Eminent Domain in India: SEZ deepens political divides

by Priya Prakash Royal

The Bharatiya Janata Party, one of India's major political parties, created chaos in the Lok Sabha (House of the People), the lower chamber of the Indian Parliament, on Tuesday, May 14, 2007, when the treasury benches did not oblige Mamata Banerjee, the leader of Trinamool Congress, who demanded amendments to the Land Acquisitions Act. As a result of the chaos, Speaker Somnath Chatterjee adjourned the house 15 minutes earlier than scheduled.

Two months ago, at least 14 people were killed and more than one-hundred were injured in a West Bengal village during violent protests against farmland acquisition for industrialization under the proposed SEZ (Special Economic Zones). The government of India’s web site on SEZ lists about a hundred zones all over India that will be subject to acquisition under the SEZ Act as of May 1, 2007. The list includes a description of each development planned, the location of the area, the name of the developer, and the date of notification. India wants to industrialize, and it is going to do so regardless of the cost to its citizens' individual rights.

As of March 16, 2007, the SEZ Act allows the Board broad authority to change the classification of an area that is already designated as a SEZ. S.O. 393(E)(iii)(d). The act is directed towards the rights and purposes of the acquisition for the developer and does not directly address individual property owner rights. Interestingly, the web site’s sections on “FAQs” and “the procedure for setting up the SEZs” are still under construction.

Shailesh Kumar wrote about farmers’ protests against their displacement for land acquired for special economic zones and reported in February 2007 that   237 SEZs across the country have been declared consisting of about 34,509 hectacres. The Land Acquisition Act hasn’t been amended since its inception in 1894 to provide for rehabilitation relief to the farmers.

After India acquired Independence in 1947, the first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru recognized the need for India to industrialize rapidly while continuing to be self-sufficient in its resources to get on a level playing field in the market place. Now, parts of India have industrialized and have some of the most advanced industries in the world. Most of India, however, remains farmlands and villages, where poor citizens barely meet their basic necessities by cultivating their lands. The government of India is now taking away these citizens' only source of sustenance with one reason: to give it to profitable, successful industrial developers.

Just compensation is threatened under the current SEZ Act. Mangu Singh Rana, President of Maharana Sangram Sigh Kishan Sangarsh Samiti, a farmer's union dissenting against the projects, stated that some farmers were threatened by the administration that their leases would be cancelled if they didn’t give up their land for compensation at Rs. 40 per square yard (that’s under a $1 a square yard). But before these farmers see any compensation, the government takes possession of the land.  According to Kumar's article, farmer Manoj Bharadwaj said, “I haven’t taken a penny for my land but regl has already taken possession and had my land barbed.”

Allegations of misconduct by the administration have been refuted with claims that the compensation is at market rates. In one area, the compensation is at Rs. 450 a square yard. However, in another area, the compensation is Rs. 2500 a square yard. The vast disparity in these rates demonstrates that "just compensation" is anything but just or fair. 

Farmers want employment in the project. They want higher compensation for their land. They want to become shareholders in the project. Whether there will be amendments to the outdated Land Acquisition Act to meet the property owners concerns remains to be seen. Despite violent protests, the legislature has yet to act.