Post Nandigram and Goa

VASUDHA DHAGAMWAR

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SEZs are probably one of those areas in the public eye where angels fear to tread, although everyone has an opinion on it. They have dominated our thinking for the last couple of years, beginning with POSCO located in the tribal areas of Orissa and more recently, Nandigram in southern West Bengal. By and large, activists have come out strongly against SEZs because they displace living communities and push them into a life of deprivation and want. On the other hand governments, industry and finance institutions are strongly in favour.

Not only is the situation complex, the battle lines are so rigidly drawn that there is ample scope for misunderstanding. First, let us not confuse SEZs located in tribal regions with those in non-tribal parts of India. The cultures, needs, lifestyles, expectations, and consequently, behavioural patterns of the two are markedly different. In a nutshell, tribals share a symbiotic relationship with their lands, particularly their forests, which we most certainly do not. By linking the two types of communities we do not draw on their strength; instead, we weaken the case for tribal people.

 

Even in non-tribal areas, the situation does not seem to be a simple and clear cut division of those for and against. To put it differently, it is difficult to classify them merely by their caste, class and occupation! It is not only in Maharashtra and Gujarat that the SEZs are coming up with popular support. Even in West Bengal, industries are acquiring land and the villagers are happy to sell. For example, in Midnapore district of which Nandigram block forms a part, the Jindals have bought 500 acres of land directly from farmers in Salboni village for their steel plant and a captive power utility. The farmers were paid Rs 2.75 lakh per acre, plus shares of equal value, and have been promised one job per family.

Land developers and builders are already approaching neighbouring villages where residents are happy at the prospect of the higher prices which they will get for residential colonies (Indian Express, 4 December 2007).1 Maggarpatta city in Pune district, Maharashtra has come up because 120 families from that village took the initiative and decided to develop their lands into an integrated township. The original owners continue to receive part of the income generated by the township. This has been widely talked about as a model of inclusive development (IE, 3 December 2007). Why is all this happening? Are we, as activists, not reading the signals right?

Perhaps we can learn best from the latest example, Goa. It is worth recalling that when activists appealed to tourists to avoid Goa during Christmas and declared a ban on all Christmas festivities in protest against the government plan to set up 15 SEZs, it was the ordinary people who objected. This was because the tourist trade is vitally important to their livelihood. In the 1970s, those very people were bitterly opposed to tourists because they ‘spoilt’ Goa. Now they cannot do without them. One is reminded of Disraeli who said something like today’s radical being tomorrow’s conservative. The activists backed down and postponed their protest till after the new year. So did the government. The chief minister declared that no SEZ would be set up in Goa, some to stop in the planning stage itself, while others where work has begun would be denotified.

Now there is trouble on two fronts. The central government is in two minds about the provision for denotifying SEZs, but Kamal Nath, the Union minister for commerce and industry sees no difficulty in denotifying for, he says, which industry would like to go in against people’s wishes? This is the first time that people have counted in the process of land acquisition and macro planning.

 

But activists now want even the constructed complexes to be pulled down. One of them is a food processing plant. Goa and the Konkan have a huge surplus of perishable summer fruit and fish of all variety. They can be shipped out after preservation. Indeed, not so long ago all mangoes had to be thrown into the Arabian Sea once the rains started because the region was totally cut off. Roads and preservation techniques have made fruit a perennial source of income. While the Land Acquisition Act and the SEZ law can be easily amended, is the demand to pull down the buildings legitimate or reasonable? Can we deny all change? For all the horrors of Nandigram, West Bengal’s minister for industry, Nirpaum Sen, was right when he argued (IE, 10 December 2007) that educated youth want jobs; they do not want to work on land, and for that his state needs industry and investment.

 

There are two separate and seemingly contradictory lessons to be learnt from Goa. First, activists may not always represent the people. So, go slow on the opposition. Second, if the idea behind a SEZ is to convert land to non-agricultural use and provide non-agrarian employment, Goa has done it already by having a sizeable tourist industry and absorbing people in the non-agrarian sector. Hotels, transport, restaurants, entertainment, tourist attractions, ethnic shopping, singing and dancing, swimming and the like are all available to suit different sized pockets. Local fish, feni and fiestas are much in demand. It now even beckons visitors during the torrential monsoons due to imaginative promotion by the state tourism department. Goa has found non-agrarian employment venues without noticeably converting farm lands to non-farm use. Indeed, the rural unspoilt look is the main attraction. So, go slow on SEZ!

Clearly we need to distinguish between changing land use and providing more jobs outside agriculture. As far as possible, land use and environment should be left undisturbed. The key phrase is ‘as far as possible’. The number of people living off land has to be reduced. Tourism may not be an adequate solution, particularly as favourite tourist locations change from one year to the next without notice or reason.

Admittedly, 15 SEZs in a state as small as Goa appears an overkill. A SEZ works round the clock. A SEZ in Mumbai may employ as many as six lakh people. As the chief minister of that scenic state has rather belatedly pointed out, Goa’s population is only nine lakh. Even if a SEZ in Goa employs only an average of one lakh or even fifty thousand people each, they will open up so much employment that Goa will be swamped out of recognition. In fact if a single industry SEZ is allocated 250 acres of land and a multi-industry SEZ is allocated 1000 acres then the landscape of Goa will change beyond recognition. It will no more be a top tourist destination. Neither the state government nor any of the other players seem to have considered this crucial point.

 

At the same time, it must be remembered that a major part of Goa’s wealth also comes from an industrial source – from its iron ore and manganese ore mines. During the 20th century, ore was shipped out to Japan just the way it was dug up. In the 1960s, the Salgaonkars who owned some of the manganese and iron ore mines installed a plant to convert the ore into pellets and increased its selling price. Was that a good thing or the opposite? Should other industry that processes indigenous raw material be set up to earn more revenue and provide more jobs? Should the information technology sector provide jobs and pump money into the economy? It is not just that industry will create primary jobs. Every employee also spends locally and helps to generate secondary and tertiary employment. Should there be a debate on the kind of purposes for which land should be converted into a SEZ or should we reject all such possibilities out of hand?

Prior to the protests, the prime minister had already said that SEZs in Goa would be intended to bring IT industry to that tiny state. Given that our future lies in information technology, the goal seems acceptable. Should young men from all over India flock to Mumbai, Gurgaon and Bangalore? What happens when the locals there start objecting to their lands being acquired? That has already happened in Bangalore, and it has stalled the transport system of that city.

SEZ is a bigger question involving all of India. When the talk is of hundreds of acres or lakhs of jobs we have to ask if any place can seriously absorb dozens of SEZ at one go. This would apply even to the ever hospitable, ever beckoning Mumbai, which is now bursting at the seams. Let us not forget that just as each job generates secondary and tertiary employment it also means that each employee has a family with a multitude of needs from housing, shops, schools, hospitals, roads, transport to entertainment. In all these plans and debates no one has consulted the demographers.

There is much more at stake here than just land acquisition or rehabilitation. There is a serious need to be interdisciplinary in our thinking. So far the Planning Commission has no lawyers and the Law Commission has no economists amongst its members. Demographers and sociologists are naturally conspicuous by their absence.

 

Clearly we cannot have a SEZ epidemic and yet we cannot reject them all with one sweep of the hand. We cannot opt for the green valley of our ancestors for it has long ceased to provide for all of their descendants. They are already being forced to migrate.

One should distinguish between migrating to do well and migrating to survive. When IT professionals were ill-treated in Malaysia last year, they spoke from a position of strength because they were highly qualified. Most people are not that lucky. The latest row in Malaysia is over unskilled or semi skilled labour who seem to be getting the worst of it. Even during the Portuguese time, from verdant, beautiful Goa, young boys and girls streamed into India, particularly to Mumbai, to earn a precarious living as waiters and maids. This situation still prevails today. From Uttaranchal and West Bengal to Bihar, Orissa and Assam, from Kashmir to Konkan and Kerala, people stream in looking for the livelihood that they cannot get at home. Some migrate to other states, others stay within it and go to bigger towns. Under our laws they are not recognised as migrant workers.

 

Even in the Nandigram block it would be instructive to know if the farmer can absorb all his sons on the land – and let’s not forget the grandchildren. It is a fact that Midnapore district, in which Nandigram block is situated, exports a stream of migrant workers to Delhi. I have met some of them. They said that cash remittances sustained their families for expenses other than food. Many of them would prefer to live and work from home at even half the wages as life would be cheaper and also pleasant.

It is not just the poor states that send away their working population. Prosperous Punjab cannot absorb all its young or middle-aged male population, and this includes the land holders. Just talk to taxi drivers in Delhi, Mumbai or Kolkata. One brother stays home by turns; the rest work in cities and send some cash back home. There is a veritable craze to go abroad for any kind of work and by any means. Even as the sons leave, their fathers prefer to employ Bihari labour to do the hard work. The larger farmers have opted for mechanization. Land is clearly not an attractive option for the better-off farmer’s son.

There is good reason for this steady migration from rural areas to urban centres. Clearly 70% of the Indian population can no longer live off the land as it did in 1901. At that time the population of British India was much smaller. Now with much less land mass how can the countryside provide work to many more people? The land can still feed and probably house us provided so many don’t actually work on it. There should be no compulsion to leave the area altogether just because one cannot work on the farm. We need to distinguish between converting land use and providing more jobs outside agriculture. Unfortunately, the current debate has ignored this basic fact.

 

There is undue emphasis on the need to prevent acquisition of arable land. In my experience, if an area is urbanised, nearby farmlands will gradually be sold off piecemeal for various non-agricultural purposes. Getting a good price is an attraction; another is the difficulty of guarding the crop. In one village farmers said that they were selling off because they could not stand up to the aggressive milkmen. As the demand for milk increased, milkmen were keeping more milch cattle and driving them into standing crops to graze! Second, our experience of urban villages of Delhi proves that retaining a foothold in the new urban/industrial centre by keeping ones house increased prosperity. If the idea is to create jobs and generate wealth, then it makes sense to stay close to the place undergoing urbanisation.

The residents of Shahpur Jat,2 an urban village in Delhi, are much better off because they kept their houses. Their farmlands were acquired for the Asiad village complex, but even the landless labourer with his small house could rent out a part of it to incoming migrants and get a steady income. They also run small businesses. Today, the residents feel that their homes are their Lakshmi. Being in the eye of change has enabled them to better educate their children. This example may not serve as a universal rule, but it is worth bearing in mind.

 

The other danger to watch out for is the promise of giving one job per family. Given that we don’t have China’s one child norm, what happens to the other children, especially sons? Land was a joint family workplace. This policy in effect treats it as one person’s asset. Even worse, the father has to choose one son out of the many if he himself is unsuitable. In Korba, Chhattisgarh, we found that this caused deep resentment among the brothers. Moreover, the preferred son would flatly refuse to share his income with his siblings. As one of them explained: ‘Previously we all worked together and shared the income. Now I alone do the work; why should I give them any money?’

The sons with the prized jobs acknowledged their filial obligations and said they would try to help their parents, but claimed that they now had to buy everything and also educate their children. They would not get jobs for the asking – they had to be qualified to fit into the new competitive world. So they could only do so much for the old people. It would be far better to demand training and education than jobs.

Thus, even when we accept the need for changed land use, there are many things to be done and many questions to which we need answers. Do SEZs really need vast quantities of land? Are they acquiring too much even accepting that they must plan for the future? Are they generating jobs which will also benefit local people? Are they sharing their civic facilities and training programmes with them? In the past the answer to all these questions was a resounding no. We had every reason to be suspicious.

An old question has attracted little attention, not even among activists: what happens to the landless? Farmers may receive huge compensation and shares in the new company, but what about those who work on their lands, graze their cattle or provide other countless services? What about the landless artisans who support the rural economy? Do we have a breakdown of figures of people in any SEZ in terms of their occupational and educational status? So far all rehabilitation has been linked to land acquisition. If one does not own or rent land one does not exist for policy-makers. Most of the time, even activists only talk about farmers who grow three or four crops; no one remembers the sharecropper or labourer. When they do, it is to demand land for them, which is a prescription for failure. The future of the landless is a very important question which must receive a positive answer. If the answers to these questions are favourable, we should not automatically oppose all new ventures. There is also a different question: Are the SEZ being given too much freedom from fiscal and other controls? But that is not part of rehabilitation issues. In that sense it is optional.

 

The protesting activists have a major achievement to their credit: the government, the industry, the country at large and most important, the villagers are now aware of their rights. Their views count. They can negotiate a tough deal. As prices rise, industry will calculate the amount of land it actually needs. It will also try to buy land that is not arable and, therefore, cheaper.

The ‘baddies’ have been put on the back foot. But the ‘good guys’ too must listen to popular voices. The Goa kind of situation with people distancing themselves from the activists is unfortunate. After all, NGOs and activists too represent the people. This does not mean that the activists should go home. Their role has to change, to be that of a watch dog and advisor. The crores paid by industry to a few thousand farmers come to several lakh each – a sum that can be easily blown up. Now NGOs need to come forward and demand answers to the various questions as also help the farmers. For example, they can advise them to invest wisely for the future, guide them and their children about acquiring new skills and adapting existing skills to the new economy. All this requires a different expertise which many NGOs may not have. In all humility the NGOs must recognize this fact and plan for it.

 

The first demand which the existing activists can well voice is to resist land acquisition for residential purposes. Instead of allowing industry to set up exclusive colonies we should ask for inclusive town planning. Industry or builders should construct houses with the understanding that they be rented out to the in-migrants. At the same time, villagers should demand to share the civic facilities, not just the roads, water, electricity and sewage, but also educational and medical facilities. Sharing living space is real social engineering.

Skilled workers like smiths, cobblers and carpenters easily find work with a little training which the project should make available. The school or college graduates have a problem. But this is still not a hopeless case because for every job created there are as many work opportunities. For instance, every industrial town faces a shortfall of vegetables and milk, eggs and meat. Existing farmers can meet these needs. The newcomers require but cannot get local public conveyance such as buses, taxis, cycle or auto rickshaws. They cannot find telephone booths or cyber cafes. There is no one to mend or repair the myriad things one uses every day.

All such needs can be met locally, instead of waiting for outsiders with enterprise to fill the gap. They can be identified and even mapped. It is time to move with the times. Instead of depending on the migrant son’s remittances, make it possible for him to live at home. Let him leave because the outside world excites him, and not because he must.

 

Even as this essay was being finalized The Times of India (16.1.08.) carried an interesting report: ‘Farmers to set up own SEZ near city.’ 1500 odd farmers of Avasari Khurd village, Ambegaon tehsil in Pune district have decided to use their barren land to form their own company. This is the very first farmers’ SEZ in India. Sopan Bhor, the industrialist who convinced them to do so, told them the land was worth Rs 800 crore – obviously if used for industry. All the 18000 inhabitants will get jobs. That should answer our concerns about the fate of the landless. Equally important, the farmers will own the SEZ. The farmers decided upon this course of action rather than allow government to acquire the land or others to purchase it. The project has government approval. Farmers from Nasik and Nigurde are coming for a visit to understand the project. The whole thing looks too rosy from the outside, but it is worth watching.

First Maggarpatta and now Avasari Khurd: do Pune farmers know something we don’t? Will someone do a research project here? Or an investigative report for a newspaper? It will be more useful than many sting operations!

 

Footnotes:

1. All references to Indian Express or IE and Times of India are to Pune edition.

2. Multiple Action Research Group, ‘Shahpur Jat: A Study in Self Rehabilitation’, MARG, New Delhi, 1996.

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