Farmers to vote on Mumbai special economic zone

September 20th, 2008 - 3:47 pm ICT by IANS  

Pen (Maharashtra), Sep 20 (IANS) In a path-breaking move that can trigger major policy changes, farmers in this paddy-growing coastal sub-district of Maharashtra will Sunday participate in a referendum to decide the fate of Asia’s biggest Special Economic Zone (SEZ) being developed here by Reliance Industries (RIL).Faced with the firm refusal to part with 3,417 hectares (8,542.5 acres) of land from about 10,000 farmers in 22 villages who have their farms by a nearby dam, the district administration will record their statements on whether or not they want the tax-free enclave to come up in their region.

While there will be no ballot papers or boxes to put them in, polling booths of sorts are being set up in the 22 villages in the Pen tehsil (sub-district) where administration personnel will note down the villagers’ say after checking their land ownership documents, Raigad district collector Vinayak Nipun told IANS.

And with a bid by Mumbai SEZ Ltd, the RIL subsidiary implementing the project, to stall the first of its kind democratic exercise failing in the Bombay High Court Thursday, people opposed to the SEZ have stepped up their campaign against the upcoming project that promises to boost the region’s economy.

The opponents are happy that their agitation has resulted in the government agreeing to go for a referendum - which they are confident of winning - even as Singur and Nandigram in West Bengal continue to simmer over much smaller chunks of land.

Though nearly 10,000 hectares of land is under acquisition for the project coming up over 14,000-hectares spanning 46 villages in Pen, Panvel and Uran tehsils of Raigad district, the government encountered the toughest resistance in Pen that falls in the Hetavne irrigation dam command area.

The Hetavne project, for which gazette notification was issued in 1981, is almost complete. Till now, Rs.3.29 billion has been spent on the project against the estimated Rs.130 million.

A whopping Rs.683.4 million would be needed to bring alternative land under irrigation if the 3,417 hectares in the existing command area were to be given away for the SEZ project, its executive engineer R.M. Kulkarni had stated in his submission to the land acquisition office last year.

Senior Peasants and Workers Party leader N.D. Patil went on a fast two months ago, forcing Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh to promise that a hearing will be held for the farmers.

Deshmukh subsequently modified the promise by directing the district collector to hold a referendum.

“Sixteen farmers had gone on an indefinite fast in July last year,” said Vaishali Patil, coordinator of the committee heading the protest against the SEZ project.

Protesters have also held demonstrations and blocked roads besides making representations to the government, Patil told IANS, but added that the agitation was peaceful unlike that in Singur and Nandigram.

“It is exasperating that the government kept issuing land acquisition notices to farmers despite the SEZ Act providing against acquisition of irrigated land,” Patil said.

She expressed satisfaction, however, that ultimately a referendum was being held and said at least 80 percent of farmers would vote against the project.

An RIL official told IANS that the company has challenged the government’s move to hold referendum as the ‘in-principle’ approval has already been granted for the project.

According to him, the move violated the agreement the government has entered into with the company.

“The government has accepted the company’s rehabilitation plan which offers farmers the best possible deal including Rs.1 million plus compensation per acre, 12.5 percent for developed plot in the project area, a suitable job to one person per family and training,” he added.

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