Massacre of Peasants May Slow SEZ Plans
by Ranjit Devraj
Inter Press Service
March 15, 2007

NEW DELHI - It took the gruesome massacre of 15 peasants in police firing for the provincial government of West Bengal to suspend the forcible acquisition of farming land it wants to hand over to an Indonesian conglomerate for development into a Special Economic Zone (SEZ).

Trouble has been brewing in Nandigram, 150 km south of Kolkata, the state capital, since well before Feb. 22, when the Salim Group, Indonesia's largest conglomerate, was given approval for a 500 million dollar investment proposal that included the SEZ in West Bengal, which is ruled by a left-wing coalition led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M).

Clashes broke out between CPI-M cadres and the villagers on Jan. 7 when it became known that the government had plans to acquire 22,000 acres of land, leaving six people dead.

In a statement issued on Jan. 9, a group of leading intellectuals and rights activists warned: ''We are deeply concerned about the escalating levels of violence being reported from Nandigram in West Bengal, as a consequence of the state government's policy of land acquisition for industrial use.''

Signatories to the statement included campaigners for people displaced by mega-projects, internationally-known author Arundhati Roy and prominent rights lawyer Colin Gonsalvez. It urged the formation of a peace committee in West Bengal to ensure the cessation of hostilities against the villagers.

''While industrial development is necessary in many parts of the country, detailed, democratically accountable and transparent discussions about the categories of land to be allocated for acquisition are equally necessary prior to making a decision," the statement said.

"The International Economic Covenant, which India has ratified, makes prior consultation and resettlement mandatory in all cases of displacement. The violation of human rights in the process of land acquisition that we have recently seen in West Bengal (and a number of other states) is completely unacceptable,'' it added.

But such sage advice was cast to the winds by the state's Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya who, bent on rapidly industrialising West Bengal, kept insisting that the villagers were being misled by the CPI-M's political opponents.

After Wednesday's tragic massacre, a visibly shaken Bhattacharya announced that he had withdrawn the notification for acquisition of land in Nandigram.

Union railway minister Lalu Prasad Yadav, one of the CPI-M's closest allies and an acknowledged grassroots politician said pithily: ''If industrialists wish to set up SEZs they should buy land directly from farmers at market rates.''

Land acquisition in India is carried out under an archaic 1894 act introduced by the colonial British to allow the taking over of private land for a "public purpose" such as building roads and irrigation canals. The law has come in handy, in recent years, to purchase land from peasant farmers at prices far below market value.

''Far worse than the unfair prices that are nowadays being paid to farmers to buy land for constructing shopping malls and expressways is the complete disregard for the loss of livelihoods,'' Gonsalvez told IPS.

Since India's independence from colonial rule in 1947, various "development" projects, including major dams, have displaced an estimated 40 million people in India, and a number of studies and reports show that less than half that number have been resettled or adequately rehabilitated.

Even as people's movements such as the well-known ''Save the Narmada Movement'' run by activist Medha Patkar succeed in drawing attention to the plight of the displaced, India embarked on an ambitious liberalisation plan to transform the country from a state-controlled, self-sufficient economy to one driven by foreign direct investment (FDI) and exports.

But because many of the worker-friendly policies drawn up during the period that India pursued a socialist-style, state-controlled economy are still intact, the government has turned to the SEZ model where 'hire-and-fire' policies and attractive tax incentives can be made available to interested foreign investors.

SEZ tax concessions are handsome, and include a 100 percent tax holiday for five years, a 50 percent tax-break for another five years, and a further five-year tax-break on production based on reinvested profits.

Up to three-fourths of land acquired for SEZs can be converted for residential or commercial properties, shopping malls or hospitals, which -- it has been pointed out -- would lead to a massive and unprecedented urbanisation drive in which farmers, who form 70 percent of the billion plus population, have little or no stake.

''India has never before witnessed the transfer of hundreds of thousands of hectares of agricultural land to private industry. Nor probably has any other developing country,'' Sumit Sarkar, an eminent historian, told IPS in September.

Since the introduction of the SEZ act in 2000, more than 220 such zones have sprung up all over India, causing the World Bank to raise concerns about the sustainability of such a large number.

One result of the new business-friendly policies is that FDI into India has been soaring. For example in December 2006, India recorded an FDI inflow of 2.04 billion dollars as compared to 350 million dollars in the same month in 2005.

The government's economic survey for 2006-07 projects a 9.2 percent growth rate that would build on the nine percent growth recorded in 2005-06, based largely on continued high investments.

But the flip side is that farmers, already a seriously distressed lot in India, are agitating against SEZs across the country -- with the violence in Nandigram seen as a sign of worse to come. (END/2007)

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