The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Stirrings of land war across the country
- Delhi weighs Bengal model for SEZs

In Bengal, Mamata Banerjee is on hunger strike against land acquisition for a Tata car factory
Tribals in Orissa announce effigy-burning on Dussehra to protest the Vedanta alumina project
Also in Orissa, a mass hunger strike is on in Bhubaneswar against Posco’s steel plant
On Sunday in Punjab, farmers blocked rail tracks to protest land acquisition

Sept. 25: Sometime ago, Manmohan Singh described the Naxalite threat as the biggest security challenge facing the country.

Seeing the way bonfires of protest are being lit across the country against land acquisition for industry, it seems he is facing an economic challenge the like of which probably comes once in a hundred years or more.

At the centre of it lies the government’s special economic zones (SEZ) policy, but in Bengal and Orissa and elsewhere, it is being shown that the problem is far bigger: acquiring land for any industry at all.

Bengal has the strictest land-use norms for SEZs in the country. After the Nainital conference of Congress chief ministers, where Sonia Gandhi herself voiced concern about SEZs, there is a move now at the Centre to consider adopting the Bengal model.

The key part in the Bengal land-use pattern is the fact that 50 per cent of an SEZ has to be used for manufacturing activity whereas the Union commerce ministry’s model puts it at 35 per cent, that too after revising it recently from 25 per cent after fears that these zones had essentially become real estate developments.

If the Centre were to follow the Bengal model, this would have to be increased to 50 per cent. The ministry is also considering limiting the land used for housing.

The central leadership of the CPM, which rules in Bengal, will ask the Manmohan Singh government to adopt the state model nationally. “We had opposed the (SEZ) act when it was passed by the Centre. We want the Centre to accept the Bengal SEZ model,” said politburo member Sitaram Yechury.

The party’s central committee, now in session in Delhi, is expected to discuss the SEZ issue. The party is preparing a note outlining the amendments it wants in the act.

But just as there are contrasting opinions in the Congress on SEZs — and on the larger issue of acquiring farmland for industry — the CPM, too, is riven by differences.

M.K. Pandhe, Citu leader and politburo member, demurred. “We do not know if the Bengal model — which, too, has flaws — is the answer,” he said.

The answer is not clear to anyone yet as a radical economic change gets under way in rural India — from agriculture to industry.

Bengal’s stated policy is not to acquire multi-crop land but, as the experience in Singur where the Tata small-car factory will come up has shown, it is hard to persuade farmers to part with land.

In keeping with the concerns expressed at the Congress conclave in Nainital, the UPA government is likely to decide against allowing prime farmland to be turned into industrial enclaves.

Fallow land will be preferred. Otherwise, land that is not very fertile may be taken over for SEZs.

“The board of approval for SEZs has made it mandatory that no proposal for setting up SEZs on prime agricultural land be cleared,” commerce minister Kamal Nath said.

Bandh later, blockade now
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