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Dossier Climate Change, Corporate Accountability, Indigenous Struggles for Land, Mining Scams and Urban Displacement

Oh! No SIR: Farmers’ struggles in Gujarat to protect their land

, by Intercultural Resources

Development induced displacement is one of the biggest issues in India that a vast majority of marginalized people confront on a day-to-day basis. The welfare state, instead of caring for the marginalized sections of the society, becomes the usurper of their livelihoods. In such a scenario, the affected can’t sit idle and watch their lives being snatched away by the authorities, like vultures that swoop down on their prey. This article is an effort to unfold the plight of more than 125,000 people, thousands of cattle, and other living beings that survive on meager resources. The article unfolds the timeline of their struggles, as well as their encounter with the administrative machinery and the judicial mechanism; waiting for a right verdict.

By PT George

Introduction

Gujarat, one of the states in the western part of India, is currently lauded as the ideal “Model” to be replicated by the rest of the country. The then Chief Minister of Gujarat, Mr. Narendra Modi, has now become the 15th Prime Minister of India. Traditionally, Gujarat has been a very wealthy, as well as a culturally rich and diverse state. Over the last 15 years, under the leadership of Mr. Modi, the state claims to have undergone massive economic development coupled with high industrial growth, increased agricultural productivity, and huge private sector involvement in boosting economic development and infrastructure setup. In reality, Gujarat has now come to represent the classic case where its rural segment is being disregarded by the authorities to achieve the higher goal of being a superpower state and in the process, has left hundreds of farmers and agriculture workers removed from their land and livelihoods.

To expand its ‘Development Model’, the Government of Gujarat (GoG) came up with the innovative plan of establishing Special Investment Regions (SIR). SIRs are industrial eco-systems fully supported by state of the art infrastructure, a convenient legal frame work, and minimum bureaucratic hurdles. To facilitate the establishment of SIRs, and to give a legal framework to this ambitious project, The Gujarat Special Investment Regions Act was promulgated in the year 2009. This act gave exemplary powers to the state to create nodal agencies like the Gujarat Infrastructure Development Board (GIDB) for the creation of SIRs. The GIDB is the highest policy making body for the management of SIRs, and has the authority to declare any region of Gujarat an SIR.

Mandal-Becharaji SIR

Using the newly created SIR Act, the Government of Gujarat, through a notification published in the Gujarat Gazette on 24 September, 2012 declared 44 villages belonging to the districts of Ahmedabad, Surendranagar and Mehsana as the Mandal-Becharaji Special Investment Region (MBSIR).

Spread over an area of more than 500 sq km, the proposed SIR falls within a region well connected with rail and road networks that provide easy connectivity with the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC) project; which is a joint venture by the Government of India and Japan. Besides Gujarat, the DMIC runs through several other states of NCR, Haryana, Rajasthan and Maharashtra. However, Gujarat is the only state to have passed such a piece of legislation.

Change of Land Use

Approximately, 80 percent of the population in the 44 villages of MBSIR are engaged in agriculture and cattle rearing; their main sources of livelihood. A storm of troubles hit the farmers with the announcement of the MBSIR. Prior to any land acquisition, it is mandatory for the government to inform the communities, the Gram Panchayats, or the relevant local governing bodies, as well as, to hold discussions on the implications of the project. In the case of MBSIR, the Government of Gujarat put the project on a fast-track mode and did not bother to inform the affected people. The villagers only became aware of the notification when some local NGOs alerted them in April, 2013.

Dispute over the Land

The land records of the government show the notified area as government ‘wasteland,’ however, the villagers have been cultivating on this land for over 60 years. The land records of the villages show that this area was allocated for farming, and the villagers are of the opinion that the land records of the government got messed up after 2004, when the process of computerization began. This has created confusion as well as suspicion amongst the farmers, who believe that this is not a case of some silly clerical mistake, but a clear manipulation of land records by government officials to pave way for the development projects. Suddenly, the farmers have found themselves caught in a whirlwind of confusion and landlessness, and are on the brink of evacuation from the ancestral lands they have been cultivating for decades.

Maruti-Suzuki India Limited (MSIL)

By showing the notified area as wasteland, the GoG allotted 647 acres of land in Hansalpur village to India’s largest automobile manufacturer - Maruti-Suzuki India Limited (MSIL) for its upcoming plant. The farmers claim that 207 acres of this land is fertile land that the government has mistakenly marked as uncultivable land. In 2010, around 120 people of Hansalpur village had filed a case to rectify the mistakes made in the records in 2004. Even though the proposed land was under dispute, the GoG still allotted the land to MSIL in 2011.

The farmers are not completely opposed to the development of a MSIL plant in their village; however, they want the government to fulfill a few demands. The locals want the government to retain a small part of the allotted land for the development of basic amenities such as schools, colleges and hospitals. Moreover, the paths connecting Hansalpur village to the neighboring villages pass through the disputed land, therefore the locals want the government to ensure that the MSIL plant will not block their access to outside villages.

While dispute over the land allotted to Maruti is separate from the campaign against the SIR notification, opposition to it has now become part of a bigger land agitation movement that has emerged from the anti-SIR struggle by the farmers in the region.

Narmada Canal Network

The farmers in Gujarat have been waiting for decades for the arrival of Narmada waters (through a network of canals), to fulfill their agricultural needs. But now, their dreams have been shattered as the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited - the nodal agency for executing the Narmada dam project - has de-commanded a large part of the land that falls in the Mandal and Detroj Talukas. As a result, the farmers have to not only part with their prime agricultural land, but they would also not be able to receive the canal water for agriculture, which would instead be diverted to the industries.

To rub salt in the wounds of the farmers, the Government of Gujarat has come up with another law, The Gujarat Irrigation and Drainage Act - 2013; a draconian piece of legislation that violates the fundamental rights of the farmers. This new legislation forbids a farmer from installing a bore well in any agricultural land without a license and, even after obtaining a license; it is the government which has the rights over any resulting groundwater. If a farmer has any access to water without a license, then he is liable to imprisonment for up to six months and a fine of Rs. 10,000 (US $170). Further, farmers owning land within 200 meters of a canal will have to pay for any water reaching their fields even if the water comes by percolation, leakage, or flooding.

Two-Day Convention

Being on the verge of expulsion from their homeland, there arose an urgent need amongst the 44 villages to mobilize farmers to create awareness about the implications of the notification. On 6th and 7th May, 2013, several civil society organizations from Gujarat, activists, villagers and concerned individuals, representatives of tribals, farmers, pastoralists, fishermen, and women and children held a two-day discussion at Gopnaad (near Becharaji) and discoursed about the notification and its implications on the villagers. They chalked out a broad plan of action to tackle the immediate threat of displacement. Simultaneously, small meetings held in all the affected villages brought together around 800 farmers, who pledged their full solidarity. The meetings aimed for a non-violent struggle, solid action against the notification, and to hold the government accountable. Thus emerged a state level coalition - Jamin Adhikar Andolan, Gujarat (JAAG), founded on the principle of ‘ahinsak satyagrah’ (non-violent and apolitical struggle).

Meanwhile, the local youth group – Azad Vikas Sangathan managed to build up a cadre of youth to support the movement. The youth wing facilitated the Gram Sabha (village council) meetings and helped spread awareness about the implications of having an SIR in their agricultural land. As a result, in the next few months Gujarat witnessed high voltage action and dramatic demonstration of the farmers’ anger through motorcycle rallies, signature campaigns, Panchayat and Gram Sabha resolutions, demonstrations, and hunger strikes. The Milk Cooperative Societies and the Ginning Cooperative Societies also came forward to render support to the movement and passed resolutions opposing the SIR.

Second Notification

By the second week of May, 2013 the Government of Gujarat issued a second notification for land acquisition for the MBSIR. The map of the notified area was put up in Vithalpur village. The villagers now woke up to the reality of 50,885 hectares of land slipping away underneath their feet, rendering more than 125,000 people homeless. The famers and leaders of JAAG decided to take up some urgent action. Soon, a consensus arose to oppose the SIR, and the villagers signed resolutions stating their unwillingness to give their land to MBSIR. An eight point memorandum was also sent to the Government, which highlighted the plight of the farmers in drought-prone Gujarat, and how they had been waiting for decades for the Narmada waters to reach them. The Memorandum also mentioned how the political parties had made tall promises of transforming their villages and agricultural lands into a green belt.

Protests

Following the notification, the farmers’ groups and the civil society organizations led by the newly formed forum JAAG, organized themselves, and launched a struggle against the SIR. All the 44 affected villages participated in the slew of protests that followed.

May 6, 2013: The First Public Meeting

The first public meeting was held on 6th May, 2013 in Naviyani village, where a large number of villagers participated, including Gandhian activists and political leaders.

May 28, 2013: Bike Rally
More than 400 youths took out a rally on their bikes wearing Gandhi caps and went around villages alerting the villagers about the notification.

May 30, 2013: Show of Strength

More than 15,000 people attended the public meeting held in Vasna village, where they resolved to submit a memorandum to the State Government. 36 out of 44 Gram Sabhas in the Mandal Becharji belt passed a resolution demanding withdrawal of the SIR notification.

May 31, 2013: Signature Campaign
A signature campaign opposing the State Government notification began in the 44 affected villages. Farmer volunteers from each village went door to door and managed to convince 16,000 villagers to sign the memorandum which they planned to give to then Chief Minister, Narendra Modi.

June 18, 2013: Tractor Rally

Despite all the hurdles and obstacles put up by the administration, the protesting farmers went ahead with the tractor rally which commenced from Vithalpur village on 18 June at 8.30 am and proceeded to Gandhinagar. More than 600 vehicles participated in this mammoth show of strength. The farmers also submitted a memorandum to the Revenue Minister of Gujarat.

June 30, 2013: Motorcycle Rally

The youths took out a 1,500-strong motorcycle rally and presented a memorandum to the Collector of Surendranagar district.

July 1, 2013: Women’s Rally

Thousands of women from 24 villages of Patadi and Mandal blocks organized a rally against the proposed MBSIR. Women went around gathering other women and encouraging them to participate in the rally. Together in one voice women shouted slogans “Jaan Denge Jamin Nahi” (We are ready to give up our lives, but will not give our land).

July 4, 2013: Motorcycle Rally

The youth wing of Azad Vikas Sangathan took out a motorcycle rally where around 3,000 youths on 1,500 motorcycles went through the villages of the Mandal-Becharaji SIR and submitted a memorandum to the District Collector of Surendranagar.

July10, 2013: Meeting with the CM

In the meeting with the Chief Minister, the leaders stressed their demands to scrap the SIR Act and the MBSIR, to bring back the decommanded areas to the Narmada canal command area, to withdraw the Irrigation and Drainage Bill, 2013, and to dismiss the land deal with the Maruti-Suzuki Co. for village Hansalpur.

August 15, 2013: Independence Day Celebration

More than 5,000 farmers from Hansalpur celebrated Independence Day shouting the slogan “Maruti, go back.”

MBSIR Size Reduced

Crumbling under the huge pressure from various organizations and farmers’ protests, the Gujarat government on August 14, 2013 decided to withdraw 36 out of the 44 villages from the proposed MBSIR plan. As per the new order, only 8 villages, including Hansalpur, where land was allotted to Maruti-Suzuki, would be part of the proposed SIR. This was a huge victory for the marginalized people, as it was the first time in the preceding 12 years that the state government had given in to the demands of the people, owing to their unprecedented solidarity.

January 18, 2014: Cattle Rally
Farmers decided to take out a cattle rally from the Vithalpur and Hansalpur villages. The Government deployed a large number of police forces all along the rally route, where the police lathi-charged the cattle herd and their innocent animals.

March 13, 2014: Hearing of the Hansalpur case in the High Court of Gujarat
The farmers’ case came up for hearing in the High Court, but since the government representative was absent, the case was postponed to March 24, 2014. The Court issued a notice to the Government to remain present for the hearing, failing which an ex-parte order could be issued by the High Court.

March 24, 2014: Hearing postponed
The case was slated for a hearing on the 24th of March, but the hearing did not come up. The hearing for the same was postponed to April 11, 2014.

April 10, 2014: Protest in front of the High Court
The farmers of Hansalpur and civil society representatives decided to stage a protest in front of the High Court in Ahmedabad.

However, the united effort of the farmers and the consequent removal of most of the villages from the MBSIR was an incomplete victory, as many issues regarding the withdrawal of the SIR notification, removal of MSIL, and reversal of the process of de-commanding of the Narmada command area are still pending. Till date, the farmers and the civil society organizations continue to organize mass-scale protests against the insensitivity of the government.

Dholera SIR

In 2009, the Government of Gujarat announced 22 villages about 100 km from Ahmedabad as the Dholera Special Investment Region (DSIR). Spread over an area of 920 sq km, the proposed DSIR will affect the numerous farmers whose agricultural land will be taken away by the government for the development of this project. Despite protests by farmers, the state government carried out surveys in the area and in October, 2013 notifications were sent to the 22 villages that their land was being acquired.

The farmers claimed that in return for their land, the government promised them lands half the size of their original plots. It is shocking to note that some of the plots being offered were located in the sea and most others were uncultivable. The pastoral community, too, faces a threat to their livelihood, as this project would deny the cattle of their grazing land.

Farmers have suggested that the government can develop this project under the Land Acquisition Act, where the developers buy the land from the farmers directly, and if there is no development on the land in five years, then it has to be returned to the farmers. The villagers are against the SIR Act as, under this act, the government buys the land from the farmers and sells it to the developers for a project that involves a timeline of several decades.

The DSIR also flouts many environmental regulations and concerns. No residential or industrial development can take place in a 10 km range of the Velavadar Blackbuck Sanctuary in Bhavnagar, but the DSIR is being developed in this region. The GoG is also disregarding its own laws by flouting provisions of the Coastal Regulation Zone and the National Park for the development of this project.

Despite various protests and numerous attempts by farmers to halt this project, the state government has not heeded to the requests of the people, and the DSIR project is still underway. In fact, the GoG tried its best to curb any kind of protests held by the people, and efforts were made to dupe the people into believing that this project would benefit them, whereas, it would only lead to the farmers becoming landless and deprived of their only source of sustenance.

Conclusion

The state of Gujarat was one of the first in India to set up Special Investment Regions. In a country where land holding is very small, livelihood from farming is a matter of survival. When the state indulges in usurping the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of people, just to benefit a few corporates and industrialists, the welfare state then takes the role of a slaughter house manager where poor farmers, agricultural laborers, pastoralists, and other marginalized become the raw materials to be fed to the ever-hungry steel horses of the industry. The declaration of SIRs and the subsequent notification for land acquisition has become a Damocles sword hanging over the head of the farmers on the verge of being devastated by the rich-friendly policies whipped up on them.

The Government of Gujarat’s dream to capitalize on the proposed Dedicated Freight Corridor (DFC) has been shattered by the incessant protests by the farmers against unjust land acquisition policies. Since the farmers’ representations and innumerable protests did not yield much result, they decided to take the matter to the court for judicial intervention. In a democratic country, when the welfare state indulges in violating the fundamental right to life and livelihood, the affected people cannot sit in, but approach the judiciary for a fair intervention. The farmers’ contention about the land allotment to MSIL’s ambitious expansion plans has to be seen in this context. The farmers are right in demanding the appointment of a Commissioner to settle the land dispute through a proper judicial intervention. Till then, the government cannot arbitrarily take away the poor farmers livelihood as their existence is solely dependent on the little land holdings they have.

Acknowledgements
The author is highly grateful to Persis Ginwalla (associated with the Jamin Adhikar Andolan, Gujarat (JAAG), whose regular updates on farmers’ struggles in Gujarat have been very helpful in writing this case study.

References

“Mandal Becharaji Special Investment Region (MBSIR) Report1- Draft Development Plan Report,” Mandal Becharaji Special Investment Regional Development Authority, Gandhinagar, May, 2013.

Shah, Rajiv Rich farmers "opposing" SIR: Rich farmers of Mandal-Becharaji area "regret" taking part in agitation against special investment region. Counterview. Online at:
http://www.counterview.net/2013/12/rich-farmers-of-mandal-becharaji-area.html

Updates from Jamin Adhikar Andolan, Gujarat

Balan, P., “Gujarat HC to hear farmers’ claim on Maruti land on June 20,” Business Standard, June 19, 2013. Online at:
http://www.business-standard.com/article/companies/guj-hc-to-hear-farmers-claim-on-maruti-land-on-june-20-113061900592_1.html

Das, S. “Gujarat model runs into land row,” Business Standard, May 21, 2014. Online at:
http://www.business-standard.com/article/current-affairs/gujarat-model-runs-into-land-row-114052101750_1.html

Guptara, P., “Leader or Jadugar?,” The International Indian, Vol. 20. 5. Online at: http://www.theinternationalindian.com/guptara_garmagaram017.html

Polanki, P., “Why Gujarat Farmers are Opposing Maruti Plant,” First Biz. Online at:
http://m.firstbiz.com/corporate/why-gujarat-farmers-are-opposing-maruti-plant-45426.html

“Mandal-Bechraji SIR: People-power wins!,” Readings and Discussions on Issues of Land Rights. Online at: http://discuss.landgrab.info/?p=421

Ban, R., “Farmers to intensify protest against land acquisition for Narendra Modi’s pet project,” NDTV, January 22, 2014. Online at: http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/farmers-to-intensify-protest-against-land-acquisition-for-narendra-modi-s-pet-project-474371

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About the Author:
PT George currently leads Intercultural Resources, a New Delhi based NGO engaged in research, documentation and intervention on social, political, environmental and human rights issues. He has been writing on the contemporary social issues in India both for the national and international media. He is keenly interested in photography and focuses on peoples’ struggles.

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