overthrows corporate giant from agricultural land
In western India, a small village’s protest against the industrial development of their land has led to a triumph against a major business corporation. The state government of Maharashtra has been forced to withdraw Diu as a Special Economic Zone – initially hailed significant due to its proximity to the financial city of Mumbai.
Supporters of SEZs say they allow businesses to develop with less bureaucracy/ Photo credit: BBC News
In a small village outside India’s commercial capital of Mumbai (Bombay) a group of villagers are celebrating a remarkable victory over a multi-billion dollar business empire.
Farmers and housewives in the sleepy hamlet of Diu took on a powerful coalition which included the state government of Maharashtra and billionaire magnate Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries.
The Diu villagers lived on land which had been earmarked to be developed as a Special Economic Zone (SEZ).
But after a vociferous campaign opposing the development of their land, during which the deadline for acquiring the land lapsed, the state government finally denotified it.
Only about 3,700 acres out of a potential 20,000 could be acquired by the authorities in the end. If the development had come into being, it would have been spread over 20,000 acres and bordered about 45 villages.
Now the villagers are free to use it as they wish: they can cultivate it, sell it or mortgage it for loans.
"We want to cultivate this land for generations to come," said village elder LJ Thakur with palpable emotion.
He said he had fasted for several days as part of a sustained protest against the development. The villagers gathered together looked relaxed and triumphant – they are aware they have achieved something quite rare.
Only a handful of SEZs in India have been halted because of local protests. But although the villagers’ campaign was unusual, it does highlight why many people who work on such land in India are against such development projects.
They are seen as taking away local livelihoods for little or no compensation.
But the government argues that SEZs are an efficient and bureaucracy-free way of releasing India’s economic potential – enabling exporters in particular to get their produce speedily onto the world’s markets.
There are now almost almost 100 SEZs in India at different stages – some functioning but many still at the controversial land acquisition stage.
It is not clear whether this case will set a precedent.
If those behind the scheme still wish to have a SEZ, they will need to go to back to the beginning of a very convoluted process.
This particular zone was hailed as being significant because of its proximity to India’s financial capital Mumbai and its access to ports and sea routes. A new international airport is proposed to be built nearby.
The residents of Diu are eager to savour their victory and recall their struggle.
For Atmaram Mokal it was the longevity of the campaign that was key to its success.
"Except for stray incidents, it was never violent. All the farmers were united and we held demonstrations in Raigad as well as Mumbai. Women participated," he said.
In September 2008 an overwhelming majority of farmers from 22 of the 45 affected villages – voted against the zone in a rare public exercise not carried out in most of the other proposed SEZ areas.
Former local school headmistress Kusumbai Thakur – who played an integral part in the struggle – said that everything possible was done to save the land.
"It gives excellent rice," she said. "All of us have ponds in our fields to breed fish. Not only is it enough for our family’s needs, we make enough money for our children’s education.
"My grandson is studying in the US. I don’t see how a SEZ is better than our present lives."
She even composed motivational songs for women in the region who were opposed to the SEZ.
When asked if they oppose all development, unanimously they said no.
"Sure development is important but at what cost? The government should set up factories in infertile and barren lands. Create opportunities there. Isn’t food production important too? They should enhance agricultural production in this area. Make it profitable and empower farmers," Mr Mokal said.
Kiran Mhatre, another villager, points out that it is not only industries that create jobs.
"With knowledge of modern techniques and appropriate help from the government for support prices, agriculture can create many opportunities in farming and subsidiary occupations," he says.
Maharashtra State Revenue Minister Balasheb Thorat said that his department had not received any communication from Reliance Industries regarding the matter since the deadline to acquire the land lapsed.
As Kusumbai Thakur breaks into a celebratory song, others join in. For now, the villagers seem convinced about their stand against the SEZ and are confident of their long-term success.