Speakers at the first public audit of special economic zones (SEZs) in Maharashtra raised trenchant questions on the constitutional validity of the law permitting these zones, and called for dislodging the government that was promoting such illegalities.

Farmers and affected people from eight districts in the State presented their cases before an eminent panel comprising Prabash Joshi, writer and journalist; Professor Trilochan Sastry, board member and academic dean, Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Bangalore; Anand Teltumbde, writer and activist; E.A.S. Sarma, retired Power Secretary to the Government of India; Professor Swapna Banerjee Guha, professor, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS); and Professor Mary Alphonse, principal, College of Social Work, Nirmala Niketan.

Public audits will also take place in seven other States and conclude in Delhi later this year. A report is expected to be sent to the government.

The audit has been initiated by the National Alliance of People’s Movements, the National Centre for Advocacy Studies, the National Campaign for the People’s right to information, and other groups.

Maharashtra has the largest number of SEZs in the pipeline with 202, of which 57 have been notified.

The fight against Reliance Group’s Mumbai SEZ (MSEZ) was a success to some extent for the farmers. The State government, which initiated a referendum last year on whether some villages should be included in the MSEZ, has, however, chosen not to make the report public.

95 per cent opposition

According to the groups opposing the MSEZ, over 95 per cent of the people were opposed to the project and to giving up villages covered by the Hetawane dam. The government continues to deny the people the benefits of the dam. Farmers from the affected villages in Raigad district have once again declared their intention not to part with their land.

Atmaram Mokal, a farmer and retired primary school teacher from Benavle village, said he earned a good living from his 11.25 acres of land. He raised two sons to become doctors and one of his sons, a graduate, worked on the land. “The land is like my mother, how can sell her?” he told the large audience that gathered at Div village for the public audit.

Farmers affected by the MSEZ are clear that Reliance is eyeing their fertile land for other reasons. “I get 200 quintals of paddy per acre and I grow several other crops. I refuse to sell my land,” Mr. Mokal averred. The farmers referred to bogus sales and alleged the company was duping them. Police cases have also been filed.

Major protests

While the protests against Reliance’s MSEZ have made headlines, there have been major protests in other parts of the State too against various proposed SEZs.

Uttam Bodke from Nashik said a private company paid farmers Rs.1.4 lakh per acre, far less than the Rs.10 lakh per acre offered by Reliance. The government facilitated these deals and the company acquired about 1,100 hectares of land in Sinnar taluka of Nashik district, he said.

Adding that the farmers were promised jobs and homes, Mr. Bodke said: “We are doing very well, thanks to lift irrigation from a nearby river. We grow vegetables and also have cattle. Why does the government want to disrupt our lives?” The people have now resolved not give up any more land, he said.

Pune, with the highest number of proposed SEZs, has witnessed violent protests in 2005-06 in Mangaon and other places. Concern was also expressed over the acquisition of large tracts of land by the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC), which was later handed over to private companies.

‘Withdraw SEZ Act’

The people also voiced strong opposition to the SEZ Act and demanded its withdrawal. The SEZs have become the latest tool of oppression and were being used to forcibly deprive people of their right to land, the speakers said.

Right to Information activist Aruna Roy, who also attended the public audit, said the government had passed the SEZ Act without any debate. “How can any law of the country go against the Constitution,” she asked.