SUNDAY MAGAZINE

A betrayal of democracy

Economics of development: A SEZ coming up.

Economics of development: A SEZ coming up.   | Photo Credit: Photo: P.V. Sivakumar

If democracy is rule with the consent of the governed, it is being betrayed in States like Rajasthan where far-reaching decisions regarding SEZs are being taken without consulting the people affected. ASEEM SHRIVASTAVA

Arre, arre chor aaya re, chor aaya re… SEZ laya re, SEZ laya re!” So goes the rallying cry from performers playing alarmed villagers in a street play on SEZs and land acquisition. The corrupt neta, beaming greedily in his starched kurta-pyjama, is seen striking lucrative land deals over the backs of farmers with Uncle Sam’s representative in a bowler hat. He sends firm messages over his mobile to his local cronies to organise the land for the company. After some hiccups and noises of protest from villagers, the deals go through. But the story has just begun, as farmers prepare for land battles with the company and the State…

Immense participation

The play has been put up in hundreds of villages of Rajasthan during the last few weeks. Organised by several different social action groups from the State, the Jan Adhikar Yatra concluded in Jaipur, after a 10-day padayatra of 300 villages in four districts (Alwar, Sikar, Tonk and Ajmer) around Jaipur by as many as 400 participants from around the State.

Consider for a moment the possibility that in order for it to set up a “Special Financial Zone” you are asked by the government to vacate your luxury apartment in the city because the land on which the building stands is right next to the financial district. Not only is it valued very highly in the real estate market, it is pointed out to you that it is in the larger “public interest” to allow the “SFZ” to come up, hence making it possible for the government to invoke the Land Acquisition Act to take possession of your property. As compensation you are offered a sum equal not to the replacement value of your property, but to its current market value. In some cases, the compensation offered is even less. You have no voice in the matter, especially since a significant proportion of your neighbours in the building have agreed to the deal.

Threatened lives

This is the precise nature of the predicament in which hundreds of thousands of rural households find themselves today. Special Economic Zones are planned on their farmlands. The SEZ Act of 2005 is being invoked to acquire land from villagers. Till date, three SEZs, two near Jaipur and one in Jodhpur have become operational in Rajasthan. In addition, five others have received “formal approval” and 10 others (including as many as seven multi-product zones above 1,000 hectares each, five of them in Alwar district alone) await formal approval, having already acquired “in-principle approval”. The largest of these is the Omaxe SEZ planned in Alwar district. It is proposed to occupy as much as 6,000 hectares of land, a good 1,000 hectares above the legally permissible limit, as per changes announced by the Government of India in April 2007.

The padayatra has focused its protest on six related issues: acquisition of land for SEZs, forced planting of jatropha for bio-diesel (on as much as six million hectares in the State, often on the village commons, falsely construed as wasteland), removal of restrictions on the sale of land owned by SC/ST groups, better implementation of the NREG and RTI Acts (for employment and information respectively) and social security for workers in the unorganised sector of the economy.

The red thread connecting all these controversial issues is the fact that far-reaching decisions are being made without consulting affected people or allowing their political participation in any form. If democracy is rule with the consent of the governed, it is evidently being betrayed in States like Rajasthan. Big decisions are being made in a dangerously autocratic manner, with consequences all too easy to foretell.

Land acquisition for corporations is being facilitated by the State by amending or breaking existing land laws. At the same time, the implementation of schemes like the Employment Guarantee Scheme (in which Rajasthan is leading the States in terms of employment generated) are being poorly implemented: workers are being denied the promised minimum wage of Rs.73 per day. There is opacity in a large number of government decisions. RTI applications are gathering dust in public offices: the 30-day time limit is routinely violated. Red tape is rife. Public information boards are missing from Panchayat offices. Corruption has not been brought to an end. And this in the State which birthed the idea of the people’s right to information.

High spirits

I walked with the padayatris in Sikar district for a few days. The sun was fierce but spirits were high. There were 75-year-old farmers singing songs mocking the government administration. Puppets were used to attract people to the street play about land acquisition, children leading the pack. The play was hugely popular. We walked 10-12 kilometres every day, covering half a dozen villages or more. Supported heavily by remittances from the Gulf, the villages were not poor by Indian standards. Virtually everywhere the villagers themselves fed us lunch and dinner.

Even if no SEZs are proposed around Sikar for the time being, everyone has heard of them and is certainly wary of parting with their land. The local economy, according to farmers, local traders and journalists from Sikar I spoke to, has been in a state of stagnation for several years. Small trade has actually shrunk. The chief mode of income in the district is the remittance made by young workers from the area working in West Asia. As much as 80 per cent of young men from the area have moved to the Persian Gulf States in search of better prospects. Smartly dressed boys and young men I spoke to were all keen to move out of the area as quickly as possible. Some were willing to follow us to Jaipur and Delhi. Farmers complained of falling groundwater levels and the worsening economics of agriculture over the past decade. Everywhere, the universal complaint is the absence of productive employment, calling attention (if any was still needed) to the lack-lustre implementation of the NREGS so far.

Restless mood

There was a dharna in Jaipur between August 21-26, bringing together six different sets of padayatris. Hundreds of people — the majority being farmers — from all over Rajasthan attended. Now that Statue Circle (Jaipur’s Boat Club) has been made out of bounds for public protests (one more sign of the State’s attempt to subvert democracy), people slept on the modest sidewalk of Collectorate Circle, braving heavy downpours on certain days and nights. Testimonies were heard from farmers from across the State, as also speeches from informed observers and activists about issues pertaining to RTI, employment, agriculture, social security, land acquisition, jatropha plantation and SEZs.

The mood is restless and public anger over the State’s persistent failure to obtain economic justice for the poor is growing. At the same time, people’s awareness of their political rights is on the rise. As their voices grow in number and loudness, it will be interesting to observe the impact on the upcoming State elections next year.

Aseem Shrivastava is an independent writer. He can be reached at: >aseem62@yahoo.com.

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