Gujarat’s SIR Act seeks to corner all of government land and 50% of privately-held agriculture land for ‘land pooling purpose’

An anti-SIR agitation in Gujarat

By Persis Ginwalla and Sagar Rabari*

A recent editorial in the Financial Express titled ‘Land Solution’ (April 26, 2014) has pointed out the limitations of the present modes of land acquisition wherein the land owners are ultimate losers in the bargain. It observes:

“In such a situation, the best option is that of land pooling and master planning. Under this model, tried successfully by the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor Development Corporation (DMICDC) in its Dholera project in Gujarat, land is acquired from farmers only for developing what is called trunk infrastructure like roads, power plants and the like. The land is then zoned and earmarked for different facilities. Under this proposal, the farmers end up getting back anywhere between 60 and 70% of their land. Since the land is now earmarked for industrial /commercial use, its value goes up and the owners are free to sell or retain it’ – in other words, should the farmers so choose, they get the upside from their land. Selling even this idea to farmers is not going to be easy, especially in today’s surcharged atmosphere, but ‘this offers the best deal for all’ concerned” (emphasis added).

If it were indeed the ‘best option’, then why did the farmers in Olpad and Mandal-Bechraji special investment region (SIR) areas agitate and get the projects cancelled. As recently as April 1, 2014, the Gujarat government again announced the Hazira SIR and the farmers of the area met the minister and the same was cancelled the next day, as per the news reports. Of the 14 SIRs that are notified, three were cancelled even before the final notification could appear. If it were indeed the “best option” why would the farmers – from Mandal-Bechraji to Dholera – be shouting “SIR Act hatao” (Remove the SIR Act), “Jan denge, jameen nahin” (We may give up our lives, not our land), “Dholera SIR hatao, Narmada na neer lavo” (Remove the Dholera SIR, bring the Narmada waters here)?

The phrase “best option”, therefore, would need to be qualified by mentioning the socio-economic class for which it would be the best option. The people of the area certainly do not think so, and they were most definitely not asked their opinion or their preference.

Based on our work with the people of the area, the facts stated here do not appear to be true and hence the two conclusions, viz it is “the best option” and is “the best deal for all” seem flawed and incorrect, at best. In this context we seek to set the record straight.

The DMIC is being planned along the western Dedicated Freight Corridor (DFC) and runs through the states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. In Gujarat it spans 18 districts. Land for this is being developed in Gujarat under the provisions of the SIR Act. The Gujarat Assembly passed the “Gujarat Special Investment Region Act 2009” (hereafter called the SIR Act).

Let us answer each of the facts presented above in the context of the Dholera SIR (DSIR).

(a) “Under this proposal, the farmers end up getting back anywhere between 60 and 70% of their land.”

Firstly, as per the Draft Development Report (DDR) and the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Report the area was found to be suitable due to “availability of maximum government land” (sic) (EIA Report, pp. 13, 57 and 76). Pastureland is to be retained ‘as is’ owing to the fact that the area may retain its rural character for another 25-30 years and the requirement of pastureland will not cease to exist. However, in this area a very minor portion of the land (around 5%) is declared and recorded as ‘pastureland’. The rest, even if it is pastureland, would be called as wasteland since it is not recorded officially as such in the government revenue records. Therefore, all of the government land and 50% of the privately held agriculture land will be deducted for land pooling purposes at the start of the project. The total land then with the SIR Authority will be more than 50%.

Secondly, we do not see how “60-70% of the land can be returned to the farmers”. The land pooling and land deduction happens under the provisions of the Gujarat Town Planning and Urban Development Act, 1976 (GTPUDA 1976). Section 40 (j) and (jj) (i)-(iv) mentions the purposes for which land allotment for public purposes is to be made, which comes to 50% of the total area of the TP scheme. As per the conversation we had with the Town Planning (TP) Officer of the DSIR, we were told that 50% of the total area of the TP Scheme is to be deducted right at the start of the project, including the public land (under the jurisdiction of the government) and private land. If this is so, how 60-70% of the farmers’ land can revert back to them defies logic.

(b) “Owners are free to sell or retain it – in other words, should the farmers so choose, they get the upside from their land.

The farmers of the area do not want to sell their land, first and foremost. They want to continue with their agricultural operations and tilling of the land. Any ‘upside from the land’ would therefore be merely notional.

But even if they do choose to sell the land, they would have very little choice in the matter. The final plots would be part of various zones like entertainment zone, residential zone, IT zone and such like. The SIR Act specifies that the land has to be used for the designated purpose only. The options before the land owners are therefore very limited, since business lobbies can collectively decide not to go beyond a certain agreed upon price threshold and the owners are then at the mercy of the lobby.

The SIR Act and its provisions need to be seen in conjunction with two other developments. Appreciating it in this light does make it look like a conspiracy if one were to put oneself in the shoes of the farmers and agriculturalists of the area. At least to us it does.

The DSIR area is situated on the coast of the Gulf of Khambhat. The mainstay of the people here is agriculture which is rain-fed, since irrigation facilities are not available. The raison de etre of the Narmada canal was to irrigate the water-starved fields of Kutch and Saurashtra. The people of the area have been waiting eagerly for the irrigation waters to be able to realize 2-3 crops a year, which is possible since the land is otherwise extremely fertile. The work on the canal network has stopped since 2008 and the non-completion of the branch and sub-branch canals prevents the main canal water from being used for agriculture Meanwhile the government, in 2011, de-commanded this area (removed it from the Narmada command area) which means that the people who had been promised and were waiting for irrigation facilities for the last 40-50 years, have to give up their dreams.

They want to continue with agriculture and do not want to become a part of the informal urban labour market which is exactly what the SIR will turn them into. Agriculture for them is still attractive and with irrigation facilities it can become lucrative along with them holding on to their assets. One of the demands of the anti-DSIR agitation, thus, is ‘Narmada na neer lavo’ (Bring Narmada waters here). However, the Gujarat government has accepted that the rural character of the area is going to remain for the coming 20-30 years and hence re-commanded the area again (Financial Express, May 6, 2014).

The other piece in this puzzle is the infamous and now-put-on-hold the Gujarat Irrigation and Drainage Act, 2013, a draconian piece of legislation. According to the Act a farmer cannot install a bore-well in his/her fields without license from government. The farmers would need a license to draw water from canals and the amount of water that can be drawn by a farmer would be decided by the government. Even the price of water used in the fields for irrigation would be fixed and government officials would have the authority to file cases against farmers who break the law. The farmers would also need to declare the details of wells and ponds in their fields. This would make farming and agriculture, already suffering from anti-farm sector policies, a herculean task and would deter farmers from pursuing agriculture.

The people of the 22 villages which fall in the Dholera SIR (DSIR) boundary are angry with the Government of Gujarat’s proposed DSIR. They have been agitating, under the banner of Bhal Bachao Samiti, for the last five months. They even made representations to the government and the SIR Authority at the Environmental Public Hearing (EPH) held in January this year. Their agitation continues even as the rest of the country mulls their ‘best option’ on their behalf.

*Activists with the Jameen Adhikar Aandolan — Gujarat (JAAG)

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