India’s democracy has a heartbeat


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AFTER the unspeakable atrocities in Nandigram, and blood now on the hands of a former ‘pro people’ government in West Bengal, it might seem disrespectful to examine the anti SEZ movements across India through the lens of democracy. However, if one takes a difficult step back from the violence that has rained down on Nandigram and other sites of resistance across the country, it becomes clearer that the anti SEZ social movements exemplify both the efficacy of India’s democracy at the grassroots, and the capacity of various democratic institutions to bolster the voice of India’s citizenry.

That democracy might have a heartbeat in a developing country on the path of economic globalization is somewhat anomalous to some contemporary schools of political thought. A prevailing theme emerging from a key discourse on economic globalization is that the poor in developing countries will inevitably be incapable of mitigating the overbearing forces of globalized capitalism (of which SEZs are at the forefront). The poor are, after all, divided by economic inequality, religious diversity, suffer from a lack of education and literacy, and simply must work too hard to have the time to engage in the luxury of political participation. How can the poor overcome such barriers to form a unified voice for political change? Those engaged in such discourses would do well to cast an empirical net on the anti SEZ social movements across India, and the democratic institutions that are supporting and channelling them.


Democracy requires an engaged citizenry, and the anti SEZ movement illustrates that India’s democracy is certainly flourishing in this regard. One does not have to venture deeply into the field to understand that the real heart of the movement is the villagers who stand to lose their livelihood due to land acquisition for SEZs. Activist villagers that I have interviewed from Singur, Nandigram, and various parts of Goa were adamant that theirs was a movement of the common people, with political parties, NGOs, and outside social activists playing a supporting, but not a leading role. Reports coming in from other researchers in the field are confirming that common people are the key players in this movement elsewhere in the country as well.

Of course, the village movement in Nandigram has garnered the most media attention. Across the country however, other movements have grown to become a comparably potent force. Table 1 below outlines some of the key movements that have occurred across the country. The very fact that villagers (and other concerned citizens) are coming together en mass and spontaneously forming organizational committees is a sign of mature democratic expression at the grassroots.


Some Key Social Movements Against SEZs Across India


Key Facts

West Bengal (Nandigram)

* Agitations led to the deaths of at least 14 villagers on 14 March, and a severe government crackdown in November 2007.

* Proposed SEZ in Nandigram to be relocated.

Goa (various parts)

* Village resistance under the umbrella organization ‘SEZ Virodhi Manch’ (People’s Movement Against SEZs).

* Strong, non partisan support from the Church.

* All 15 SEZs scrapped in the state on 31 December 2007.

Karnataka (Nandagudi)

* Under the umbrella organization ‘Nandagudi Raitha Hitarakshana Samithi’, 21,000 farmers from 36 villages are resisting land acquisition for a 12,000+ acre SEZ.

* Land has high real estate value due to close proximity to upcoming international airport.

Karnataka (Mangalore)

* Under the umbrella organization ‘Krishi Bhoomi Samrakshana Vedike’ affected residents are protesting the proposed 2000+ acre SEZ that will engulf 4 villages, and displace over 2000 residents.

* In October 2007, protestors managed to send back an SEZ survey team.

Maharashtra (Raigad)

* Protesting farmers from at least 24 villages being supported by multiple partisan and non partisan umbrella organizations.

* 1000 protestors burnt land acquisition notices in June of 2007 and 5000 farmers blocked a highway.

Orissa (Jagatsinghpur)

* Farmers resisting an SEZ project by Pohang Steel Company (considered to be India’s largest FDI project).

* 22,000 villagers potentially affected by land acquisition.

Note: This list is not exhaustive and only represents a sample of multiple resistances that have gained prominence across the country.

In another sign of an established democratic citizenry in India, it is notable that women have emerged as key figures in the anti SEZ movements, playing important roles in many aspects of the resistance. For example, in both Singur and Nandigram, women played key communication roles by blowing conch shells to warn villagers of advancing police and party cadres. In a dramatic display of defiance against SEZs, women (along with men) in Nagpur, Maharashtra shaved their heads in protest. As well, popular female social activists such as Medha Patkar and Arundhati Roy have become critical spokespeople for the movements. Of course on one level, it does make sense that women are participating so forcefully in the resistance, given that women stand to lose the most from SEZs in so many ways. However this reality does not make women’s political participation a given, and thus it must be noted that women are on the cutting edge of democratic protests against SEZs.


For grassroots democratic expression to be effective, it cannot be piecemeal. Indeed, many aspects of the anti SEZ resistance exemplify a national solidarity against SEZs. On the other hand, contextualizing the resistance in this manner masks the diversity amongst the anti SEZ movements across the country, each stemming from the unique social, political, and economic histories of its people. It is not surprising therefore that the movements have diverse agendas and demands. Villagers in Nandigram, for example, made it blatantly clear that they would not part with their land under any circumstance. In contrast, villagers in Haryana indicated a willingness to sell their land, but are agitating for a fair compensation price. In Nandigram, the issue was about direct loss of livelihood due to land acquisition. In Goa, the agitation is more about the potential environmental consequences of SEZs. Nonetheless, in a true manifestation of democracy, movements across the country are overcoming social, political, and religious barriers between them, and forging important linkages in a show of solidarity. In doing so, these diverse movements have become a cohesive force.

Social activists, the media, opposition parties, and a vast network of NGOs are fortifying the solidarity amongst the anti SEZ movements. For example, activist Medha Patkar, backed by the umbrella NGO, National Alliance of Peoples Movements, has been tirelessly traversing the country, carrying stories from one movement to another. Opposition TMC leader Mamata Banerjee and various NGOs have brought activist villagers together from multiple sites of resistance across the country to discuss strategy and participate in agitations together. Through such channels, villagers across the country are learning from one another, and perhaps more importantly gaining inspiration from each other, knowing that others are facing similar threats to their land and livelihood. Such sentiments can only augment the movements.


Interestingly, such solidarity has extended into unexpected realms. While in Kolkata in November of 2007, I was privy to a hunger strike taken up by the National Hawkers Federation in support of the Nandigram movement. Questioning the relationship between street hawkers and Nandigram villagers, I was told by a participating hawker that if the government could forcefully take land away from farmers, the precious land that street hawkers need to sell their wares might also be at risk, and that support for Nandigram was therefore imperative. In another interesting example, Bhopal citizens, still reeling from the Union Carbide disaster, visited Nandigram villagers to lend support. They did so under the common theme of corporate accountability for human rights violations. Such solidarity certainly speaks to the accord within civil society in India.

A critical component of democracy is a free press. For all the debate regarding the true ‘freedom’ of India’s media, it must be noted that the press have mostly had a free hand to cover the anti SEZ movements, and indeed the SEZ issue overall, at will. Media were even present during the infamous 14 March 2007 massacre in Nandigram. As the violence unfolded, a journalist I spoke with was able to furiously write notes, and went on to publish his observations widely. Anti SEZ agitations often make front page news in local newspapers, and garner a fair share of headline coverage in national media as well. This serves the important function of dispersing information to Indian citizens across the country about SEZs, and the resistance to them. Indeed because of press coverage, Nandigram has become a household name and SEZs a household topic of discussion across the country. Granted, the English media is devoting less bandwidth to the SEZ resistance. However local papers, often in vernacular language, are picking up where the English media houses are leaving off.

In some instances the media is even helping expose questionable actions related to land acquisition for SEZs. In Tamil Nadu, the media, along with some NGOs, uncovered various land scams related to SEZs, causing the state government to relieve its industry secretary and other top officials from their posts. For all its shortcomings, the Indian media is doing its democratic duty by providing heavy and arguably balanced coverage of an issue that is clearly critical to the political and economic future of the country.1


Perhaps the most compelling example of India’s institutions of democracy supporting the anti SEZ movements is the fact that opposition parties at all levels of government have taken up the cause with zest (as opposition parties should in a functioning multiparty democracy). It is notable that the SEZ act was passed in the Lok Sabha in only two hours on 10 May 2005, with very little fanfare from opposition parties. This lends support to the argument that the key causal mechanism behind the anti SEZ movements is the common people. Only after the anti SEZ movements gained prominence did opposition parties step up to provide a crucial institutional voice to the resistance.


The unwavering support of the TMC in both the Singur and Nandigram movements is an obvious example of the democratic power of opposition parties. It is notable that such support is potentially helping to shift party affiliations amongst rural West Bengal, the CPM’s key support base. Given that West Bengal has been largely a one party state for 30 years, a potential return to multi party politics in the state puts it in a much healthier position democratically. The upcoming May 2008 panchayat elections in West Bengal will tell us more if this is indeed occurring.

Opposition parties are providing the institutional foundation for anti SEZ movements elsewhere in the country as well. For example, at the state level, the opposition BJP in Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra is putting heavy pressure on the ruling governments to alter their stance on SEZs. Not surprisingly, opposition parties in many states are also playing lead roles at the grassroots level, teaching villagers about SEZs, and helping to organize demonstrations. Centrally, the ruling UPA coalition is facing intense pressure from opposition parties in the Lok Sabha. In December 2007, the Parliament even ceased to function on several occasions over the ongoing violence in Nandigram. That opposition parties are helping to raise the village voice to the level of policy debate is a critical sign of a functioning multi party democracy.


Finally, we can really only speak of the anti SEZ movements in a democratic sense if there has been any success at the policy level. If success is narrowly defined as the complete abolition of the 2005 SEZ act (as is the goal of most in the movement), then the resistance inevitably will be considered a failure. If anything, the central government has hardened its support of the act. However, this reality should not camouflage the various small wins that the anti SEZ movements can, in fact, claim.

In stopping the proposed chemical SEZ, the Nandigram movement is a success story. Of course the fog of violence that has enshrouded Nandigram often clouds this win. That villagers had to die for this cause is a deplorable tragedy. That villagers in Nandigram managed to beat back several powerful multinational companies due to set up shop in the zone speaks of the raw democratic power unleashed by the movement. Small victories for the movement are cropping up elsewhere in the country. For example, agitations in Goa have resulted in the scrapping of all proposed SEZs in the state. In another example, the state government in Karnataka is offering to return a portion of acquired land to be used for commercial or residential purposes (which is important given the inevitable appreciation of land once it is reclassified).

The anti SEZ movements have chipped away at central policy as well. In response to widespread opposition to SEZs, the central government put all zone approvals on hold for several months at the beginning of 2007. In April 2007, the central government capped the maximum area for an SEZ at 5,000 hectares (down from an initial ceiling of 10,000 hectares). Perhaps more importantly, the central government recently directed state governments not to undertake any forced land acquisitions, which in essence strips the government of its ability to forcibly acquire land for SEZs under the 1894 Land Acquisition Act.


In October 2007, the Union Cabinet revamped the 2003 National Rehabilitation and Resettlement Policy. The new policy contains various concessions for villagers who will lose land in the name of industrialization. For example, ‘Social Impact Assessments’, which must include an examination of the impact of industrialization on utilities such as roads and drinking water, are now required where large numbers of families will be affected from land acquisitions.

Under the new policy, compensation rates for land must take into account market value after the land has been converted (from agricultural to non agricultural for example). Where applicable, affected families are entitled to take up to twenty per cent of the compensation in the form of shares or debentures. Other concessions are notable, such as the guarantee of housing (and potentially land) if families are relocated. Displaced villagers also must get priority treatment for training and jobs. Of course, such concessions are probably somewhat trivial to a family being displaced from their home and livelihood, and we must wait to gauge potential issues of implementation. However, the new policy probably would not have been put in place at all if not for the massive agitations against SEZs and land acquisition for them across the country.

It is currently quite fashionable to engage in dialogue that disparages India’s democracy with regards to SEZs. Indeed, the SEZ act itself is an abysmal failure of democracy on the policy front. The violent crisis in Nandigram also speaks of the erosion of democracy at many levels. On the other hand, the anti SEZ movements, and the various democratic institutions that have bolstered them are indicative that India’s democracy has a heartbeat. This is significant, given that the forces of economic globalization are severely curtailing democratic institutions and values in many countries across the world. Although India’s democracy is at similar risk, the anti SEZ movements across the country illustrates that the country’s citizens will not give up their democratic values without a fight.


Lest one finish this essay with an overly optimistic impression of democracy in India however, one would do well to look across the border to Pakistan to see how quickly precious democratic institutions can break down. With the stroke of a pen, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf suspended the constitution, censured the media, removed judges from the bench, and threw opposition party members and activists in jail, thereby turning Pakistan into a temporary dictatorship. Indeed, one does not have to peer too far back into India’s political history to find an analogous collapse of democracy. India’s citizenry must, therefore, not become complacent. The future health of India’s democracy depends in large part on the continued vigour of social movements rising up to deal with a variety of issues that will continue to impact the country.



1. In fact a TMC opposition member of parliament thanked the media for its coverage on SEZs and the resistance to them, in a November 2007 Lok Sabha speech.