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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 46

Displacing Livelihoods

Land Acquisition For Special Economic Zones

Saturday 3 November 2007, by Sheetal Sharma


Human displacement, whether in response to war (civil and ethnic), natural disaster, economic opportunity, or building of infrastructure within countries, is the key issue in contemporary discussions of population movements. These movements include displaced, political and economic refugees, migrants, and exiles who move across and within national boundaries, as well as those forced to relocate in response to infrastructural development such as economic zones, power projects, dam construction or conservation projects. Such movements mean that thousands are rendered landless, jobless, homeless, income less, rootless, displaced making way for gargantuan projects christened as epitomes of economic development. In India the battle-lines have been drawn between the paupers and the prosperous over the issue of displacement and (forceful) acquisition of land for development of Special Economic Zones (SEZ). An SEZ is a geographical region where in order to attract investment economic laws are relaxed as compared to country’s prevailing economic laws. These zones are considered as a strategic tool for expediting the process of industrialisation in developing countries. Nevertheless there are many issues worth questioning.

There are a number of arguments against the viability of establishing SEZs in terms of trade, revenue lost, (un)employment etc. but the issue of displacement of rural population is one of the major concerns in the recent past. Large tracts of prime agricultural land measuring thousands of acres are acquired from farmers for developing SEZs. These acquisitions have immense implications on the agricultural sector; in terms of setback to farming, agricultural and allied activities, productive opportunities lost, rising unemployment in rural areas and displaced livelihoods. Farmers are not adequately compensated for the land acquired from them for the purpose. Even before these zones are ready to deliver any financial or developmental benefit they displace the natives of land, leading to economic hardships and pauperisation with no alternative source of livelihood.

The idea of ‘private companies’ directly buying land from the farmers would spell a disaster for agriculture. Land mafia will rule the prices and force the farmers to sell land to big companies at throw-away prices. Sumit Sarkar, eminent historian, described the SEZ policy as the “biggest land grab movement in the history of modern India. Where earlier movements were led by the poor to acquire land, this time round it is the rich that want to ‘grab’ land belonging to poor farmers. It is likely that the policy may be misused for real estate development rather than for industry and generating exports.” Developers and promoters of SEZs get land cheaply—almost one-fourth or less than that of the market price. With the minimum required processing area being 35 per cent, the rest will be used for residential, recreational facilities and the promoters will make their fortune out of real estate development and speculation indiscriminately. The boom in real estate sector too is fuelling the fire. In the name of SEZs developers hope to acquire land easily at nominal prices, put up basic infrastructure incurring minimum cost and sell it at huge profit margins. Rather than promoting overall economic development, SEZs will result into clusters of heightened economic activity widening the already existing chasm between selective areas witnessing rapid development vis-à-vis the impoverished surroundings. Critics term SEZs as ‘islands of affluence’ amidst the sea of deprivation. Noted columnist Swaminathan Aiyar warned that this is a “real estate scam” in the making. The vast tracts of land sanctioned to these private parties would be developed into towns. But many of the envisaged SEZs may simply become ‘property deals’. In sum, taking away prime source of income of hapless farmers to create huge profitable enterprises for the capitalists by the state is ‘anti-people’ and ‘unethical’. The state abets prosperising large business houses like the Ambanis, Mahindras and the Tatas and perpetuating pauperisation of the local populace.

Let us take the case of Chirner village in Raigad district, Maharashtra. The place is famous for the “Chirner Jungle Satyagraha”. During the indepen-dence struggle on September 25, 1930 eight martyrs were killed here. Maharashtra has 48 out of the 234 SEZs approved by the Union Government. Opposition against the SEZ has started in Pen, Uran and Panvel talukas of Raigad district, where over 10,000 hectares in 45 villages will be acquired for the Reliance group’s Mumbai Special Economic Zone project (earlier called Mahamumbai SEZ). The notification for acquisition of land for the project was first announced through a notice in a local paper on June 19 stating that the land is being acquired under the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, for a public project, namely, the SEZ. The notice says that the State intends to acquire land for a “public purpose”, and asks landowners to file their responses. Acquisition notices have been issued to over one lakh small and big landowners. Landowners and farmers have started filing objections to the acquisition notices sent under Section 4(1) of the Land Acquisition Act. Over 17,000 objections have come from 45 villages in the Raigad district. Chirner is worst hit, as over 1400 hectares would be acquired. Yeshwant Narangikar one of the anti-SEZ activists stated: “We sent the British packing, but they seem to have come back in the guise of Reliance.” Another activist Santaji Gondhali expressed. “What’s wrong with our area. We have two crops every year, education, plenty of water. Since the city is close, we do get jobs too. Why does the government want to take all this away?”

Over the last few months the voices of resentment have grown higher. Farmers claim that “If we give up our land, what we will eat? They will not give us any jobs, and finally we will have to give up our homes. People are willing to sacrifice their lives to oppose these SEZs. Our land is productive and fertile, why should we give it up for a private company?” The villagers have formed a Farmers’ Action Committee to oppose forceful acquisition of land on the name of public interest. With discontent growing out of proportion the central and the state governments acting defensively put forward that they want to strike a balance between farmers’ interests and industrial development. But is it really the case? What sort of public interest such acquisitions would serve is highly debatable.

As per the reliance company spokesman, “we are planning the Mumbai SEZ in such a way that it will be a world class city, which will ease the pressure on Mumbai. There is no question of displacement, and the government will lease the land to us. The infrastructure would be upgraded in terms of road connectivity, education and health. About 25 lakh direct and indirect jobs would be generated over a period of 10 years.” But this dream of mega development would be realised at the cost of displacing thousands of farmers from their source of subsistence. Although the SEZ opens up opportunities for employment, people from rural areas are unlikely to fulfil the requirement of skilled hands needed by industrial units located in the SEZs.

SIMILAR voices of protest are intensifying through- out the State of Haryana as well. ‘Aam Aadmi Adhikar Andolan’, the movement started by the Congress MP from Bhiwani, Kuldeep Bishnoi, raised the issue of forcible acquisition of farmland for SEZs. Protesting against the acquisition of land on the name of public interest to setup SEZ Bishnoi said that “it has become another reason for sophisticated land grab by big industrial houses aided and abetted by the state governments. If we industrialise large chunks of fertile cultivable agriculture land, how will we maintain a balanced ratio as we will become a food grain deficient state from being food grain surplus due to growing population? The SEZs are a tool to rob farmers of their land. Since Haryana is landlocked and the SEZs in Haryana would not have access to any port, the zones were not going to be a feasible idea to industrialise Haryana in such a big way.” In Haryana too Reliance Industries Limited has signed an agreement to build India’s largest industrial infrastructure project. The $ 8 billion SEZ will cover over 12,500 hectares neighbouring Delhi, falling in the territory of the state of Haryana. The proposed zone will include cargo airport, power station, residential complexes, shopping malls, commercial and sports complexes. The zone is slated to compete with top Asian hubs in China, Indonesia and Malaysia. The state government of Haryana is giving full support to Reliance industries. Land in Haryana is very fertile and giving away fertile land for industrial activity would ruin agriculture and farmers. The question that arises is if large chunks of fertile agricultural land would be given to big industrial houses where will this ultimately lead us to? What would happen to agriculture? What about the issue of food security? Such industrial activities on agricultural land would have serious implications on the status of food self-sufficiency in future. A nation with billions of population and half of them living in conditions of subsistence will starve after some time.

What are mere voices of protest in other States became bloody battles in West Bengal. The controversy started when the West Bengal Government decided that the Salim group of Indonesia would develop a special economic zone at Nandigram, a rural area in the district of Purba Medinipur, by acquiring 14,000 hectares of land for the purpose. The zone was slated to be spread over 29 villages of which 27 are in Nandigram. Most of the land under acquisition was multi- crop and would have affected over 40,000 people in the areas. The protest turned violent and at least 14 people were killed in police firing at Nandigram creating national uproar. Amidst the mayhem Chief Minister of West Bengal Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee announced that the proposed Special Economic Zone is scrapped and it would be shifted elsewhere. Similarly, public outcry and discontent was expressed over the Tata Motors’ car project in Singur. There was controversy over the acquisition of agricultural land and allegations of forcible eviction of farmers from the area. In protest Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee went on a hunger strike for 25 days. According to one survey, more than 10,000 families live on the 1000 acres in Singur. They include about 6000 landholders, 1200 registered sharecroppers, and 100 unregistered share-croppers. Others living in the area since generations are landless labourers, artisans, small traders. There are thousands of regular, seasonal migrant workers who live on the same resources. Tata Motors has now begun construction work on a new assembly plant factory in which it plans to employ 10,000 people producing the ‘1-lakh car’ (100,000 rupees).

TO highlight the problems of displacement land acquisition for SEZs several social action groups from the State of Rajasthan organised the Jan Adhikar Yatra, a 10-day padyatra of 300 villages in four districts (Alwar, Sikar, Tonk and Ajmer) around Jaipur. As many as 400 participants from across Rajasthan took part in the yatra. Till date, three SEZs—two near Jaipur and one in Jodhpur—have become operational in Rajasthan. In addition, five others have received “formal approval” and 10 more (including as many as seven multi-product zones above 1000 hectares each, five of them in Alwar district alone) await formal approval, having already acquired “in-principle approval”. The largest of these is the Omaxe SEZ planned in Alwar district which proposes to occupy as much as 6000 hectares of land, a good 1000 hectares above the legally permissible limit, according to changes announced by the Government of India in April 2007. Land acquisition for corporations is being facilitated by the state by amending or breaking existing land laws. At the same time, schemes like the Employment Guarantee Scheme (EGS) (in which Rajasthan leads the States in terms of employment generated) are not being properly implemented; workers are being denied the promised minimum wage of Rs 73 per day. There is opacity in a large number of government decisions. The mood is restless and public anger over the state’s persistent failure to obtain economic justice for the poor is growing.

In response to protests and agitations sparking off all over India, the government decided to locate SEZs on the wasteland. But, what is perceived as wasteland from urban-industrial perspective has multiple utility especially for people inhabiting the rural areas. Land usage in rural India is not merely restricted to farming and agricultural activities. For three-fourths of the population living in rural areas the utility and reliance on land for meeting daily requirements of survival is massive. The socio-economic consequences of developmen-tal schemes and projects influence the lives of rural people enormously. A large population in rural areas often faces the agony of displacement in the name of development for construction of dams, irrigation projects, establishment of SEZs, hydro-power projects etc. and the fruits of development are not equally shared by all. The socio-economic and psychological problems of the displaced have never been given thought to in the process of fuelling economic development. Spatial relocation of rural people influences individual lives, household, communities and leads to loss of identity, security and belongingness.

The world over people have debated on the viability of policies and issues of growth and development. The success stories of SEZs operating in other countries establish a convincing argument. In developing nations like India industrialisation is necessary for growth. However, development at the cost of agriculture and displacement of millions cannot qualify as development. We cannot sacrifice the needs of the proletariat to fulfil the interests of the capitalist. Before taking any decision we have to analyse the consequences, strengths and shortcomings of SEZs. The myopia of thought may lead to skewed economic growth and development forcing us to question if the SEZ is an appropriate route to development by displacing livelihoods.


- Sharma, Sheetal, and Kishan Pratap, ‘The Prosperous Few and the Pauperised Many: A Perspective on Special Economic Zones’, Mainstream, Vol. XLV, No. 10, February 24, 2007.
- Aggarwal, Aradhna, ‘Special Economic Zones: Revisiting the Policy Debate’, Economic and Political Weekly November 4, 2006.
- ‘Urban Wastelands’, Editorial, The Times of India, October 14, 2006.
- ‘Cash Cows, India’s Special Economic Zones’, The Economist, October 12, 2006.
- Chakraverti, Sauvik. ‘Company Towns’, The Times of India, August 21, 2006.
- Statistics of different categories of wasteland in India, http//
- Rajat Roy, ‘Left is not right’, <> .
- Shrivastava, Aseem. <> ‘Rajasthan padyatra highlights pressing rural problems’, September 2007, www.infochangeindia. Org

Dr Sheetal Sharma is a Sociologist and the Assistant Manager, Educational Consultants India Limited.

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