Letter from India

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Peasants and small farmers across India are fighting government land grabs for "Special Economic Zones", where multinational companies can make their own laws. Kavita Krishnan reports.

Kalinganagar and Paradeep in the state of Orissa and Nandigram in West Bengal are some of the emerging centres in the Indian countryside where the rural poor are waging pitched battles against corporate land grabs.

Rural India has been reeling under the onslaught of the policies of imperialist globalisation for over a decade. A recent study reveals that there have been nearly 150,000 farmer suicides in India between 1997 and 2005, and there have been incidences of starvation deaths in many Indian states.

Now, in addition to these hunger zones and suicide zones of rural India, India's ruling class is introducing Special Economic Zones (SEZs) - zones where huge swathes of land are grabbed from poor peasantry to hand over to corporations and where corporate capital is set free from Indian laws.

Within these zones elected democratic local self-governance will be suspended. Instead corporate representatives and an all-powerful development commissioner (a central government appointee) will have the mandate to provide water and sanitation services, levy user charges and collect property fees.

The SEZ Act of 2005 provides tax exemptions estimated by the finance ministry itself to be over £12 billion over the next few years. While corporations are showered with huge sops, subsidies and waivers, it is interesting that the Indian government is unwilling to waive the debts of suicidal farmers and is cutting agricultural subsidies. Further, workers in SEZs are systematically deprived of many of their rights, including the right to strike.

SEZs are projected by the ruling class as industrial development. In reality they are a covert means of grabbing land for the real estate business. India has already formally approved 366 such SEZs. Land for these and other corporate projects is often acquired under the colonial-era Acquisition Act of 1894, under which there is no obligation to obtain the consent of the peasants so long as the government claim the land for public purposes.

In January 2006, at Kalinganagar, tribal peoples protesting against acquisition of their land for a steel plant of the Indian corporation TATA were gunned down by the police. Undefeated, they began a blockade of the highway that has continued till this day - and have prevented the steel plant from being set up.

In West Bengal, where the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)] has been in power for the last 30 years, the government announced plans in January 2007 to acquire land for an SEZ at Nandigram. This was to be for the Indonesian multinational Salem, notorious for its role in funding the Suharto dictatorship.

Local peasants, who had till then been staunch supporters of the CPI(M), waged an organised and militant resistance to the land grab plans. Following massive outrage against the shooting by police and CPI(M) cadre of protesters which claimed 14 lives in March 2007, the government was forced to announce that Nandigram would no longer be a SEZ site. This struggle became an inspiration for movements all over India.

But the Nandigram peasants continue to pay dearly for their victory. Last month the ruling CPI(M) sent in a contingent of their cadre, protected by the state government machinery, to "cleanse" Nandigram of the peasants who had dared to defy them. Progressive citizens and prominent left intellectuals have led massive protests on the streets of West Bengal against the atrocities perpetrated during this operation.

The West Bengal chief minister openly justified the atrocities as revenge, stating that the people of Nandigram have "been paid back in their own coin". Significantly, much of the mass mobilisation is happening independently of the mainstream opposition parties. This reflects an urge for a consistent left alternative to the discredited CPI(M) regime that has embraced neoliberal policies.

The movements against corporate land grabs are gaining momentum and are winning solidarity all over the country. People are on the streets demanding an end to special zones for privileged and pampered corporates.

Kavita Krishnan is one of the editors of Liberation, the monthly magazine of the Communist Party of India (ML).