Zones for Scam
[Rachel's Introduction: "We must respect the "precautionary principle" and not resort to land acquisition unless it can be demonstrated to increase welfare. We must invest real content in the right to life."]
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By Praful Bidwai
GOING by the number and intensity of protests against displacement under way in numerous States, land acquisition for industrial, mining and infrastructure projects has become India's single most contentious issue. Land is now the main site of struggle as popular movements confront predatory capital, which can only accumulate through dispossession.

At stake are thousands of square kilometres of land on which at least a few million livelihoods depend. For instance, the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) which have received formal or "in-principle" approval will alone need over 2,000 square kilometre. If the even larger swathes typically involved in mining leases, plots earmarked for industry, and areas claimed by highway development, and above all, by suburban housing -- now witnessing an unprecedented boom -- are added, the acreage would be huge.

Uprooting or displacing (usually vulnerable) people is nothing new in India. Thirty-five to 40 million -- half the population of Germany, France or Britain -- people suffered that cruel fate during the first 50 years of Independence under "development" schemes, including large dams, and mining, metallurgical, chemical and power projects. The bulk of the uprooted were rural people, a large number of them being Adivasis.

What is new about displacement today is its increasingly urban location, growing absence of resettlement sites and alternative livelihoods, the changed role of the state -- which acts as a gendarme on behalf of private business -- and the furious pace of construction. Take SEZs for which a special Act was passed in 2005. As many as 195 SEZs have been approved and notified by the Commerce Ministry, covering 22,800 hectares (ha). It is well-established that the scrutiny process is arbitrary, even cavalier.

A detailed analysis of 154 SEZs (Seminar, January) shows that the promoters do not furnish the requisite numbers for direct and indirect jobs, and for investment. Direct employment figures are provided in just 110 applications, indirect employment figures in 82 and investment figures in 109 of the 154 applications.

The 154 SEZs are located in only 53 of India's 600 districts. These have a relatively high level of literacy and industrialisation. Just 20, mostly urban, districts -- including the metropolises and major cities such as Pune, Ahmedabad, Coimbatore, Indore, Nagpur and Visakhapatnam -- account for 71 per cent of all SEZs and an even higher 82 per cent of their land area.

This at once multiplies the displacement quotient. Many Indian cities have population densities that are 20 to 40 times higher than the national average (330). For instance, Mumbai has about 22,000 people per sq km. Delhi and Bangalore about half that. Even smaller cities such as Patna and Visakhapatnam have very high population densities - 13,700 and 8,800. The urban plan areas of Indore, no aspiring metropolis, tops with a density of 1,02,800.

The fact that two-thirds of all SEZs are in information technology/information technology-enabled services further magnifies the multiplier effect. Such enterprises, almost invariably abut well- developed urban centres, and are hard to distinguish from, and easily assimilated/converted to, high-value real estate.

Thus, a large proportion of SEZs might just be plain land scams, with many more billions involved in property values than in investment in plant and machinery, which is minimal in IT.

Even on the conservative assumption that the already notified SEZ areas have a population density of 5,000 (when 10,000 seems a more reasonable estimate), the number of people liable to be displaced by them works out to 1.14 million. This is a frightening figure, considering that the process of displacement was compressed into just over a year.

More important, this is more than 18 times higher than the number of people officially claimed to have been directly employed in the notified zones: 61,015. Even going by the Commerce Ministry's estimate that 14 persons get indirect employment when 10 new direct jobs are created, the total employment gain (1,45,335) from the SEZs would be just about one-eighth of the loss represented by displacement. This is an obnoxiously, repugnantly, unequal bargain.

However, in the present climate, unequal bargains which destroy livelihoods have become the norm. There is even talk of Special Education Zones, presumably modelled after the Vedanta University project promoted by Anil Agarwal's United Kingdom-based group, now under way in Orissa.

This campus is being built close to the Konarak-Puri Marine Drive, less than 60 km from Bhubaneswar on 6,270 acres of land. It will be connected "by a dedicated railway station and an expressway directly to the new Bhubaneswar International Airport", which almost seems designed to enhance its real estate value. To comprehend what 6,270 acres means, just recall that the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Mumbai campus, considered big, even lavish, is 550 acres in area.

The destructive potential of such land-based and -intensive "development" will not remain confined to the wiping out of the poor or middle peasant whose land is acquired, usually compulsorily under the Land Acquisition Act, 1894. It will unfold fully as property values get grossly inflated in and around city after Indian city to a point when even the salaried middle and upper-middle class finds it impossible to buy modest housing with its savings.

A particularly obnoxious emerging phenomenon is the occurrence of irrational SEZs along with other extravagant infrastructure projects. A case in point is Nagpur's Rs.2,581-crore project called Mihan (Maharashtra Multi-Modal International Hub Airport at Nagpur), being promoted by the State-sponsored Maharashtra Airport Development Company (MADC). Mihan was explicitly floated to "firmly put India on the fast track to economic superstardom", no less.

Under Mihan, the MADC will acquire a total of 4,354 ha, of which 1,278 ha will be earmarked for the airport, and 2,086 for an SEZ, termed "the free trade paradise". This includes 500 ha for IT parks, 955 ha for manufacturing units, 60 ha for a "health city", and 200 ha for a rail-cum-road terminal.

This new city will have numerous residential complexes, hotels, entertainment facilities, its own power plant, water supply, sewerage, and even a posh "international" school. The idea is to create an entirely new entity, Mihanpur, which with its "twin" Nagpur, will become "India's fastest growing cosmopolitan city". Resistance in Maharashtra

Last fortnight, I visited Shivangaon, one of the 13 villages affected by Mihan, which falls within Nagpur's municipal limits. Shivangaon's people have been protesting peacefully against forcible land acquisition at rates that are only 100th of the market value. On each day of the past eight months, 20 to 50 people have conducted a relay dawn-to-dusk hunger-strike.

Sadly, that has had no effect on the Maharashtra government. Nor has their recent novel protest under which all the male adults and then the boys shaved their heads. Later, 90 women got tonsured -- signifying widowhood in a traditional Hindu family.

Shivangaon is in Nagpur's prosperous orange belt. Most of its land is irrigated. It cultivates vegetables for the urban market and also supplies it 30,000 litres of milk. Shivangaon's literacy exceeds 95 per cent. Its inhabitants include many educated professionals.

"We have been repeatedly forced to surrender our land at throwaway prices -- for the original Nagpur airport in 1937, for the Improvement Trust, for a dairy project, and in the 1990s for the 'Gajraj' project of the Air Force," Baba Daware, an organiser of the protest, told this writer. "The 270 ha Gajraj land was never used. But the government won't give it back. It's selling it to private developers and profiteering on our backs."

Mihan is yet to receive environmental clearance, but land acquisition, and construction driven by lucrative contracts, have already begun. A 22,000 square-metre Central Facility Building is awaiting completion by July. So are internal roads.

Mihan will eliminate whole villages and render people landless - without rehabilitation. In a reply under a Right to Information Act application, the authorities have clarified that there is "no notification" for rehabilitation.

The people are willing to sell land, but at market value, so they can find alternative plots not too far away. The market rate is Rs.2 to 4 crore an acre. This is confirmed by a sale deed of April 30 last, which shows that a High Court judge and his brothers sold land for a staggering Rs.2.55 crore an acre. The MADC is offering a pathetic Rs.1 to 2 lakh.

What makes Mihan especially egregious is the spectacular irrationality of the "hub" airport. This derives from the "hub-and-spokes" civil aviation model, which has no takers in India. Nagpur airport is puny.

Nagpur records just 2 per cent of India's aircraft movements and only 65,301 domestic passengers a month. By contrast, Mumbai handles 1.65 million, 27 times more. Chennai, Hyderabad and Bangalore do 8 to 12 times more. Nagpur has half as much traffic as Guwahati, Goa or Jaipur. It makes no sense to increase its monthly passenger capacity from 65,301 to 1.2 million under Mihan.

There are three general lessons in all this. First, the colonial LAA must go. Its "public interest" Section has been extensively abused to promote corporate interests. Second, the bureaucracy cannot be trusted to determine the right price of land, based on market value and likely appreciation, and related to the true costs of rehabilitation.

We need independent commissions. Finally, we must respect the "precautionary principle" and not resort to land acquisition unless it can be demonstrated to increase welfare. We must invest real content in the right to life.

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