In the name of development
Riding roughshod over farmers’ concerns, the Gujarat government notifies a project to develop the Mandal-Becharaji Special Investment Region, an industrial hub spread over 50,884 hectares, affecting 44 villages. But the villagers see it as a real estate scam and are determined to resist it. By ANUPAMA KATAKAM in Hansalpur and Vanod villages, Gujarat
GUJARAT may soon have several new townships. The Narendra Modi-led government has proposed to set up 13 special investment regions (SIRs), which are essentially industrial hubs and scaled-down urban centres. Obviously, there is a huge cost involved. However, in this case, it is not entirely monetary. Typical of big projects, this one will also involve thousands of farmers and pastoral communities giving up large tracts of land. Inevitably, Chief Minister Modi prioritises industry over agriculture as he believes that it is the former that leads to economic advancement. Much of his development model is based on marginalising farmers, Adivasis, Dalits and the minorities. As plans of the SIRs emerge, it is becoming increasingly apparent that there is no place in them for these disadvantaged groups.
Sartanbhai Bharwad Hajabhai wears a bewildered look. He is standing on the land near Hansalpur village that his family has been cultivating for decades. “My ancestors cultivated this land. It is fertile and very good for grazing. Why have they declared it wasteland? Look how green it is. If they take it away from us, we will lose our entire livelihood and I do not know what else to do. We will not get any compensation because we do not own the land. We have, however, been paying rent, so we should be involved in the relocation plans. We Maldaris are landless people, which means no one gives us any importance.”
Modi has sanctioned two massive projects that will envelope Hansalpur village in Mehsana district. Sartanbhai will be one of the thousands of unsuspecting villagers who will soon be displaced because of these projects. They knew about Maruti Suzuki’s automobile plant that has been given vast tracts of land in the Becharaji area near Hansalpur village, but it was Sagar Rabari of the Jameen Adhikar Andolan who, stumbling on it by accident while surfing the Internet, brought to their notice a project that was much bigger and would have more of an impact: the Mandal-Becharaji Special Investment Region (MBSIR).
Spread over more than 50,884 hectares, the MBSIR will affect 44 villages and close to 7,600 families in Mehsana district. Each farmer will have to give up 60 per cent of his land and an equivalent of the remaining 40 per cent will be allocated in nearby areas. The villages will be re-established in other areas. The area earmarked for the projects is along the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC), in a region that is agriculturally sound most of the time.
The MBSIR is one of 13 such projects. These regions are planned as industrial hubs that will also include townships with residential blocks, public transport routes, schools, hospitals, railway stations and recreation facilities. The SIRs have been planned under Gujarat’s Special Investment Act, 2009, and are supposed to be located on wasteland, affecting minimum tracts of agricultural land. But, farmers in the region say the land allocated for the MBSIR is very fertile.
Frontline spoke to several farmers who may be affected by the project, activists, sociologists and urban planners about the MBSIR to find that it is an ambitious project, one that has never been attempted before in India, and Modi is determined to pull it off. And the people seem equally determined to stall it.
“Maruti now seems like a small problem. The MBSIR is a demon. We have to fight it,” says Sartanbhai. Unfortunately for him, the land he cultivates is sandwiched between the two projects.
Caught in between
Hansalpur village sits squarely between the land allocated for the Maruti automobile and the MBSIR projects. Located about 35 kilometres off the national highway, this village also has one of the main branch canals of the Narmada flowing nearby. The region’s agriculture is rain–fed, and the farmers say the produce is satisfactory. In fact, they have had several years of good crop. They were told that once they got access to the Narmada water, their lands would be better irrigated.
“I cannot understand why they chose this area. It is close to the national highway and part of the DMIC but that is not the real reason. It is a real estate scam,” said Ajmalbhai Thakor, the sarpanch of the village. “For Maruti, some people came and surveyed the land and we were aware of the plans. In fact, we had said that some of the village land can go towards development. But we did not know anything about the SIR. It is a double blow for us,” says Thakor.
Construction of the Maruti plant has begun, but private security has been deployed following protests. Unfortunately, Maruti Suzuki India Ltd did not respond to any queries on this issue. Interestingly, no politician has visited the area even though several allegedly own land near the demarcated zone.
Meetings on the SIR are on, with the entire village, including women, attending. Among the 44 affected villages, Vanod is the largest. Almost 8,000 people live here and will lose their homes and land when the project comes up. At each meeting, activists explain the enormity of the issue. When Frontline went for one of the meetings, it was apparent that the farmers would not be giving in without a fight.
“We will not let them do this. We do not know anything other than agriculture. They say these industries will give us employment. But we are not so well educated, so what kind of jobs will they give us?” says Ashokbhai Popatbhai. “Most of the fodder for Mehsana and Banaskantha districts comes from our area. The entire milk production will be affected if they take ours and the gauchar [grazing] land.”
“They said they will take 60 per cent of the land and give us 40 per cent. From the plans, it looks like we have to walk 50 km to the new land. Not only is it a bakwas [rubbish] plan but we have cultivated this region for decades. Now we will have to start from the beginning,” says Ashokbhai.
“We grow castor, cotton and cumin [jeera]. The largest cumin wholesale market is in nearby Unjha, which we benefit from. Our cotton and cumin seeds are of very good quality and are sold all over Gujarat. You can imagine how much we will suffer if they take this land. What is even worse is that the government has deceived us on the land and in releasing Narmada water to us,” he says.
The Narmada canal that runs by these villages does not have any distributory canals. Tragically, hundreds of farmers gave parts of their land for the canal but today have no access to its waters. In frustration, some farmers put a pump and tried to take water. But patrolling guards confiscated the machines and charged them with trespassing. Recently, there was a proposal to bring this region under the D-command area of the Narmada waters (area that is no longer eligible for water).
“This is not development. They cannot snatch our land like this. Even if they give us hundreds of crores, we will not give our land,” says Jyotsnaben, one of the women crusaders in Vanod village.
Sagar Rabari and Lalji Desai from the Jameen Adhikar Andolan, along with groups such as the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), have been aggressively mobilising people to protest against the SIRs.
In June this year, 10,000 people in 500 tractors, 100 cars and as many motorcycles drove to the State capital, assembled in front of Modi’s office and submitted a memorandum to Revenue Minister Anandiben Patel. They sought cancellation of the notification to develop Mandal-Becharaji as an SIR. They also presented a charter of demands. The economist Y.K. Alagh, former Gujarat Cabinet Minister Sanat Mehta, and the Gandhian Chunibhai Vaidhya are among the personalities who have joined the movement to protect farmers.
“This is just the beginning of our protests. If they do not revoke the SIR, we will take our fight to Delhi,” says Sagar Rabari. “What is the need for so much industrialisation? People do not benefit from it. In fact, agriculture and animal husbandry employ many more people than industries,” he says.
The charter presented to the government includes a demand to stop the de-commanding of the Narmada command areas. The Gujarat Irrigation and Drainage Act, 2013, is a draconian piece of legislation. According to the Act, a farmer cannot install a bore well in his/her fields without government permission. The government of Gujarat needs to come out with a comprehensive policy on the use, access to and maintenance of common property resources.
Sagar Rabari is not sure how this will pan out. He says they were informed after the rally that Modi had agreed to cancel the SIR. However, when village and farmer representatives met four Cabinet Ministers involved with the project, the Ministers accepted the charter of demands but said they could not cancel the SIR notification.
The reality today in Gujarat is that the big corporate houses are being gifted large tracts of lands of their choice, both privately held agricultural land as well as common property resources of pastureland, wastelands and waterbodies. At the same time, those who are legally entitled to get land from the government, the Dalits and the Adivasis, are denied their due, says Gautam Thacker, general secretary of the PUCL.
Several attempts to meet or speak to the Gujarat government officials in charge of the project failed. They said that the necessary information was available on their website.
The first draft development report says: “Envisaged by the Government of Gujarat, MBSIR is one-of-its-kind industrial hubs and will comprise automobile, manufacturing and auxiliary industries. The SIR is strategically located, and well connected with trade gateways and falls in the influence zone of proposed DMIC.”
Providing extensive data, the report says that the Gujarat Industrial Development Board (GIDB) will execute the project as a world-class automobile and manufacturing hub with well-supported infrastructure and civic amenities. The other target areas are precision engineering, wind power equipment manufacturing and solar power equipment manufacturing.
On land use, the report states: “The plan proposes that all industrial areas are located relatively close and accessible from residential areas, to minimise the home-to-work daily commute. The main industrial and logistic zones are all located centrally on either side of the truck priority road and the proposed expressway.”
Additionally, in order to allow each village to expand naturally at its own pace, buffer zones have been proposed around each settlement. The role of the buffer is to allow development while creating a transition zone between a village settlement and the high-intensity urban development adjoining it.
With regard to agriculture it says: “The green zones are specially planned along rivers, branch canals and Vanod Lake and no permanent construction will be allowed in these areas. Around 6 per cent of total land area is proposed for development under green zone. The green zone will, however, allow development of public parks and gardens with pedestrian and bicycle routes. Around 8 per cent of total land area is proposed to be kept under agriculture use.”
“The SIR projects are definitely very ambitious. However, the Chief Minister seems determined to create them. He has hired private agencies to do feasibility studies. The concept is good but getting it off the ground will be difficult,” says Madhusudhan Hanuappa, who is with a private firm that has been contracted by the Gujarat government to do a socio-economic study on the SIRs.
Speaking to Frontline, Hanuappa said the SIRs will have fully integrated activities. For instance, the plan for Dholera SIR includes a 110-km, 10-lane expressway that will link it to Ahmedabad. Dholera will be a fully integrated industrial hub. Being close to the coast, the SIR will have a port for transportation. “Roads and transportation are key to industrial development. China has 65,000 km of expressways. India has 600-700 km. These are areas of focus that need to be worked on. Modi is using various models and creating his own,” he says. “The logistics such as land acquisition is complicated but a special team in the administration is tackling it.”
“The main issue with land in Gujarat is that there are no land-use policies,” says the economist Indira Hirway, who is with the Centre for Development Alternatives in Ahmedabad. “These [SIRs] are ad hoc decisions which are not good for sustainable development. There are some very serious issues such as the socio-economic impact, environmental issues that need to be looked at before shifting land from one use to another, especially from agriculture to non-agriculture,” she says.
“The Gujarat government has no clear vision for the State,” says Indira Hirway. “In fact, the claim that they are acquiring only gauchar lands and wastelands doesn’t justify the acquisition. Where will the cattle graze henceforth? And most wastelands are also being used by the villages. In this case, it is unjustifiable grabbing of land,” she adds.
While the gross domestic product of Gujarat from the primary sector is 14 per cent, says Indira Hirway, 55 per cent of the people depend on the primary sector. “Undoubtedly, the non-agriculture sector is expanding. We need to understand the structure of income and the structure of employment while planning,” she says
It is almost a given now that in Gujarat industry will always win over agriculture. It does not matter that an entire region’s social and economic fabric will be shredded because some industrial major needs to put up a plant. All that matters is “progress” that will boost Modi’s image as a messiah who knows how to steer his State to economic advancement.