Think of protests against 'anti-people' policies of the government and the first name that comes to mind is that of Medha Patkar. Long associated with the Narmada Bachao Andolan, Patkar has now taken up the cause of those affected by the government's decision to set up Special Economic Zones in various states.
Special Economic Zones were first conceptualised during the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government. The government began giving away land across the country at throwaway prices to big industrial houses. Critics were silenced by the refrain: China had done the same in the 1980s, look at it now.
Continuing with the NDA government's policy, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government notified 63 places in various states to set up SEZs. In all, it is planning to set up 235 such zones.
The UPA government believes these SEZs will lead to investments to the tune of Rs 300,000 crore (Rs 3,000 billion) and also create 4 million jobs. As the second-fastest growing economy in the world, India needs these investments, it said.
But, early in 2007, violent protests by the downtrodden in West Bengal's Nandigram and Singur forced the government to slam the brakes and put these projects on hold till a new and better compensation policy is arrived at. Lending support to the farmers, Patkar had called for a meeting of activists from all over the country at Mahatma Gandhi's ashram Sevagram in Wardha, to discuss the future strategy on SEZs.
She spoke to Chief Correspondent Syed Firdaus Ashraf on what she calls the 'Special Exploitation Zones,' during a protest meet at Mahatma Gandhi's Sewagram Ashram on February 9.
Why are you opposing the Special Economic Zones policy?
There are many reasons, but I would like to highlight the fact that the government is throwing the idea of development on everyone. It says development is good for the society and assumes we will all have to agree. The government has sold out.
The politicians are changing their views all the time. They are saying one thing when they are in power and another when they are out of power. They don't even allow democracy to survive. They are supporting the capitalists and the industrialists.
What happens to people who depend on nature? They are poor farmers and the government wants to run them down. They are destroying the farmlands and are planning to build mega cities in the name of SEZs.
Today, advivasis and farmers are under attack. This attack is on farmers. Already, they are committing suicide in huge numbers and now the government wants to kill them with the policy. SEZs will be like foreign territory inside India.
Don't you think that SEZs are the way forward? The Congress-led government also agrees with the NDA's vision on this issue.
This policy is only benefiting the corporate sector. They are getting the subsidies while the farmers, who are in need, don't get any. The Tatas, Ambanis, Hiranandanis, and other industrialists who can buy whole cities are getting tax benefits. Is it not unjust?
India will get Rs 1.75 lakh crore (Rs 1.75 trillion) less in taxes due to the SEZs. The government coffers will also become empty. You will require passes to enter these zones. They will have hotels, parks, real estate and swimming pools. They will have special water and electricity. All this when your farmer is hanging himself on electricity wires.
Today, the government has put SEZs on hold. People are fighting all over India. We all are together to fight against this policy. We want industrialisation, but we want that to benefit the people at large. They have promised that they will rehabilitate people displaced by SEZ, but from past experiences, like with Narmada, we have realised that the rehabilitation of farmers does not work.
You have no objection to SEZ on barren land?
Of course not. But there also you don't need these SEZs. SEZs are Special Exploitation Zones. SEZs are killing one type of livelihood for another type of livelihood. Profit is the only motive.
Moreover, what are the guarantees and penalties these companies will face if they don't deliver? They are demolishing public schools and hospitals to build posh hospitals. Who can afford those? They are building airports, and tell me how many people in this country use airports?
Very few! They are giving free electricity to industrialists but not to farmers. I cannot understand how our governments cannot be ashamed of this act.
Why don't you go to the courts?
We don't want to take every issue to the courts. All issues first should be solved through political consultations, if possible. The face of agriculture in this country will be tortured and SEZs will kill the agrarian economy. The sad part is that the government is justifying this act. One section of the population wants to make another section of the population slaves.
Will you take the support of political parties if they support your cause?
Yes, sure, we cannot tell them to go off. This will be a movement of people.
What happens to investments already committed? Don't you think foreign investors are losing money because of the delay in setting up SEZs?
They had invested in Enron also. What happened?
Isn't India losing its face at international investor forums because of this delay on SEZs?
No, on the contrary, India will gain respect all over the world if we set aside the SEZs policy. Look at Venezuela. Have they lost face? Surrendering to SEZs will be a defeatist policy.
We have been given examples about how China has prospered tremendously with its SEZ policy?
Hardly any SEZs have benefited the Chinese people. You can never believe the news about China. The Three Gorges Dam is the best example. I was a commissioner for World Bank on this issue. I know the Chinese people protested a lot. Some 13 lakh (1.3 million) people were displaced and here in our country [Gujarat Chief Minister] Narendra Modi is citing the example of China using the Three Gorges Dam. China's economy was never similar to our model of economy. India should have its own model of economy.
People in the cities feel you are anti-development?
I don't feel that way. In fact, I feel people in the cities agree to what I say. It is only a few selfish people who think that way. People in the cities too are wondering why people who construct houses are homeless in their cities.
What will be the message to the Indian government after this meet on SEZs?
It is not a message but a warning to the government that they will not be allowed to live in peace if they implement the SEZs policy. If you make our life miserable, we will make your life miserable, but by peaceful and non-violence means.