India’s Farmers Reject Big Business, Land is More Important than Money. PDF Print E-mail
Contributed by mark eakle   
Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Anuj Chopra, Chronicle Foreign Service
Monday, June 18, 2007

(06-18) 04:00 PDT Malegharwadi, India -- Under a scorching sun, Kiran Mhatre toils in a rice paddy before the onset of annual monsoon rains. The mercury rises to a searing 105 degrees, but Mhatre works tirelessly. The harvest from his 3 acres of land will feed his family of five for the rest of the year.

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Farming is what 33-year-old Mhatre and his family have been doing for generations. It's the only way he knows how to eke out a living. And so when Reliance Industries, an Indian manufacturing giant, recently offered him $24,000 for his patch of land -- an astronomical sum for a peasant who typically earns $600 a year -- he declined.

"I won't part with an inch of my land," said Mhatre.

As India's economy surges and available land disappears in congested cities, Reliance and other companies are frenetically buying up vast tracts of farmland and converting them into huge industrial parks known as Special Economic Zones, a concept borrowed from China.

"SEZs will be India's growth engine," Minister of Commerce Kamal Nath told reporters recently.

Spared from the country's rutted roads, erratic power supply and punishing tax laws, these industrial enclaves are expected to create millions of jobs and billions of dollars in foreign investment. In the past two years, the government has approved 111 such zones -- 24 just last week -- and there are plans to approve 100 more by the end of this year, according to the Ministry of Commerce.

But there is a problem: the lack of available land in a huge country where agriculture is still the mainstay.

Along the coastal belt of the western state of Maharashtra, where fertile farms and salt flats are encircled by low-lying marshes, Reliance wants to build India's largest Special Economic Zone, which would displace 45,000 farmers.

But like Mhatre, most area farmers refuse to part with their land. Many eke out a living growing rice and bamboo cane for furniture, rearing livestock, fishing and cultivating Salvadora persica, a tree whose twigs are used to maintain dental hygiene.

"The money they're offering will dry up sometime or the other," Mhatre said. "But our lands will feed our families throughout our lives."

Despite an annual economic growth rate of more than 9 percent, a burgeoning high-tech industry, buzzing call centers and glittering malls, India is a nation that is still largely poor, uneducated -- Mhatre, for example, has never attended school -- and rural.

Nearly two-thirds of its 1.1 billion population -- some 600 million people -- live on farms, according to the National Sample Survey Organization in New Delhi.

Some experts doubt that the masses will benefit much from projects like the economic zones.

"It is misleading to justify heavy investments in capital-intensive projects on the grounds that they will create employment," said Jean Dreze, a professor at the Delhi School of Economics. "This isn't likely to do much good for the rural poor."

For now, the government says it will not acquire agricultural lands by force, because previous attempts have failed miserably.

In March, at least 14 peasants were killed and 45 injured in clashes with police in Nandigram in West Bengal state, after the seizure of 12,000 acres for a chemical plant and shipping yard for Indonesia's Salem Group. Last month, two Indian officials of POSCO, a South Korean steelmaker, were held hostage for two days by opponents of a proposed 4,000-acre steel plant in the eastern state of Orissa. The $12 billion project threatens to displace more than 20,000 farmers.

To avoid future violence, lawmakers say they will introduce legislative guidelines for resettling those displaced by the economic zones while guaranteeing employment for at least one person per family.

At the same time, some economists say India must turn to industry to create badly needed jobs, because the farm sector grew by just 2.3 percent over the past three years and grain production remains stagnant. Low crop yields, high interest rates charged by unscrupulous lenders, and competition from farmers employing more technological methods have caused thousands of peasants to commit suicide in recent years in India's south and west.

Sreemati Chakrabarti, a professor of Chinese studies at the University of Delhi, points to China as a prime example of the success of Special Economic Zones. Since 1979, China has built more than 600 zones, which she says have contributed to the country's 11 percent annual economic growth rate. She notes that Shenzhen, a sleepy village until 1980, became a bustling city virtually overnight from an infusion of nearly $30 billion in foreign investment in economic zones in the surrounding region.

"Today it looks almost as advanced as Tokyo, with its high-rise office buildings, fashionable hotels, wide roads and excellent public transport system," Chakrabarti said.

In dusty Malegharwadi, however, dirt roads remain pitted with bone-jarring potholes, water shortages are common, the power goes on and off, and the nearest hospital is some 50 miles away.

Yet only two of the village's 60 families have sold land to Reliance.

"It was a really good offer," said Lakshman Rao, who sold 2 acres for $16,000 so he could marry off a daughter and pay for medical treatment for an ailing son.

But most residents here are armed with bamboo sticks to keep Reliance officials from entering the village.

"These farmers are ready to give up their lives to protect their land," said Vaishali Patil, an anti-economic zone activist in the nearby city of Pen.

 


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1. 22-06-2007 17:17
 
The artificial land in the form of linear terraced city is not limited only for human habitation.  
 
Terraced land is ideal for agriculture. Being above the natural ground, excess water due to too much rain is much easier to control. 
 
The inner space, a by-product of the terraced structure, can be used for agricultural/manufacturing plants and for others necessary for total logistic of farming.
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