Fighting Injustice in Polepally SEZ

…more than courage it takes WILL to stand up against injustice !

SEZ: AP No Singur

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Singur could be simmering over a few hundred acres of land but in Andhra Pradesh thousands of acres of farm land has been acquired for Special Economic Zones. Even as there are faint rumblings of resentment in Ongole, this industrial revolution unfolding in the state leaving scores of farmers displaced has led to no protests and no political voices being raised. Why is the AP SEZ story so different from the one in West Bengal? Roli Srivastava explores…


On a balmy afternoon two years ago when the rumblings in Nandigram were just about reaching a crescendo, a sleepy village of a fishing community in Visakhapatnam had woken up to a similar threat right in its oceanlined backyard. Two years hence, when Singur was simmering with three villages holding an industrialist and a state to ransom, that village in Andhra Pradesh had lost its land to an SEZ even as the state government imposed for the first time Section 144 (prohibitory orders) for two months in 14 villages to facilitate land acquisition for Vadarevu and Nizampatnam Port Industrial Corridor.

But then, these aren’t isolated economic zones coming up in the state. Andhra Pradesh, as on date, is the frontrunner in the SEZ revolution unfolding in the country. With 56 notified SEZs, the state accounts for the highest number of such zones of industrial activity in the country, with Tamil Nadu following in the second place with 42 SEZs beating even Maharashtra which stands at 35. The state in an Abhinav Bindra mode is shooting for gold having acquired 16,738 acres of land and flaunting in addition to its 56 notified SEZs another 38 as formally approved and two with in-principle approval.

Compare this with the size of land in Singur— a total plot of 997 acres of which 645 acres comes under Tata Motors — that stirred the entire country into debating on how industrial growth of a state was being compromised for the rights of a few farmers (or the debatable activism of a political party).

But in Andhra Pradesh the acquisitions went off without a whimper, with a few stray protests of farmers held under makeshift tents in remote corners of villages. Predictably, their voices did not reach the powers that be, who busily carved out thousands of acres of land and changed their usage from agricultural to industrial with the farmers losing a half-hearted battle waged in the conspicuous absence of any political party or leader.

Smooth going in AP

But what makes the reaction in AP so starkly different from that in West Bengal? Did the farmers care less for their land here or was the compensation unbelievably good?

If proud officials sifting through documents and signing them hastily are to be believed then the whole exercise has been rather hassle free, compared to the turn of events that almost shelved a nano dream.
The most articulate among those speaking for the farmers are at a loss for a reason as to why AP has such a different SEZ story to tell.

“In AP, the (land) acquisition has been much more mindless,’’ says human rights activist K Balagopal who wonders whether the state has lost the capacity to struggle. But he himself explains that how the government in every village identified the few ‘willing persons,’ the ‘dominant people’ in the form of a sarpanch or a community leader, promised them some petty contracts and won them on their side and used them to convince villagers to part with their land.

“These contracts are promised to the rural elite,’’ he says, explaining how this 10 per cent of the total villagers who do not entirely depend on land for their livelihood are prepared to give their land and start coaxing others to do the same. They also do the haggling on the government’s behalf for compensation. They would usually cite the compensation given to a neighbour as half of what the unwilling farmer is demanding. Then there is the underlying threat that once an industry comes up, it would be impossible to hold any land adjacent to it.

An agricultural scientist, however, sees this inaction rooted in the feudal nature of society in AP. “It is a very feudalistic society where some people are so subjugated. They are nice but too docile,’’ the senior scientist says, further noting that there is a tendency to abuse power and the affected rarely question it.
But this subservient nature (of an accepting farmer society) can be attributed to the crop being cultivated, the scientist notes. “Had it been the sugarcane farmers of Maharashtra or the farmers cultivating rice in Punjab, there would have been a furore,’’ the scientist says.

But it is primarily the absence of a political leader a la ‘didi’ in AP that has made land acquisitions fairly easy. “In Bengal, the land is very fertile. But (one has to see) what is the protest about and who is doing it. Are they poor farmers or (political) parties? Or is there a third factor,’’ asks Aradhna Agarwal, head of department, department of business economics, University of Delhi, who has authored a study on ‘Impact of SEZ on employment, poverty and human development’ for Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations.

Describing the Singur issue as a fight between an industrialist and rich farmers, Agarwal notes that the protests in Bengal are being carried out by just about 2.5 per cent of the total number of affected farmers. “But they got the support of a leader who was willing to do anything to grab the opportunity,’’ she says, adding that this was exactly what AP farmers did not find, perhaps because the land condition here was not as fertile. Another reason for the farmers in AP not being up in arms like their counterparts in West Bengal could be the long chain of intermediaries between the land owner and the farmer who tills the land, according to the country’s chief statistician Pronab Sen. “Compensation packages are usually shared between the registered owner and the current user, who is the land tiller. So all those in the middle are cut out,’’ Sen says, pointing out that in AP there is no such long chain of intermediaries and half the problem of the government is thus solved. According to Sen, in Singur a large part of the problem was the share of the intermediary farmers in the compensation offered.

Deal or no deal

Have farmers in AP got such a good deal that has stopped them from protesting?

Agarwal says that whenever there is a big project there is a need for vast land and small and big farmers will be affected. “In every place, some will be affected adversely,’’ she says. In her study she makes a note of the kind of direct and indirect employment opportunities SEZs throw up. In her study she notes that SEZs not only generate direct employment for skilled and unskilled labour which in turn have a poverty reduction effect.

But Balagopal cant fathom why one economy is being sidelined to promote another.

“You want land for industries but the land is already supporting one economy (agriculture). Your promise is that this would promote jobs, etc., but there is already an economy in place,’’ he says, adding that the government is taking away land but there is no statuette of rehabilitation. Courtesy Singur and Nandigram, while the focus is on double crop land, in AP there is actually a larger contentious issue, that of assigned and government land. Observers note that the land distributed to the poor in the 70s and 80s is being targeted. There was a clause that whenever that land is required will be taken without compensation.

Government officials in the thick of the state’s SEZ revolution say that most of the land acquired in the state is government land and that acquired from private owners is only a fraction of the total acquisitions.

Take a look: Of the 16, 738 acres of land acquired for SEZs, 3,770 acres is government land and 1,266 acres assigned land. However, the ‘dry’ patta (land ownership documents) land acquired is 9,879 acres and irrigated area of land taken up for SEZs is just about 1,823 acres.

But then these are dry statistics. Agriculturists who read between the lines see a lot of reason for heartburn. “What they call as dry land or waste land is not agriculturally waste. “Relating it (soil quality) with rainfall and dryness is too simplistic (a way of branding it). Punjab too is dry but for its irrigation,’’ a scientist notes. He says that water management could have served the purpose in making the acquired ‘dry land’ crop friendly. “While stopping an industry is irrational but you can’t call land waste because of your inefficiency,’’ he says.

Government officials, meanwhile maintain that the compensation offered to the affected farmers has been good enough. Either in the form of land or the revised packages given to them, the compensation has been good enough to sustain livelihoods, they claim.

AP No. 1

But with 56 SEZs notified and a total of 96 planned in the state, whether these many SEZs would be sustainable may appear doubtful. But officials say they have no reason for concern. Private developers of such zones of industrial activity say that Andhra Pradesh remains their first choice to develop an SEZ.

“Look at it this way. Wherever there is a strong single party ruling the state such as AP and Gujarat, there is very little problem. Land acquisitions are a problem in states where there is a coalition government,’’ says the SEZ head of a private developer. Apart from the state’s investor friendly policy, the availability of large tracts of land has wooed investors like his firm, he says.

While the industry seems upbeat about SEZs, observers have their doubts on their sustainability. Pronab Sen notes that from the developer point of view, it is the real estate that makes an SEZ worthwhile. “Economic activity will take up only 20 to 25 per cent of the land area,’’ he says. The remaining land area, say experts, can be used for residential or other non-industrial purposes. But he fears that like industrial parks developed by some state governments in the past that are now lying idle, for an extended period even these zones could be severely under occupied. “Those not finding space to set up factories will look at these,’’ he says.

Other experts like Agarwal note that ideally the government should have first set up a few zones as a pilot experiment as against coming up with so many across the country. “This problem may come of having quite a few zones but with no industrial activity,’’ she says.

State officials say that all is fine so far in the SEZ sector of the state. Companies are being wooed to set shop in the SEZs coming up. “We have a great demand,’’ says K Prabhakara Rao, general manager (SEZs), Andhra Pradesh Industrial Infrastructure Corporation Ltd. He says that they are only searching for an anchor tenant for the SEZs in Adilabad, Nizamabad and Kadapa whereas those in Kakinada, Visakhapatnam, Tirupati and Vijayawada have a great demand.

With all this industrial activity, AP is on a high. Wonder how the farmers are doing.

[ Also read the rejoinder to this article “Its Time You Opened Your Eyes!” by Sujatha Surepally ]

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Written by dilkibaatein

September 16, 2008 at 2:16 pm

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  1. […] List of deaths ← SEZ: AP No Singur […]


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