September 18, 2008 1:16:17 am
About 4,500 landowners in Panvel, Pen and Uran in the Raigad district of Maharashtra are gearing up to cast ‘votes’ in the country’s first Special Economic Zone (SEZ) referendum on September 21, the outcome of which will be factored in by the district administration to decide on the Maha Mumbai SEZ promoted by Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani. The promoters of the SEZ — which got in-principle approval in June 2007 — filed a petition in the Bombay High Court today challenging the referendum.
Of the 24 villages that come under the proposed SEZ, 22 will participate in the referendum. These are villages that will get water from the Hetawane irrigation project which will be ready in a year.
While Revenue Minister Narayan Rane, whose Ministry handles land acquisition, said the referendum was Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh’s idea, Raigad collector Nipun Vinayak said not all villagers are satisfied with the compensation and there were demands to keep these 22 villages out of the project area. The official package is Rs 10 lakh per acre plus a permanent job or an additional payment of Rs 3 lakh plus 12 per cent of the land or an additional payment of Rs 5 lakh.
A Reliance Maha Mumbai SEZ spokesperson said the group did not want to comment as it “has no role to play in the referendum.”
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“To take into account the demands of landowners in these villages, we placed public notices and we are now seeking people’s opinion,” Vinayak told The Indian Express. “We have sought the opinion of the state Irrigation Department about the potential of the land. We expect the entire exercise to be completed in 10-15 days after which we will submit the report to the government.” Asked about the petition today, Vinayak said: “Yes, they have filed a petition and we will be filing our say.”
About 3,417 hectares of the land that Reliance wants to buy is irrigated. The problem of land acquisition is also compounded by the fact that the over 75 per cent of the landowners own less than one acre of land.
In every village, titleholders of the plots will walk into polling booths and submit their votes to the election officers — six in each village and of the rank of Tehsildar — orally or in writing. Those who do not want to vote for or against the SEZ may choose the third option of “neither of the above.”
Before they cast their votes, a grampanchayat member, the Talati and a representative of the “anti-SEZ” committee — a local group of villagers led by Peasants and Workers Party — will verify the credentials of the titleholders. The result is expected to be declared the same day. Since the announcement of the SEZ project in 2004, Reliance has already procured 23 per cent of its total requirement of 14,000 hectares in Panvel, Pen and Uran.
When contacted, a senior Commerce Ministry official said: “There should be no compulsory acquisition of land as far as the Central government and the SEZ Board of Approvals are concerned. If we get any report that the land for any SEZ project has been compulsorily acquired or if there is an objection by even one landowner, that SEZ won’t be given approval nor will it be notified.”
(With inputs from Swatee Kher)
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