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Rediff.com  » Business » It's poor farmers vs Gujarat government and Nirma!

It's poor farmers vs Gujarat government and Nirma!

Last updated on: January 5, 2011 01:16 IST

It's poor farmers vs Gujarat government and Nirma!

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Sheela Bhatt


Mahuva is not Singur, nor is Nirma like Posco or Vedanta. But the Gujarat government's deception in granting land to rich Indian companies at as cheap a price as possible and the people's struggle to save their land is similar all over India.

The story of land allotment in Mahuva in Saurashtra, Gujarat, is sensational even in this season of scams because here the government allotted its land to a private party, Nirma, and the place allotted was actually a reservoir!

Farmers had to get nothing less than satellite pictures and produce them dramatically in the Gujarat high court to nail the lie of the Narendra Modi government.

The Gujarat chief minister is likely to face embarrassment over this economic development-related decision that the farmers of Saurashtra are fighting against, tooth and nail.

Modi is already facing a Gandhian non-violent movement since the last two years. It is led by none other than his party's upright member of legislative assembly, Dr Kanubhai Kalsaria.

Nirma Group, the Gujarat-based detergent giant, was allotted land in Kanubhai's constituency near Mahuva town in Saurashtra to build an Rs 1,000 crore (Rs 10 billion), 1.91 million tonne cement plant, a coal-based thermal power plant and a coke plant.

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Image: Dr Kanubhai Kalsaria, BJP MLA from Mahuva.

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Around 268 hectares of land given to Nirma in the Mahuva taluka of Bhavnagar district will affect the farming activities of 5,000 families in more than 15 villages.

Also, the land allotted to Nirma consists largely of water bodies known as bandharo in the local language.

The satellite pictures prove that the Gujarat government gave away 222 acres of 'land' to Nirma, hiding the fact that the so called land is actually a water reservoir built at a very high cost by the Gujarat government itself to fight the serious environment-related issue of salinity in the coastal area and to help farmers get a source of water for irrigation.

The government's Rs 200-crore (Rs 2 billion) scheme to curb salinity in coastal areas was part of its environment disaster management plan. The reservoir that was created to control environment damage and help farmers is now being given to Nirma.

"Water is given to industry but nowhere in the world is a water source given away," argues Anand Yagnik, a lawyer for the protesting farmers.

Allotting land that has any type of water body comes under the preview of the central government and requires the Union environment ministry's clearance. The villagers, who get three crops annually from the fertile land, allege that there is collusion between the Modi-led Gujarat government and Nirma to set up the environmentally damaging project in the area.

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Image: The Nirma cement plant that is coming up in Mahuva.

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It's poor farmers vs Gujarat government and Nirma!

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The farmers moved a petition in the high court to get a stay against Nirma's land acquisition process. While arguing the case, Yagnik presented in the court large satellite images obtained from the Indian Space Research Organisation, Hyderabad.

He successfully proved before the court that the Gujarat government is hiding some facts about the nature of the land allotted to Nirma.

As a result, the Gujarat government had to admit in the court that 222 hectares out of the 268 hectares allotted to Nirma comprised 'water body'.

Nirma has now offered to return 100 hectares of land that is part of the water body. The farmers are not happy with this offer of returning only part of the land.

In an exclusive interview with rediff.com, Kalsaria explains a unique movement of mostly illiterate but well-informed farmers to preserve the environment.

He wants people to be sensitised towards farmers' struggle to retain their land and their source of livelihood.

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Image: Satellite image in 2002 of the land that was given to Nirma.

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It's poor farmers vs Gujarat government and Nirma!

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How come a Bharatiya Janata Party MLA got involved in such a grassroots movement?

Some two-and-a-half years back people of my constituency came to me with the issues related to the proposed Nirma cement factory in our area.

At that time, the government had arranged a public hearing before acquiring land of farmers. Such hearings are required under law. I was unaware of the issue because nobody told me about it.

My voters took it for granted that since I belong to the BJP and Narendra Modi is my leader, so I am part of the team that is bringing in the industry in my constituency. People thought I won't listen to their grievances because I am from the ruling party.

Under the proposal, Nirma was to get 268 hectares of land which largely consisted of a water body. The water reservoir was mainly for irrigation purposes and climate control. In fact, the water body was spread over 400 hectares out of which 222 hectare plus some land on the periphery was given to Nirma.

I was kept in the dark intentionally by the government. It was ensured that I don't get a whiff of it in the last 3-4 years when the entire process was going on.

What's the industrial policy of your party in Gujarat?

Since 2003, the Vibrant Gujarat meets have started in Gujarat. Since then the government is mindlessly moving towards industrialisation which will be very harmful in the long run. Industries should be brought in using wisdom and proper control.

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Image: The reservoir that could become a cement plant.

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Industrialisation can't be unchecked and unplanned. Gujarat will suffer in the long run if it continues like this.

What was on your mind when you took up leadership to protest against your own government in Gandhinagar?

I am a surgeon, too. Two years back, people from my constituency started coming to my hospital. Many women patients came from villages and told me that they have been tortured by police and some of them were told to leave their own villages.

When I asked them the details, the women said when paryavaran lok sunavani (public hearing arranged by environment ministry) was held they were not allowed to speak at all. Even the village elders' protest was NOT noted down by officials.

People got angry and damaged the fencing at the Nirma office. The next day, one of the Nirma managers registered a police complaint. The police took stern action against the villagers and the local court ordered their externment from the area.

Then they came to me to get protection from police harassment. I called the police and asked the officers not to harass innocent people. Their grievances were real. If a police or government official refuses to listen to the people, then anger is natural.

The police harassment under pressure from Nirma brought people closer to me. I went to all those affected villages. They said that Nirma is exerting pressure and is using wrong methods to get permission for the land.

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Image: Satellite image of the Mahuva reservoir area.

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I told them they should not worry. I decided to fight their case. I got the message from Gandhinagar that I should stop visiting villages that came under the proposed Nirma plant. My party leaders told me that I am provoking people.

I told them that I am not provoking them; they are taking me along to their villages. I am their MLA. How can I say no to people's invitation? How can I control myself? I speak the truth about the plant and its effects. People like it, so they are joining me. The farmers in the area have formed Khetiwadi Bandhara Paryavaran Bachao Samiti (committee to save farming, water bodies and environment). Bandharas are constructed near the sea coast where rivers meet the sea. This is done to control salinity. Gujarat has the most serious issue of erosion of coast due to salinity.

Are you facing trouble for your stand?

In the last election, Nirma's supporters spread the rumour that I have joined the Congress. They tried to spread the lie that my supporters and protestors against Nirma belong to Congress. This is a lie.

Actually, the affected farmers had published a pamphlet without my knowledge. They said in it, 'Lalu has eaten away fodder but Modi has eaten away our land.'

That pamphlet came to my notice before it could be circulated. I told my supporters that if you do such things then I can't be with you. We must fight against Modi non-violently while remaining in the party.

I told them not to distribute those pamphlets. I told them, 'Let us prove that we are with the BJP but we are fighting for the real cause.' All the villagers opposed to the Nirma plant put their energy for BJP and ensured the victory of the BJP candidate.

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Image: The land that Nirma has been allotted by the Gujarat government.

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People trusted me and gave the BJP leader a huge lead. In fact, without my knowledge they formed the committee and went to high court to stop Nirma.

What was their petition?

People pleaded to the court that they have a reservoir in our area. Nirma wants to build the plant on that. There is an earlier judgment that has ruled that water bodies can't be given to industries. When I joined the movement, the Gujarat government appointed a committee. The members of the committee were all babus. Former IAS officer S K Shelat was heading it and he was advising the chief minister. Nirma halted the project when Shelat committee was investigating the matter.

The committee said at least 100 hectares of land of the water body must NOT be given to Nirma. The Shelat committee thought that if 100 hectares are returned, from the 268 hectares, people would be pacified. But Nirma rejected the recommendation.

In the counter-offer Nirma said that they would leave aside 54 hectares of the peripheral land but not that comes under water. The government again constituted a sub-committee with four ministers in it. The ministers' sub-committee accepted Nirma's alternate offer.

Morari Bapu, well known kathakar (gospel reader) belongs to Mahuva. He came forward to mediate. He asked if there was some way out to settle the issue. I told him, 'I don't see any solution except Nirma leaving the area, but that I am still ready to consider any option.'

Nirma chairman Karsanbhai Patel came to see Morari Bapu, who told him that both of us should sit down and debate the matter threadbare. Karsanbhai said he is ready to talk only if I am first ready to compromise.

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Image: Nirma chairman Karsanbhai Patel.
Photographs: Rediff Archive
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He wanted a close-ended debate. He said, 'Amey ahin rehavana chiye (Nirma is going to come up here).' Morari Bapu said, 'Debate has to be open-ended. Whatever the conclusion, it should be acceptable to all the participants of the debate.'

Karsanbhai refused to debate and returned to Ahmedabad. Within 15 days of him rejecting the offer to debate the issue with us, the Gujarat government told us that Nirma would leave aside 54 hectares of land, out of the 268 hectares originally allotted to it.

People rejected the offer and continued to protest. In February 2010, more than 11,300 people signed a petition with their blood and decided to walk from the Gandhi statue in Ahmedabad to Gandhinagar to present the petition to Narendra Modi.

However, the government arrested all of us in Ahmedabad.

What happened to case in the high court?

The Gujarat advocate general had given his opinion on the issue: that the water body in Mahuva's villages is not there in the revenue record so it can be allotted to Nirma. All this mess started because of that.

In 2002, the judgment in the Shailesh Shah versus Government of Gujarat case clearly states that no water body can be given for industry purposes. The high court told us to give the evidence that the land allotted to Nirma is under water.

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We went to Hyderabad to get satellite images from ISRO. We proved that Nirma's location will be on the water body.

What's Nirma's defence before you?

They claim that all this area is wasteland. They got permission for the use of land from the ministry for environment and forests saying that it is wasteland. They didn't mention that it has a large water body.

But Nirma ultimately accepted that a water body exists there. Only when we proved our point using satellite images did our case become stronger and we got the stay against Nirma in March 2010.

On April 26, however, in the final judgment the high court said that it is correct that a water body exists, but it is also correct that Nirma is using the land of water body. The high court got satisfied that Nirma would compensate for the use of water.

By its offer to return 100 hectares, Nirma would 'substantially comply' with the condition set by the earlier judgement of the high court. The high court took the view that if Nirma is returning 100 hectares of land and compensating for the loss of water by helping create a new reservoir on the 'returned land', then let industry come up which would create employment and give livelihood to people.

We went back to ask the farmers for their opinion. They rejected the argument. The farmers told us that Nirma would do excavation to get limestone and that would eat away land. Under no circumstance were they ready to accept the high court's logic.

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What's the main reason of Nirma for not leaving aside the water body?

We were told that the design of their plant is in the middle of the reservoir. Their plan would go topsy-turvy if they shift the location outside the water body.

What's the official stand of the Congress and the BJP in the matter?

The BJP is with Nirma. Chief Minister Modi is also with Nirma. Congress is undecided. Rahul Gandhi had sent Youth Congress leaders to do a survey. They found that 90 per cent of the people are against Nirma. Some of Rahul Gandhi's men came to the villages too, but the Gujarat Congress is not supporting us openly.

Sanat Mehta, Arjun Modhawadia and some other Congress leaders have attended our meetings, but the Gujarat state Congress as such is not fully with us. I don't know the facts, but I have heard that Ahmed Patel (political secretary to Congress president Sonia Gandhi) is also with the industry.

(Union Environment Minister) Jairam Ramesh had told us that he is ready to help us. When we met him he had not studied the subject then. During the review petition in the high court, Jairam Ramesh's ministry's stand was not to our liking. They said that the environment clearance given to Nirma is in tune with the norms.

If Jairam Ramesh's ministry gives clearance to Nirma and stands by it, how can you blame the Modi government in their support to Nirma?

But the clearance given to Nirma in 2008 was due to malafide tactics. People were threatened and truth didn't come on record.

The environment clearance was given in 2008 when farmers were not as united and well-informed as they are now.

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Now our case is before the Supreme Court. It is at a very crucial stage now. It is important that the Union Ministry for Environment and Forests should double-check our facts. Our claim that the land is actually water body is upheld by the high court.

Jairam Ramesh's ministry should change their stand as per new findings and evidence that we have produced and which have been accepted by the high court too.

We are very hopeful.

How come you are not a typical Gujarati with love for right wing ideas for industrialisation? Your party is in the fast lane of privatisation and globalisation.

I also wonder how come I have not been sacked yet. People are with me, I can assure you. In taluka panchayat elections held recently, the BJP could not get a majority in my area. The BJP is worried now. People are with us. Without prudence, no development can help people.

There is no way India can progress if you can't find the way to save agriculture and have industry. The BJP has fared badly in the local elections in Viramgaun, Kodinar, Sanand and Mundra where the land issue is causing pain to people.

Nirma is offering money to farmers but with that money no land in our taluka is available. We are not poor people. We are developed and contended. Why uproot us?

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In our village, we don't get daily wagers even if you pay Rs 150 a day. Our farmers know well that you can't save the environment with mindless pursuit of money. Our farmers understand the concept of development very well. We were a happy people till Nirma came. The new policy of check dams has helped people. Water is our lifeline. Due to the sweet water body in our coastal area, farmers are happy as they can process three crops a year. They don't want development that gobbles up their land.

I have met the chief minister four times to talk about the issue. He told me: 'You are not even listening to Morari Bapu. You are too stubborn.'

Narendrabhai is blindly following industrialisation. He is in the fast lane. In the long run, it won't help our people, our rivers, or our costal areas.

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