Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The SEZ versus the ‘unrewarding’ small farm

By Aseem Shrivastava

Kakinada farmer Narasimha Murthy’s 5-acre farm supports 50 people, each living on around Rs 800 a month, more than twice the official rural poverty line. Why would farmers like him in 16 villages in Andhra Pradesh want to give up this livelihood for the Kakinada SEZ? What does the SEZ offer them anyway?

Lush green paddy fields shine in the sun. Tall coconut palms sway on the gentle hills. Our jeep rolls into a coastal hamlet. The huts are made in the traditional Coromandel style, long dried palm fronds used to make the thatched roofs that hang low, almost completely hiding the small windows. Children play in the schoolyard. Farmers are at work in the fields.

As we get down from the vehicle we are introduced to the farmers, who for over two years have been protesting land acquisition for a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) that’s being planned outside Kakinada town.

Kakinada is an increasingly important port. Among the companies that are interested in making investments in the planned SEZ is India’s largest oil and gas company, ONGC (though there have been some doubts regarding its participation because of saturation of refining capacity on the east coast). If a major oil refinery comes to the area, a local NGO activist points out, as many as 30,000 fisherfolk along the coast will lose their livelihood because of the dumping of chemical waste into the ocean.

Needless to say, no environmental impact assessment was done for the SEZ before approval was granted, first at the state and then at the national level. (In fact, there has been no environmental impact assessment done for almost all SEZs that have been approved.) The Kakinada SEZ was notified in April 2007.

Two women who look like mother and daughter drop their sickles and come and hold my hand. Their eyes look straight into mine. Their lined faces are pained. “Where are we going to go if this land is taken away? Who will give us jobs again,” they ask. They are among those who will lose most from the land acquisition. They are dalits.

We visit four of the villages that are going to be displaced by the SEZ.

Land acquisition issues

The collector in the region claims that three-quarters of the 10,000 acres of land for the planned SEZ has already been acquired. Most villagers and activists dispute this. Besides, most of the ‘acquired’ area is from the ‘assigned lands’ category, in other words already in the custody of the government (ironically, it is meant for distribution to landless tribals or dalits). According to a legal activist in Kakinada, a Congress and a Telugu Desam MLA have together managed to corner over 1,000 acres of this land. In theory, much of the assigned lands have already been allotted to tribals or dalits, but without the knowledge of the latter! In one case, the activist cited, 40 acres stand in the name of dalit families who know nothing about it (and, in some cases, are no longer alive!). This land is now being given to the SEZ developer, since no titles have ever been given for lands allotted to tribals and dalits since the 1960s. (I have pictures of villagers, their land titles written in chalk on slate-boards, standing in the middle of paddy fields they have been cultivating for as long as they can remember.)

Andhra Pradesh is one of the very few states that have laws protecting the sale of tribal land (though not land owned by dalits) in ‘scheduled areas’. Most villagers are refusing to sell their lands, though in a few villages some have done so, often under pressure from officials (some farmers are submitting affidavits to this effect).

The SEZ was earlier planned right on the coast in order to facilitate shipments of refined oil. However, an MLA who would have lost land in the bargain prevailed on the Congress government led by Rajsekhar Reddy to shift the location further inland. As a consequence, 16 villages are going to be displaced by the SEZ.

The chief promoter of the SEZ is Kakinada realtor K V Rao who used to be the secretary of industrial promotion (AP) till not so long ago. The land to be acquired has been declared ‘infertile’ -- lush paddy fields notwithstanding.

It is no surprise that the SEZ promoter wants precisely this area of land: water is accessible less than 10 feet below the ground and there are plenty of springs and waterholes in the area (the Godavari, Pampa and Suddagadda rivers are not far either). Government officials continue to argue that these are ‘dry’ lands.

Are small farms really unrewarding?

‘Wish is the father of thought’ goes a German proverb. Downtown India would like to see the demise of traditional ways of life in the countryside. (How else could industry access the vast resources lying under forests and fields?) A fast-spreading belief among the educated class in this country is that agriculture in general, and small farms in particular, are doomed to economic extinction. “Holdings are too small to be scale-efficient,” goes the argument.

A little research reveals otherwise. International financial institutions and globally powerful agribusiness corporations have long been busy manipulating the economic policies of this country (via its own willing policymaking elite, junior partner in the spoils game) in their own interests. This has meant that life has become (been made?) very difficult for peasants. Under conditionalities imposed by the IMF and the World Bank, public spending on irrigation and rural infrastructure has declined precipitously since 1991 (causing discernible stagnation in agricultural productivity). Costs of production for small farmers have been increasing. Not only have many subsidies (which support agriculture in competing parts of the developed world) been withdrawn (impacting small and marginal farmers most), farmers increasingly have to pay corporations for (now patented) seeds and related inputs, demand for which has been accelerated by the new technologies being sold to them. At the same time, under WTO agreements to which our government is a signatory, farmers are forced to compete with subsidised produce from abroad, cutting down their revenues. The pincer movement accounts for much of their distress and, in many cases, their suicide.

The above is true in many parts of the country (parts of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Punjab, Andhra Pradesh) where agriculture is more integrated with the globalised economy.

Along the Coromandel coast, the story so far has been a different one. Consider Narasimha Murthy, a handsome middle-aged farmer who owns five acres of fertile land in the village of Ravivari Pader near the town of Kakinada. He grows paddy for his own family (of five) on one acre, producing 40 bags every year. An acre each is devoted to casuarina, eucalyptus, chickoo and mango, interspersed with coconut, sweet potato, gourd and other vegetables. He employs 10 people every day during the sowing and harvesting seasons.

We sit down and do the economics of farming together. We discover that after paying each of his 10 workers Rs 100 a day during the sowing season and Rs 80 a day during the harvest, Murthy earns about Rs 18,000 every month, apart from the rice and vegetables that grow on his land. Thus, he runs an operation of almost Rs 4 lakh a year, which supports 11 working people and their families. In other words, 50 people are dependent on these five acres of cultivation, each living on an average of around Rs 800 a month, more than twice the official rural poverty line of under Rs 356 a month. Such a local subsistence economy falls beyond the cognitive horizons of our policymaking economists.

The question arises: Why should a farmer like Murthy be willing to surrender his land for what are being heroically advertised as greener pastures outside agriculture? Also, what sort of guaranteed employment can the government or the SEZ corporations offer the landless workers who will inevitably be jobless once the land is taken over? (One may ignore, as has become the habit in this country, the loss of community ties and culture that such dislocations invariably involve.)

The questions appear to answer themselves. It is all too facile for educated city-dwellers -- regardless of political stripe -- to believe that this country needs more (energy, water and resource-intensive) industrialisation and that, far from being what economists call a ‘zero-sum’ game, it will lead to everyone becoming materially better off in the long run, though there might be some short-term costs of transition for some. No doubts are entertained about the environmental costs of such a ‘fait accompli’ project; nor are the poor consulted as to what their precise needs and expectations are. We go on calling ourselves a democracy in a context where State-backed corporate hegemony rules the countryside as much as the imagination of the urban public.

The jobs that modern industry has been generating in India are not large in number (less than a few million net jobs have been added in the organised sector since 1991). Nor are the skills required for them readily available in India (because we have not bothered about proper education). The business pages are full of stories of ‘unemployability’ and ‘mismatch’ (between what Western-style industrialisation needs and what Indian workers, many of whom are refugees from industrial modernity, are able to offer).

In such a context, it is Murthy, the small farmer from Kakinada, who is more rational than our erudite economists and policymakers who advocate land acquisition for industry, no matter the cost to farmers, landless workers and agriculture as a whole. It must also be understood that industry wants land precisely in areas of fertile agriculture because that is where -- unsurprisingly -- infrastructure like power, roads and irrigation are most developed. This lowers the costs for industry, as against siting projects in the middle of wastelands and deserts. (It also worsens the possibilities for agriculture when industry piggy-backs off the infrastructure created over six decades for farming purposes. But this doesn’t seem to bother anyone.)

Finally, especially with regard to land acquisition for SEZs, is it obvious that the large amounts of land being acquired will not ultimately be deployed in real estate speculation? If so, how come the size of lands being acquired for industry (such as for the Tata car project in Singur or the many projects in Chhattisgarh) far exceeds the area required for the project? In a context where real estate markets around the country are booming under the large influx of foreign capital, the question could not be more relevant.

In Kakinada itself, the promoter of the SEZ is a senior bureaucrat-turned-realtor.

“You are under people’s arrest”

An event of great significance took place on September 6, 2007. Early one morning, in Sriramapuram (one of the villages falling under the SEZ area), a posse of 1,200 policemen arrived in the village in dozens of vehicles, with surveyors, revenue officials and senior functionaries of the district administration in tow. Their aim was to persuade, and if need be terrorise, the villagers into surrendering their lands.

Sriramapuram is a village of around 3,000 inhabitants. As people began to argue with the officers, four elders from the village were arrested and sent off to Kakinada jail. The villagers responded by surrounding the policemen, saying that they were under “people’s arrest”. Arguments and altercations ensued. The police used water cannons. In the meantime, some village youth dug up -- as in Nandigram -- the road that the vehicles had taken to enter the village. Marooned in the village, the police were forced to concede. They released the elders from jail and agreed to sign a written bond that they would not enter the village again. At the time of writing this, they still haven’t. A small triumph for Indian democracy!

The event in Sriramapuram went unreported in the English media in Andhra Pradesh and, of course, outside the state. Only the local Telugu papers carried a front page story on it, with photographs. When I shared the story with an audience of 250 people in Hyderabad a few days after my visit to Kakinada, no one had heard of the protests and the “people’s arrest”: a tribute to the effective censorship being exercised by the media.

The Andhra Pradesh State Human Rights Commission (APSHRC) presented a petition to the high court the same day, saying that the commission took “cognisance of the fact that the government is coercing and using force, involving police and also revenue officials against villagers to part with their lands, and even migrate from their villages, paving the way for the formation of SEZs”. The commission also noted that “undue influence is being exerted by government officials in seeking to withdraw all social welfare beneficial schemes”.

Other than terrorising villagers from time to time, in order to ‘encourage’ farmers to quit the land and leave it for SEZ development, the district administration, in an interesting set of moves, has been withdrawing development programmes from the Kakinada villages. In Sriramapuram, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), enacted nationally with such fanfare only last year, has been withdrawn. Families reliant on the scheme have been rendered jobless. The village school, attended by 250 children, might be shut down soon. In some villages, primary health centres have been closed. The villagers’ electricity bills are being inflated; one of them showed me a bill for Rs 6,537, followed by the previous bill for Rs 388 (he is appealing to the courts). In 12 villages, old age pension funds have been stopped, thanks to the efforts of an MLA. Road-building work has also been suspended.

Let’s call it “development through perverse blackmail”. Or, more appropriately, in the words of a well-known economist, “developmental terrorism”. The collateral damage of economic development in India is indeed mounting every day.

Recently, members of Andhra Pradesh’s Human Rights Forum visited the area. They confirmed reports that the villagers were being misinformed, forced and terrorised into surrendering their lands. They were being promised land in exchange for their present holdings elsewhere, officials claiming that facilities like transport and power were better there. Farmers had been fed rumours that their neighbours had already sold off their lands. Surveys had forcibly been conducted by revenue officials on private holdings. Farmers had been warned that if they did not give up their lands they would be running to the courts for the rest of their days. The Human Rights Forum is submitting over 100 affidavits from farmers to the APSHRC. It is demanding that work on the KSEZ be stopped immediately and thorough investigations carried out.

The coming months will tell whether the farmers of Kakinada will secure justice in the face of the stiff odds that confront them. Barring an NGO and a human rights group there is no one taking up their cause. The silence in the media is deafening. At the same time, they are being held down by virtually the entire establishment: revenue officials, development officers, the police, not to mention the powerful promoter of the KSEZ and business lobbies in the state.

It is hard to foresee the sequence of events. But it is clear that the farmers remain unconvinced by the arguments and offers being made to them by the administration. They will not vacate their traditional lands without a fight.

InfoChange News & Features, December 2007