Tamil Nadu, which has been promoting special economic zones (SEZs) since the 1950s, has switched to damage-control mode after allegations of farmland acquisition through unlawful and devious means.

The state's Information Commission has pulled up the industries department for denying information under the Right to Information Act 2005 about land acquisition for industry. This was followed by media reports in Nakeeran magazine about land scams.

Soon after, the DMK government removed its powerful industry secretary Shaktikanta Das from his post. It also transferred other top officials, including Hans Raj Verma, chairman of the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board, who have been accused of involvement in the scam.

The state then went public with a new industrial policy, announcing plans to build a land bank of 10,000 acres.

In its new policy, the state government said that 10 percent of the area in new industrial parks promoted by the State Industries Promotion Corp of Tamil Nadu (SIPCOT) and the Tamil Nadu Industrial Development Corp (TIDCO) would be set apart for social infrastructure.

But accusations still continue to fly thick and fast.

DMK ally PMK has criticised the government's land use guidelines in the new policy. PMK leader S. Ramadoss said: 'Overall, the (industrial) policy appears to favour MNCs and large industries, with a bias towards land-based industrial parks and SEZ development suited to highly skilled workers and not aimed at gainful employment and dignified livelihood for Tamil Nadu's vast less-skilled workforce.'

For the past year or so, Corporate Accountability Desk (CAD)- The Other Media, an NGO, has been researching the status of SEZs in the state. It has accused the state government of persistently following a policy of turning rich farmland into fallow land, so that it could be handed over to industry.

It cited examples in Kancheepuram district of how land near waterways was acquired in the higher reaches and the flow blocked off so that land downstream became fallow.

The revenue department then stopped collecting taxes from the target agricultural land to prove it was uncultivable.

The NGO also said that in Oragadam, on Chennai's western outskirts, and in Cuddalore, new land registration by people was discouraged from the 1990s.

'As a result, people had to sell their land only to the government, which bought and thus acquired huge tracts for SEZs here at very low costs,' the NGO stated.

'Village officers across the state are playing brokers,' alleged Madhumita Dutta, coordinator, CAD. The government has told the CAD that 55 SEZs have been approved in Tamil Nadu, holding 32,235 acres of land. Besides, proposals are pending for another 13 SEZs.

But Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi has denied allegations that farmland is being acquired for SEZs.

He informed the state assembly that only 345 acres out of the 10,000 acres that the Tatas need for their titanium project in Tuticorin district was farmland, and the rest was fallow.

In August 2006, CAD activist Nityanand Jayaraman had filed an RTI application, seeking information on Tatas' titanium project but met with a blank wall.

In December last year, Dutta moved another RTI application, seeking detailed information on 36 SEZs in Tamil Nadu. She also sought to inspect relevant documents under Section 5 of the Act. She again got no reply.

The Tamil Nadu State Information Commission then took up the matter and, after two hearings, reprimanded the industries department for denying information. CAD has since urged the commission to invoke Sec 18 (3) of the RTI Act, which gives it the powers of a civil court and investigate the matter further.

Chennai, Nov 12 (IANS)
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