21 Sep : In the first exercise of its kind in the country, landowners and farmers in 22 villages in Raigad district, about 80km from Pen in Maharashtra expressed their opinions in a referendum on whether they supported or opposed the Reliance Group’s proposed Special Economic Zone.
Thousands of farmers and landowners of villages located in Pen tehsil submitted their opinions to the state government in a form containing "yes or no" answer.Preliminary reports said about 5,869 out of an approximately 30,000 landowners expressed their opinions.
Farmers, who had already given permission for land acquisition for the SEZ and those had possession of their property, could submit their opinions which will be compiled into a report and submitted to the state government, a senior official said.
The district authorities will take up the result of the referendum tomorrow and give a report to the government.
"Approximately 2,307 hectares of land which is under the Hetwane dam irrigation scheme is located in the 22 villages. The land is also eligible for acquisition for the SEZ," Sameer Kurtkoti, Deputy Collector (Land Acquisition Department), said.
Farmers of the 22 villages had opposed the project stating their properties came under arable land due to the irrigation project and was ineligible for the SEZ.
Amidst tight security, landowners began submitting their opinions at primary schools in their villages and the process continued from 0900 hours to 1700 hours. Video cameras were used to document the proceedings.
Over 170 government officials and hundreds of police personnel, including State Reserve Policemen, were deployed to ensure security in the region
Local activists opposed to the SEZ travelled through the region to drum up support for their cause.
The state government has not issued any form for the referendum and merely gave a format in which landowners could give their opinions.
However, groups supporting and opposed to the SEZ made different forms which were distributed among their supporters.
For many farmers, the exercise was an opportunity to affirm their opposition to the proposed SEZ.
"I grow enough rice for my family and to sell it. Why would I want to sell my land and if I did, what would I do after that?" Pandurang Thavai, a 68-year-old farmer from Vashi village who owns about two acres, said.
"More than the landowners, the landless labourers in the region like the fisherfolk and others will suffer with the loss of their sources of employment," local activist Vaishali Patil said.
While farmers gathered at some referendum centres from morning, others centres like the primary school at Tambalshet village wore a deserted look with only a large group of policemen present there.
However, despite many stating that they were opposed to the SEZ, not all were as vehement in their resistance.
"I am opposed to the SEZ since it will displace me and my family. But the price being offered is a bit too low," a farmer, who owns ten acres, said on condition of anonymity.
"Maybe if they offered Rs two crore per acre instead of Rs 10 lakh per acre, I would consider," he said.
Others like D Mhatre, who owns seven acres in Kaleshree village, said he was completely in support of the project provided the compensation was higher.
"With the SEZ coming in, we expect to see a lot of progress in the region which has not happened so far," Mhatre, who has formed a group of farmers supporting the SEZ, said.
But for some like Anand Patil, a landless labourer, the referendum held little meaning.
"The result of this does not make any difference to me. I just need work to sustain my family," Patil, who works in paddy fields, said.
Groups opposed to the SEZ in many villages raised the issue of acknowledgment slips given by the government officials not bearing any official seal.
"There were not enough government seals to give to all the schools," officials said, adding acknowledgments were given in writing to all those who demanded it.
Officials said no major incident of violence were reported during the day.
Reliance Industries Limited head Mukesh Ambani speaking in Mumbai said the referendum being carried out in Raigad prior to land acquisition was a "good thing".
"We want to have the trust of people," he said.
Reliance had approached the Bombay High Court last week seeking to cancel Maharashtra government’s ‘proposal’ to cancel land acquisition for the SEZ and stop the referendum in the 22 villages from taking place.
The petition is likely to come up for hearing this week.