Monday, September 22, 2008

Maharashtra villagers ‘vote’ on acquisition for Ambani’s SEZ

Battle of ballot for land
- Maharashtra villagers ‘vote’ on acquisition for Ambani’s SEZ

Pen (Maharashtra), Sept. 21: Six thousand people lined up for the vote but for once, polling booths were not handing out the ballot papers.

The voters came with the ballots.

In a first-of-its-kind exercise that could set a trend for contentious industrial projects in the country, hundreds queued up in 22 villages in Pen, Maharashtra, from early morning to give their verdict on the Mukesh Ambani-promoted Maha Mumbai Special Economic Zone (MMSEZ).

The battle lines had been drawn clearly — in white, pink and peach. As the farmers and their families stepped out of their homes today, pro- and anti-zone activists handed them the ballots.

Pro-zone agents distributed a white-coloured form, which mentioned some 10 conditions that needed to be met before a farmer agreed to sell his land.

The conditions include details of the SEZ, a price of Rs 1 crore per acre, 15 per cent stake in the developed land, direct jobs in the SEZ or a sustenance allowance of Rs 10 lakh, and Rs 250 daily allowance for landless labourers.

Reliance has offered Rs 10 lakh an acre for productive land, 5 lakh for unproductive plots, employment, and 12.5 per cent stake in the developed zone.

Anti-zone activists handed out three colour-coded copies of the same form that simply said the farmer concerned would not sell his land.

Of the three copies, one (white) was for the administration; the farmer got to keep the peach-coloured one; and the third (pink) was for the anti-zone lobby.

Raigad district collector Nipun Vinayak said of 6,151 opinions had been recorded through the day.

Vinayak said the exercise — initially dubbed “referendum”— covered 5,925 landed properties and could involve some 30,000 people. “We will collate the data and send a report to the government within a fortnight.”

In Mumbai, Reliance Industries head Mukesh Ambani said the exercise was a “good thing”.

“We want to have the trust of people,” he said.

Anti-zone activists claimed that trends at the end of the day indicated 90 per cent were against giving up land for the project that aimed at acquiring 10,000 hectares and proposed to bring in investments worth one lakh crore rupees.

The mood in the paddy-rich area, controlled by the Peasants and Workers Party (PWP), appeared to be strongly against the multi-product SEZ.

“Never,” said 67-year-old Subhash Mhatre as he came out of the “referendum” centre set up in a school.

“I will never sell my land. We are traditional farmers and our land is our only asset for future generations. There is no question of selling my 6.7-acre land,” Mhatre, who lives with his mother, four brothers and their families, added.

Ramdas Mhatre also “voted” against giving up his six-acre farm. “The compensation offered is so little that there is no question of selling my land,” the 65-year-old said.

As he walked away, he whispered that someone outside the centre had offered him Rs 2 crore. “But assurances are of no help,” he said.

But there were many voices willing to support the industrialisation of this paddy-rich zone, though for a much higher price than what Reliance has offered.

“Two crore and jobs for my two children or nothing,” said Gajanan Mhatre, 55, clearly tipsy at 10 in the morning.

This group of farmers quoted figures ranging from Rs 50 lakh to Rs 2 crore for an acre.

In Kaleshri, anti-SEZ activists roughed up journalists and prevented them from entering the village after they spotted reporters speaking to D.M. Mhatre, who owns seven acres and openly campaigns for the SEZ.

“Paddy can’t give a farmer much income. Even if he gets Rs 10 lakh as compensation, he would earn an annual interest of Rs 80,000 without doing anything,” he said.

PWP leader N.D. Patil said he welcomed the referendum. “We sent 24,000 objections to the SEZ, but they (the government) tried to go ahead with the acquisition. So when they felt that opinions should be sought from farmers, we welcomed it,” Patil, in his seventies, said.

“There are 17,000 hectares of uncultivable land in the state. But instead of taking SEZs there, they want to take fertile land.”