May 17, 2013 Cover Story, Frontline
Shakti Singh, the sarpanch of Jaspara village in Bhavnagar district of Gujarat, is an affluent farmer. On an ordinary day, he spends most of his time shuttling between Bhavnagar town and the 10 hectares of mango gardens owned by his family, sorting out the logistics of selling his farm produce for the best price. Storing the mangoes, employing people to work on his fields, dealing with traders and middlemen, and promoting and modernising agriculture in his area are some of the tasks that consume most of his time. The best-quality Kesar, the local mango variety of this region, is all exported to the United States and Russia and other European countries. At the end of the year he makes around Rs.8 lakh from his mangoes. Those who work on his fields on contract earn about Rs.3 lakh annually. The sale of vegetables, cashew nuts and coconuts through the year helps Shakti Singh and his workers make some extra money without too much investment or work.
However, in the last few months, Shakti Singh has been busy preparing court papers and holding public meetings. The proposed nuclear plant in the area would not only eat up most of his farms but would rid the entire region of its affluence. Known as the Mithivirdi Nuclear Energy Project, it will be the biggest nuclear plant in the country with a proposed capacity of 6,000 MW at an initial projected cost of Rs.64,000 crore. However, if the project goes through, it will directly affect 15,000 people in 24 villages. More than 1.5 lakh people in 152 villages in the region will be indirectly affected owing to the plant’s possible environmental hazards. Farmers in this area will lose their lands and a large number of landless labourers will lose their employment.
The entire economy of the area depends on farming. Everyone is involved in some process or the other relating to mango and coconut farming. And it is for this reason that Shakti Singh is not alone in the struggle to retain agricultural lands. At least 5,000 people from the villages in the vicinity have been part of the struggle ever since the project was announced in 2010. The public hearing on March 5, 2012, saw a massive turnout by villagers wearing black bands on their heads, but they were denied a chance to speak against the project.
While the nuclear plant itself is a Central project funded by Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd, the responsibility for land acquisition, environmental clearances and other bureaucratic procedures lies with the Narendra Modi-led State government. Activists and residents of the village claim that the mandatory Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report prepared for the project has not been made public despite repeated requests. The Gujarat government has stated that the area is safe for a nuclear project and that the land needed for the project is classified as “wasteland” as it falls along the coastline of the Gulf of Khambhat, rendering it too saline for agriculture.
However, contrary to the State government’s claims, the area is one of the most fertile ones in Gujarat. Most of the land along the coastline of Gujarat is protected by limestone walls that absorb the salt from the sea water and release pure and sweet water in the adjoining areas for up to 50 kilometres. This phenomenon makes the land along the coastline so fertile that the farmers of the area could go for intensive cropping three times a year. The government has always ignored such facts.
It is because of such wilful ignorance that the second-biggest ship-breaking yard in the world, the hazardous impact of which is fairly well-known, was developed only two kilometres from Jaspara and Mithivirdi. This correspondent noticed black and brown sea water throughout the Jaspara coast as a result of the ship-breaking that was done over the last 40 years.
Shakti Singh and other villagers foresee a complete collapse of the region’s ecosystem and that is why the movement against the nuclear project and land acquisition has been intense. However, the Gujarat government in the last 15 years has not only ignored such demands from the people, but also actively assisted corporate giants in destroying ecosystems in the name of “industrial growth”. The special economic zone (SEZ) at Mundra in the Rann of Kutch, developed by the Adani group, is an example of how bureaucratic processes can be manipulated to suit corporate interests.
The Mundra SEZ, spread over 10,000 hectares, being developed as a port and a special trading zone, has already displaced 56 fishing villages and 126 settlements. Not only have the fishermen lost their customary rights as a result of this development, but the farming villages in the area have also been stripped off their livelihood. Against the regulations of the Forest Rights Act, 2,008.41 hectares of forest land was cleared to set up a salt washery and a desalination plant. The Gujarat government did not respond to the protests of the local people and maintained that the land given to the Adani group was “wasteland”. Today, the fishermen fear that when the port becomes fully functional soon, they will not be given any access to the sea.
Based on complaints from the people of the area, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests set up a committee to inquire into possible environmental and livelihood violations. The committee report that came out in April 2013 listed several instances of non-compliance with procedures. It found that the public hearing was bypassed and construction activities had not only polluted the sea but destroyed 75 hectares of mangrove forests on which a large number of families depended. More than the farmers, the Dalits and Muslims who earned their livelihood by making coal from the region’s scrub forests have lost their source of income. Over 560 hectares of land in 14 villages has already been acquired, endangering the livelihoods of fishermen, agriculturists, horticulturists and livestock rearers.
According to a report prepared jointly by the Ahmedabad-based non-governmental organisations—the Behavioural Science Centre, the People in Centre and the Paryavaran Mitra—the Adani group was given over 5 crore square metres of land along the coast at paltry rates ranging from Re.1 to Rs.32 a square metre when the market rate was over Rs.1,500 a square metre. The Adani group got the land for industrial use and port development, but it sold/leased out a significant portion of it to other corporate groups, flouting norms. Leasing out or selling such acquired land is illegal according to the purchase deed.
Mundra and Bhavnagar are not the only cases in point. Gujarat under Modi has done the maximum amount of land acquisition for industrial use and Modi has successfully projected the process as a “win-win situation” for both the farmers and the industries and has tried to project it as the ideal model for land acquisition. The State government’s propaganda is based on three factors. One, the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation (GIDC) already has enough land to spare, which is why a large “land bank” already exists; two, the Modi government has been compensating farmers at the existing high market rates; and three, the industrial development has been taking place on arid land along the coastline, which, anyway, was not of much use.
The third factor, as can be seen from empirical evidence, is a brazen lie to suit corporate interests and is fraught with many inconsistencies. The first, about a land bank, is partially true. The GIDC acquired land in the 1980s for two purposes. It was supposed to give some of the reserve land to the landless so that they could earn their livelihood, and its primary function was to promote small- and medium-scale industries. Out of the 262 industrial estates under the GIDC, 182 are functional and most of these have been given to big corporate groups instead of empowering cooperative units in villages. Allocating land to the landless still remains a dream. Narendra Modi has used the GIDC primarily to facilitate the entry of big industrial projects. For example, the Tata Nano project, when it was ousted from West Bengal, set its base in Sanand near Ahmedabad on Modi’s invitation. The 440 ha of land that it got from the Gujarat government was part of the GIDC pool that carried out agricultural research. Since the Tata group demanded 960 ha, the GIDC acquired land in seven surrounding villages. Questions were raised when the GIDC blatantly brokered deals for the Tata group. During Modi’s regime, the GIDC has continued to acquire more land throughout Gujarat for industrial purposes. Sanand is set to become an automobile hub. Following the Tatas, the Ford group has already established a unit and Maruti has also expressed an interest, owing to continuing workers’ unrest at its plant in Manesar, Haryana.
Many farmers complain that the GIDC bought land from them in the 1980s for “public” purposes and it was not supposed to sell it to industrial groups. Since it is now selling these plots to industrial groups at current market rates to earn huge profits, the farmers feel cheated. Legally, the GIDC should have returned the acquired land within five years to the farmers if it was unsuccessful in developing these areas.
Moreover, Modi’s claim of “good compensation” is only a half-truth. While in areas like Sanand his government acquired land at market prices, areas such as Kutch and Saurashtra have seen worse forms of forcible acquisition. Gautam Thaker of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties told Frontline: “His land acquisition policies shift according to the awareness levels of the villagers. In villages near the cities, where real estate prices have shot up, Modi was bound to give the farmers a good deal. But he has used force along with ‘emergency powers’ of the government to acquire land in the hinterland and in coastal regions to develop big industrial zones.”
Most civil rights and environmental groups told Frontline that the Modi government had flouted all norms and procedures to give extraordinary facilities to big industrial groups and most of this had happened at the cost of livelihoods to an unprecedented number of people. The Nirma SEZ in Mahua is one such example. Nirma was allotted 268 hectares to set up a cement plant, besides a mining lease on more than 3,000 hectares in areas across the coastline in Bhavnagar district. Nirma’s logic was simple. It would break the limestone walls to manufacture cement and, without any additional transportation cost, would ship its goods through the port it would develop eventually. The Modi government classified the acquired land as “wasteland” and deprived over 15,000 people of their livelihoods. “Mahua is the second biggest onion-producing area in India after Nashik in Maharashtra. Together with production and processing at many dehydration and pesticide plants, onion gave employment to at least 15,000 people. The Modi government marketed the Nirma cement plant, saying that it would give employment to 416 people, which would mostly be unskilled labour. Can the loss of the whole economy of the area be compensated with the so-called Gujarat development model that Modi brags about?” asks Sagar Rabari of the Gujarat Lok Samiti, an organisation working for land reforms and land rights of the people.
In the revenue records that predate Indian independence, land is generally categorised as “private”, “grazing”, and “waste”. Private land is further divided into old and new tenures. While the old-tenure land can be sold, new-tenure land is strictly “agricultural” in use and cannot be sold. Grazing land for village animals, or Gauchar, is the only source of livelihood for pastoralists, a significant proportion of the village population in Gujarat. It belongs to the gram sabha and cannot be sold unless the government can show “inevitability”. Even in this case, the government can acquire the Gauchar by paying 30 per cent more than the market price. Wasteland is classified into culturable and non-culturable. These belong to the State government, which can only sell non-culturable wasteland in cases where a “public purpose” can be established.
In the last 15 years, the Gujarat government has acquired all these land by bureaucratic manipulations, as government documents reveal. In cases like the Dahej SEZ or Sanand, new-tenure land was converted into old-tenure land in government documents without any substantiation about whether it was acquired or bought. The benefits of an already half-hearted and incomplete land reforms in the State were also, thus, reversed. A major portion of the land acquired was Gauchar land without the permission of the gram sabha and the panchayat. In most cases, like the Mundra port, market prices were significantly lowered as the government has to pay 30 per cent over the market price.
In the defence institute project at Dahegam near Ahmedabad, 95 hectares of acquired Gauchar land was shown as “Padtar” (wasteland) in government documents. In some places in Kutch, Gauchar land was acquired, giving the reason that there were not enough cattle in the village. In other areas where the government acquired “wasteland”’ it was classified as “non-culturable” even while the villagers were using it for various purposes.
In other instances, where companies had to necessarily buy the land directly, the Gujarat government facilitated the process through questionable methods. In Jamnagar, when Reliance was buying land to set up its oil refinery, 17 residents refused to sell their land. The government intervened to acquire their land by invoking the land acquisition Act in the name of “public purpose”. Rabari said: “When they refused to take any compensation and continued to protest, the government deposited their compensation in the State treasury and informed them that they could take it anytime they wanted. Until that time, the money would accumulate interest. In many places, brutal police force was used to stop people from resisting.” While such instances of land acquisition speak of a corrupt system, they point to a larger nexus between the government and the industry where the government is brokering land deals for the industry on the pretext of “development” and “public purpose”. Such a nexus was institutionalised by the Modi government when, in 2003, it announced a new industrial policy without any public consultation. The new industrial policy makes it easier for the government to change the classification of land so that it can be acquired, and also gives unprecedented authority to the District Collector to invoke emergency powers.
In such a state of affairs, many land rights activists point out that during Modi’s rule, Gujarat has seen “land grabbing” more than land acquisition. Mahesh Pandya, an environmentalist, gave some figures to Frontline. “More than 51 SEZs were approved during Modi’s regime, out of which 20 are in the final stage. Ten companies have withdrawn but the acquired lands are still with them. If we see only those SEZ proposals that got approved in the last two years, 13 SEZs would need 10,263 hectares of land, and seven others that are waiting for formal approvals would need another 7,522 hectares. A total of 20,587 hectares of land will be needed just to develop all the SEZs. More land will be acquired under various names such as Special Investment Region or industrial hubs and so on,” he said.
Prasad Matthew Chacko of the Behavioural Science Centre said: “The corporate groups have got much more land than they actually require. And it seems only a few companies are the biggest beneficiaries of this policy. Reliance, Adani, L&T and Essar are just some of them.” Chacko’s comment is not off the mark. To cite just one example, the government acquired land for the Reliance oil refinery at Jamnagar, but the latter openly advertises about its agro-businesses and corporate farming within that area without an initial permission to conduct such businesses at the time of acquisition.
The biggest casualty of Modi’s development model has been the village economy and the fraternity induced by mutual economic dependence. Owing to inadequate implementation of land reforms, upper castes like Darbars (Rajputs) and Patels in Gujarat own the majority of the agricultural land. Because of the growing pressure on land, even the upper castes have been losing most of their resources and assets. The landless, mostly Dalits, pastoralists like Rawals and Rabaris and Muslims, are in the most vulnerable position as the shrinking resources of the upper castes have meant severe exploitation of these communities. Gauchar land is important for raising livestock and in its absence pastoralists rely hugely on upper-caste benevolence to let them use their lands for cattle-rearing and become more dependent on them. Lack of resources and sustainable livelihoods has increased social malpractices like dowry and female foeticide. Illiteracy, unemployment and malnourishment have touched an all-time high in the last 15 years. The minimum wages of agricultural labourers have come down as they depend solely on upper-caste mercy in the absence of any social intervention on the part of the government, which in turn is fully dependent on the support of the dominant castes. The scrub forests of Gauchar and Padtar (wastelands) were also the local source of cooking fuel for the villages.
Tensions have also surfaced between the local populations, who have been rendered unemployed by the land acquisition, and immigrant labour, who are employed by the industries at low cost. Crime levels have significantly increased in the last 15 years. Activists say that it is happening because of the rising levels of unemployment, particularly in areas that have faced the brunt of rapid industrialisation without proper rehabilitation.
The environmental hazards of such rapid industrialisation have been many. Destruction of natural habitats like the mangroves in Mundra port and diversion of forest land for industries have had their impact on the village economy. Since the Gujarat government has been so welcoming of industries, they have only preferred areas that have good amounts of water and electricity (invariably the most fertile regions) to set up their plants.
Growing industrialisation in the last 10 years has meant that farmers are given less electricity (down from 10 hours a day to only six hours a day, sometimes only in the night, according to this correspondent’s investigation) and the irrigation projects have been unceremoniously stopped. Modi has rechanneled the Narmada’s water through canals in many villages, but most of this water is being used by industries.
For example, the Padra area near Vadodara had an effluent channel project (ECP), which discharged the treated waste of Vadodara city. However, the chemical-industrial hub that has developed in the last 10 years as a result of a flowing Narmada canal in the vicinity started discharging its untreated waste through the ECP into the Mahi river. “The industries draw water from the Narmada canal and discharge it into the Mahi. There is no cost involved in pipelines or treatment plants, since both the channels run parallel to each other at a very short distance. None of these new industrial plants, in Padra or anywhere in Gujarat, meets the Gujarat Pollution Control Board’s [GPCB] norms. Yet they have a free hand. As a result, most of the rivers in the State are heavily polluted,” said Rohit Prajapati, an environmentalist based in Vadodara.
Three cities of Gujarat, Vapi, Ankaleshwar and Vatva, figure in the Central Pollution Control Board’s list of the top 10 most polluted cities in India, with Vapi ranking first. The State government has failed to act even when environmental norms are blatantly flouted. The private ports and SEZs in the coastal regions are examples of open violation of the Coastal Regulation Zone’s norms. Preference to extractive industries like limestone, lignite and bauxite along the coast of Saurashtra has taken a huge toll on the ecosystem. Unofficial estimates say that about 600 villages will abandon agriculture in the next five years as a result of such industrial growth.
While Modi claims that the Gujarat model is empowering and encouraging entrepreneurship, the land acquisitions, both by the government and companies, indicate otherwise. Successful entrepreneurs have consistently lost their livelihoods in the last 15 years. The obsession with promoting industries, even at the cost of local economies and ecological sustainability, barely makes for a development model and only points to the structural nexus between the Modi government, corporate giants, and real estate honchos. An eroding village fraternity has helped the government in polarising votes in the last 10 years and, as activists say, the Gujarat development model is definitely a win-win situation for Hindutva propagandists like Narendra Damodar Modi.
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