Villagers had planned celebrations after securing exemption for 36 villages from Maruti project

Hours before Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi was to exhort countrymen on Independence Day to free themselves from rulers with a slave mentality, his own administration past August 14 midnight refused thousands of villagers permission to hold a function to celebrate their victory for forcing the government to exempt 36 villages from a proposed Special Investment Region (SIR) in north Gujarat, where Maruti Udyog has been given hundreds of acres of land.

On August 17, leaders of the agitation Lalji Desai and Sagar Rabari were arrested around 11 p.m. by the local Crime Branch and kept at a police station through the night before being released on bail. Again, on August 19, another leader, Hasubhai Patel, was picked up. And on Thursday, seven others, including the former Bharatiya Janata Party MLA, Kanu Kalsaria, who had led a successful agitation against a Nirma cement plant in Saurashtra, were arrested. They are all out on bail.

They are charged with violation of prohibitory orders against assembly of four or more persons, burning the effigy of a Maruti car and provocative speeches against the company and the government.

“It was a function to mark Independence Day as well as Vijay Utsav and the administration gave permission for it on August 13. On August 14, following our four-month-long agitation, the government decided to exclude 36 villages from the proposed SIR. About 12.30 a.m. on August 14 [which means August 15], they denied permission for our function at Hansalpur village,” Mr. Desai told The Hindu.

Maruti has been given 269 hectares in this village at the rate of Rs. 673 per square metre, besides over 30 hectares in Ughrojpura village at Rs. 385 a square metre. The two villages still continue to be part of the proposed SIR and the villagers want them to be excluded too.

Mr. Desai said a police force of over 2,000 personnel was deployed there and “so we decided to hold our function at Dalod village, which is some 20 km from the Maruti site.” Despite strong nakabandhi, some 10,000 people arrived at the function. He wondered if arrests had to be made 48 hours after Independence Day and that too at night.

The State government decided to exclude gauchar (grazing) and farm lands in 36 out of 44 villages falling in the Mandal-Becharaji SIR on August 14 evening, but the villagers are still protesting against it since eight villages have been left out, including the two where Maruti has been given land to set up its Rs. 4,000 crore plant. The company has been sold this land on eight annual instalments, interestingly, with the authority to sell some 310 acres out of this without any government duties or taxes.

The issue is not about one such SIR but 13 such regions which have been planned by the State government. According to government sources, two lakh acres of gauchar and farm land have been sold off or rented out at rates ranging from Re. 1 to Rs. 900 a square metre to industrial houses in the past decade.

According to Mr. Kalsaria, the government fears that agitations could derail its plans to develop similar industrial regions on agricultural land and this is why it is trying to arm-twist the local people with police cases. Mr. Desai adds that the SIR Act is against the interests of farmers as well as villages.

He points out that the notification for the entire Mandal-Becharaji SIR, against which they are agitating, was introduced surreptitiously on September 24 last.