Land sharks are in collusion with the government of Maharashtra to oust over 50,000 farming families from fertile agricultural lands in Alibag (Raigad district), across the harbour from Mumbai. It appears that this is no longer "breaking news", because it only affects simple traditional farming communities who, together with the Kolis (fisherfolk), were the original inhabitants of the city we know today as Mumbai.
On October 27, 2006, the government of Maharashtra, through an extraordinary gazette notification, unilaterally declared this entire agricultural belt of 22 villages in Alibag (where we too are living) as an "Industrial Area" under Clause G of Section 2 of the Maharashtra Industrial Development Act 1961 (MID Act). In short, this means that the agricultural lands of these 22 villages, currently under cultivation and owned by small farmers over several generations, till now designated as a green zone under the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority, will now be acquired ostensibly for "industrial development". The stratagem adopted by the government for this acquisition itself is clever, and demands closer scrutiny.
Clubbing the MID Act together with the SEZ provision virtually means that there is little room for public questioning or even recourse to the law, since the law itself, in the words of a former Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) CEO, "is heavily biased in favour of MIDC".
The gazette notification was issued the very day after the meeting at which this decision regarding change of land use pattern took place, namely on October 28, 2006. This notification was forwarded under the signature of a desk officer with a letter addressed to the collector of Raigad, dated October 28, 2006 that gave away the game plan -- namely that the 22 villages encompassing some 5,000 acres of fertile agricultural land was to be handed over to India Bulls Infrastructure Development for a "multi-product special economic zone" (SEZ), to be made effective under section 6 of the MID Act.
The letter, while stressing the urgency to issue acquisition notices to farmers in these 22 villages, also did point out that due processes must be followed, including public hearings and opportunities to farmers to testify and state their objections to the takeover.
The district collector and other officials till date -- namely January 5, 2007 -- have neither promulgated the gazette itself, nor have they followed the due processes laid down. What are the public purpose and urgency in changing the land use pattern? What is the nature of the planned industrialisation that is claimed to be in the "public interest"?
There are no answers
A corporate announcement, as evident from the Internet, indicates clearly that "in-principle approval" was granted to India Bulls Infrastructure Development for development of a "multi-product" SEZ in Maharashtra on November 3, 2006. This has the apparent concurrence of the chief minister. However, there does not appear to have been a cabinet meeting or approval so far.
A statement made by Sameer Gehlaut, CEO of India Bulls (available on the Internet), on November 5, 2006 assures the investors of huge opportunities since the company has already received prior permission from the authorities and land acquisition had begun. The stated intent of the state that this land is to be acquired for the purpose of industrial development is clearly mala fide.
The government is playing broker to real estate speculators. It has frozen all transactions on this land using the MID Act and will sell/hand over the 5,000 acres at a relatively lower price in order to enable India Bulls to make a killing at the expense of the 50,000 residents and farmers.
It is a fact that the real estate prices in the Mandwa-Alibag belt have skyrocketed in the past 12 months. Our stretch of 22 villages is sandwiched between that belt and the proposed Reliance-led SEZ area in Pen taluka. This stretch from Karlekhind to the sea at Rewas and the Dharamtar Creek does not have the homes of the rich, the powerful and the famous.
The honourable exception is the presence of a former navy chief who is one of the signatories of this letter.
It is the case of the village communities that if any industrialist wants to acquire these lands, he/she should deal directly with the owners and negotiate the price as per the prevailing market rates. No farmer should be forced to part with fertile agricultural land by any government of the day for an undervalued compensation under the veil of "industrial development".
Citizens of these villages have come together to form an association for the protection of their land and property. They have decided to embark on a struggle to prevent this unjust takeover. They have also decided to wage this struggle without the help of any political party.
The citizen's formation is known as 22 Gaon Bachao Sangharsh Samiti. It will soon be registered and will then undertake a variety of actions through legal means, RTI-related petitions, mobilising the media, and so on.
The government is resorting to a tricky subterfuge -- using an existing legal and executive mechanism such as the MID Act -- to freeze land values, evict the residents and then hand over/sell to a private party, in this case India Bulls, for real estate transactions with no benefit whatsoever to the original owners.
Sadly, the functionaries of the state apparatus at all levels have become the servants of the biggest corporations in our land. Our demand is the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of this totally unacceptable gazette notification and reversion to the status quo by issuing a fresh gazette notification.
ADMIRAL L RAMDAS AND LALITA RAMDAS
ON BEHALF OF ALL MEMBERS OF THE 22 GAON BACHAO SANGHARSH SAMITI