Tanushree Gangopadhyay, Ahmedabad

Since the past two months, villagers in Surendranagar and Ahmedabad districts have been seething with anger. They have held tractor rallies, motorcycle rallies and street corner meetings.  “This is our land and not the government’s,” shout the villagers.  “Weed out real estate brokers like insects from your farms,” they chant.

Eleven Special Investment Regions (SIRs) are being proposed in Gujarat along a Designated Freight Corridor (DFC), a 1,418 km railway line across the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC). The railway line will seamlessly connect the two cities. Four SIRs will come up in Ahmedabad and Surendranagar districts.

The Gujarat government, under its  Special Investment Region Act of 2009, can declare an area as an investment or industrial hub. This law enables the state ‘to establish, develop, operate and regulate the SIR.’

Ahmedabad district has already been designated as an auto hub. The Tata Nano is being manufactured at Sanand. Ford is in the pipeline.  And Maruti-Suzuki is setting up its factory in Hansalpur.

But villagers do not want their lands to be included in the SIRs. They are resisting the government’s moves to convert their fields and pastures into factories.

In September 2012, the Gujarat government allotted 647 acres of grazing land in Hansalpur to Maruti-Suzuki for their plant. Another 200 acres, near Vithalapur, 25 km from Hansalpur, was allotted to the company to house its employees. Farmers feel the land has been given for a song, especially because Maruti-Suzuki will merely need to pay in installments over eight years.

Hasalpur village had in the past hosted the chairman of Maruti-Suzuki. “We were told that Maruti-Suzuki’s entry into our village would give our children jobs, that our village would get good infrastructure,” say the villagers. They had accorded the chairman and his team a rousing welcome.

Now they say:   “We shall fight it out. We won’t leave our lands.”

“On 13 May this year we were slapped with a government notification declaring our village as part of the Mandal Becharaji SIR. This means all of us will lose our farm lands,” says Ajmalbhai, sarpanch of Hasalpur.

“Several industries and roads have been earmarked. I will lose 30 bighas of fertile land. A railway line will go past our village. The Maruti-Suzuki factory will stop access to our farmlands.  Our grazing land is gone. Instead, we now have  a police chowki to protect Maruti-Suzuki and to stop the Maldharis from collecting fodder. Where will their cattle go?” he asks.

Significantly the allotment came seven months after the government announced  the Mandal-Becharaji SIR, located in Ahmedabad, Mehsana and Surendranagar districts.

Farmers from 44 villages in Mandal, Viramgam and Becharaji talukas of Ahmedabad and Mehsana districts, are opposing industrialisation. They do not want their villages to come under the Gujarat Town Planning Act either.

The villages point out that they have access to three Narmada branch canals spanning 452 km. “After 25 years of yearning, our parched lands have just got Narmada water,” say the farmers.  “Our lands are fertile. We cultivate cotton, cumin, sorgham, wheat and gram,” says Jagabhai, a farmer.

This region has three internationally acclaimed sanctuaries. The Little Rann of Kutch is the only home of the Wild Ass. The Nal Sarovar has exotic birds from Siberia and the Thol lake, 20 km from Ahmedabad, also has exquisite birds.

“We spent `50 lakhs on a tractor rally to Gandhinagar on 18 June. Over 5,000 farmers, pastoralists and landless workers with their families joined us,” recalls Naranbhai Patel, former sarpanch of Vanod, the largest village in Mandal Becharaji. “The government panicked and refused to let us enter Ahmedabad so we went down the highway to Gandhinagar,” he says.

A huge rally of youth on 1,500 motorcycles went to meet the District Collector of Surendranagar. Around 3,000 villagers met the Mamlatdar of Patadi. They are demanding repeal of the SIR legislation. Villagers say they will not only lose their fields and pastures they will also lose political representation.

Instead, the SIR legislation will give representation to industrialists in the Regional Development Authority that will govern the SIR.  The massive Narmada Dam was constructed to provide water to farmers. Now this water will go to industry. Whatever land remains for agriculture, will become fallow due to industrial pollution, point out the protesting villagers.

The agitation has received widespread support. Some workers from Maruti-Suzuki’s contract workers’ unions in Manesar, Haryana, joined the June rally. They were giving vent to their differences with the company’s management. In an open letter written in Hindi titled, ‘From Manesar to Mehsana,’ the unions of Maruti’s three plants underlined their support for the villagers and called on people in general to join their struggle against Maruti-Suzuki and the government. The shift to Gujarat has followed agitations by workers in Haryana and is seen as the management’s way of weakening the unions.

The farmers’ leaders say the SIR legislation is unlawful. It gives the state a pretext to acquire land bypassing all norms and procedures. Economist and former Union minister Y.K. Alagh who joined the protest rally said the Gujarat government was in a hurry to takeover land to circumvent the new Land Acquisition Act currently pending in Parliament.  Former state ministers Kanubhai Kalsaria and Sanat Mehta said they would challenge the SIR legislation.

The farmers point out that the only skill they have is farming. There are no educational facilities or technical institutes in their areas to ensure they get alternate employment.

Contrary to expectations, youth say they want to preserve their agricultural land. Some have been using their IT skills to promote the movement which now has a Facebook account and a website, azadvikassangathan.webs.com. “We needed to keep ourselves informed on what was happening,” explains Jayesh Patel who started the website. “ I am a farmer and I am also studying in college. We have 100 bighas. Like many others I am a BJP supporter but we find all political parties very opportunistic.”

However, K.D. Chandnani, CEO of Mandal-Becharaji Regional Development Authority, brushed aside all fears. “Gujarat, unlike other states, will not acquire land. Rather, land will be realigned, so farmers can cultivate the remainder. We are giving them good physical and social infrastructure and civic amenities. There is no question of rehabilitation as the farmers will not be displaced.”

He said land prices would skyrocket and farmers would become rich.  “Land prices in the Dholera SIR in Ahmedabad district have risen from just `2,000 per bigha to `10 lakhs,” he said.

Lalji Desai, Convenor of the Azad Vikas Sangathan, which is heading the agitation,  retorted that Chandnani was talking rubbish. “He met farmers and said they will have to bequeath 40 per cent of their land for the SIR. Prices of land will escalate so farmers will have to make up the loss by selling the rest of their land.”

“This is just looting farmers of 40 per cent of their land for which no compensation will be paid. It is absurd that these villages will come under the Gujarat Town Planning Act.”

Although Chief Minister Narendra Modi has said the SIR will not be inflicted on villagers, nobody wants to take chances. The protests seem set to continue and gather steam.