Historic Farmers’ Referendum on Special Economic Zone

The largest special economic zone (SEZ) in the country proposed by one of the biggest industrial houses, Reliance Industries, in Raigad district near Mumbai, Maharashtra was shelved after farmers refused to part with their land. It was a historic referendum which manifested participative governance in the world’s largest democracy.

The book under review is based on the experiences of Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer Nipun Vinayak who was the collector of Raigad district, during the historic referendum. The documentation provides an insight into the process of conducting the referendum from an administrator’s viewpoint. The book has its limitations, considering that it is authored by a government officer. It reveals the complicated process involving one of the largest industrial houses in the country, governmental machinery, farmers, political parties and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). It also indicates the slyness with which the profit-driven private sector negotiates, as well as the ambiguities with which government policies are formulated.

The Maha–SEZ (MSEZ) proposal of Reliance Industries was approved by the Government of India on 8 August 2003. It envisaged the creation of the largest SEZ over an area of 10,000 hectares (including about 8,000 hectares of agricultural land) belonging to farmers in 45 villages. Given its proximity to Mumbai and Thane, Raigad district has always been under pressure to part with land for industrial and residential projects. Farmers in Raigad have, in the past, parted with their fertile land for several government projects like the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT) and City and Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO), besides being asked to provide land for two upcoming power projects and the Navi Mumbai airport. Moreover, they have provided land for two private ports at Dighi and Rewas. Disputes over amicable compensation and resettlement packages for the project-affected people (PAP) still continue in some projects, with some NGOs and political parties like the Peasants’ and Workers’ Party (PWP) taking up cudgels on behalf of the farmers.

Till 2008, the promoters of the MSEZ had signed agreements with farmers for only 1,500 hectares of land for which legal validation through “consent awards” by the district collector were awaited. Maharashtra was being ruled by a Congress-led coalition government with Vilasrao Deshmukh as the chief minister and several NGOs as well as political parties like the PWP opposed the project. It was happening at a time when opposition by local people for Tata’s Nano car project at Singur in West Bengal was in the news.

The trigger that eventually nailed the fate of the ambitious MSEZ project was that land in 22 out of the 24 affected villages was already under acquisition for the Hetwane irrigation project. Farmers from the 22 villages were agitating for their demand that their villages be denotified from the MSEZ project. They had formed a committee, the Bawisgaon Sangharsh Samiti, which was supported by some NGOs and the PWP. Under instructions from the state government, the district collector conducted a referendum on 21 September 2008, when 96% farmers opposed the MSEZ. The issue made national headlines as it was an unprecedented manifestation of democracy in action in the biggest SEZ of its kind in the country, mooted by one of the largest industrial houses. Nipun Vinayak’s role as the district collector under whose leadership the whole exercise was conducted was lauded for its transparency and efficiency.


As the key government official supervising the whole process, Vinayak came across certain discrepancies, which he rectified. For instance, while executing the sale deed with farmers, the agreement papers prepared by the company wrongly mentioned that the concerned land was not under irrigation, not even fit for cattle grazing and hence not worth cultivating crops. Besides, the company wanted to use satellite maps for measurement, to which Vinayak took objections as it compromised on grass-roots details. Another issue was regarding the provision in the act requiring the company to return 12.5% of the acquired land, duly developed, to the farmer. The company wanted to acquire more land than it required for fulfilling the provision. It was turned down. Also, the company decided against acquiring gaothan areas—where the villages were located in the MSEZ area—to save the trouble of rehabilitation. According to the company, since the villagers were not being displaced there was no issue of rehabilitating them. The plan was to build compound walls around the villages, making them islands of deprivation within the modern MSEZ. The company was not willing to even provide roads in the villages.

While narrating the details of the whole process of holding the referendum, the author also raises some basic questions over the SEZ policy of the government. Like, when the rules were framed, it was decided not to acquire agricultural land that is under cultivation. He wonders why an SEZ of the size of the MSEZ was cleared when it was known that such a large tract of non-agricultural land was not available. Also, he points out that if the policy is not to acquire land under irrigation, why exceptions were made by keeping the legal provisions ambiguous. The policy conveyed to the state government was: “SEZs should come on non-agricultural lands. If no non-agricultural lands are available, agricultural lands may be acquired. But not more than 10% of irrigated land may be acquired for SEZs.” He asks whether there is at least the willingness to consider an alternative to SEZs before projecting them as inevitable tools for boosting exports and creating them on large land masses.

Administrative Imagination

The second section of the book is based on the author’s experiences while implementing some flagship government programmes—the Tanta–Mukti Abhiyaan aimed at resolving local disputes by the village-elected body; the Forest Rights Act 2006, for tribals; the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme; Agrotourism; and Suvidha (e-Governance). The author proves that in the post-RTI (Right to Information) regime, a good officer can use participatory processes to improve governance in rural areas of the country and thereby, cut red-tapism.

The theme running throughout the book is that the administration has to use its imagination and power to be pro-active in order to create time and space to become familiar with the issues and participate in an effective manner. The administration has to take one step back to become a facilitator. The author rightly observes that the bureaucracy has to overcome the fear of loss of power as well as becoming accountable, to deliver public services with transparency and accountability.

The flipside of the book is that it does not provide a comprehensive picture of the whole issue as it is merely a narrative of an officer with obvious limitations. The name of a senior former IAS officer, Ajit Warti, who had quit government employment to become the project head of the MSEZ, has been wrongly mentioned as Anil Warti. Besides, the author’s contention that he was never under pressure from any quarters on the referendum, holds no water as the policy decision had already been taken by the government and he was just implementing it.


Source: Economic&Political Weekly