Resistance to land acquisition for SEZs continues unabated, even as a new relief and rehabilitation policy for those displaced by land acquisition is in the works. Though the government has taken some steps to address the issues, concerns persist over the way land is acquired.

SEZs have apparently yielded great results in China, which pioneered the concept. While China has only six such zones set up at strategic locations, Indian government has already approved 403 of them. This raises suspicions over the intention of having such zones. Critics feel that these are nothing but real estate scams waiting to unfold.

What needs the most careful attention of the policymakers is the fears that the SEZ policy could adversely impact the lives of millions. Strong resistance movements have already forced the government to prescribe an upper limit of 5,000 hectares for SEZs. However, the fact is that in a densely populated country like India, even this will mean large-scale displacements.

In several states, fertile agricultural land is being acquired for SEZs. This is resulting in displacement of thousands of farmers and farm workers. “The impact of land alienation on these people will be huge. A proper rehabilitation is impossible because these people will be unemployable for the industries coming up in their land,” says D Bandopadhaya, former Union secretary for rural development. Efforts by some SEZ developers to train local people to provide them with jobs have failed to totally remove such apprehensions.

With the government deciding not to take an active role in land acquisition following a number of protest movements, the tendency will be towards settlements between the SEZ developers and the landowners. In such cases, it is quite likely that the farmers will be taken for a ride by skillful negotiators. The government stipulation that farmland should not be acquired without the consent of the farmers is unlikely to come to their rescue in such cases. Also, such settlements are likely to exclude agricultural labour and other weaker sections.

As some SEZs involve huge landmasses, there are apprehensions that if private entities are allowed to own such tracts, it would tantamount to reinventing the oppressive land ownership systems of pre-independence era.

The Land Acquisition Act, enacted during the colonial period, is a misfit today. Another issue is the acquisition of government land occupied by the poor. “Acquiring such tracts, just on the basis of government ownership is illegal. The law of the land entails that continuous peaceful possession of government land for more than 30 years entitles the occupant to have all the rights over the land, except the right to sell it,” says MV Bijulal of Indian Social Institute, Delhi.
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