As reported by Rifat Mumtaz and Madhumanti Sardar on on 25 February 2008:
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No more SEZs in Goa

Think of Goa, and beaches, pristine forests, churches and hordes of tourists spring to mind. But in the last few weeks the state has grabbed the headlines for different reasons. Despite 22 industrial estates, Goa has successfully refused to host Special Economic Zones (SEZs).

The struggle against SEZs in Goa has been led primarily by the educated middle class and professionals from all walks of life.

Begun in early-December 2007, mid-January 2008 saw the anti-SEZ campaign reach fever pitch. Almost the entire state, including members of the political establishment, villagers, the church and the media stood united in their demand for the scrapping of SEZs.

Finally, the state government was forced to cancel all approved SEZs and recommend denotification of the rest by the central government. Goa had approved seven SEZs, of which three were notified.

Developments like these are unheard of in the rest of the country. Struggles against SEZs have very often been labelled “anti-development”, and the middle class has opted to stay silent on the issue.

Yet in Goa it was the middle class that spontaneously came forward to initiate and lead the anti-SEZ drive.

“The local people’s resistance, under the SEZ Virodhi Manch (SVM) and support groups in the Goa Bachao Abhiyan (GBA), drew members from educated middle class professionals,” emphasises Pravin Sabnis, a corporate trainer by profession and member of the GBA.

The GBA was formed as a people’s movement in 2003 by middle class intellectuals and professionals against the Goa Regional Plan 2012. It was instrumental in getting the plan, which would have led to the destruction of forests and the environment, scrapped.

Fighting the SEZ battle through RTI

The Verna Industrial Area (VIA) is the site of four SEZs including the notified 105.91-hectare K Raheja Corporation Pvt Ltd IT/ITES SEZ. All are in Phase IV, for which land acquisition has already taken place.

The anti-SEZ movement has been very intense here, primarily led by villagers from Lutolim, Nagoa and Verna, in Verna constituency.

The key initiators of the movement - Frankie Monteiro, Charles Fernandes from Verna village, Allen Fallerio from Lutolim village - are all professional engineers; Peter Gama, also from Verna, is a contractor.

Presently grouped under the SVM banner, they have been waging a year-long battle against SEZs to protect their village and culture from corporate greed and corrupt politicians.

Interestingly, the fight against SEZs started when Monteiro tried to unearth the details of a seemingly fraudulent 20-point programme in his village.

“During the elections, the local MLA, under the garb of free housing for the poor, was inviting an influx of migrants - a secure votebank for him. I filed an RTI application to examine the project details and with those minutes tumbled out details of the SEZ projects as well,” he says.

They started by reading the SEZ Act and Rules and simultaneously filed hundreds of RTI applications in early-2007, painstakingly gathering documents on the various SEZ projects.

Monteiro, who has filed the most RTI applications, has spent over Rs 18,000 only on applications and appeals. “The biggest challenge was to read and interpret the massive piles of information that we collected. Since the lawyers were asking for too much, and we had to bear the expenses, we trained ourselves to read the documents and familiarise ourselves with the legal text,” says Fallerio.

“Reading the SEZ Act, we realised that SEZs are fully autonomous foreign territories, like a state within the state, and the government and local bodies have no control over them. The concept itself shocked us. We, the original inhabitants of the village, would suddenly become foreigners on our own land! And those exemptions, breaks and special concessions… it was just unacceptable!” fumes Monteiro.

Moreover, the documents revealed startling legal violations and irregularities within the SEZ projects. For instance, the Raheja SEZ documents showed that the company had not even bothered to submit a detailed project plan; the project application was incomplete and mandatory formalities like the inward slip and company seal were absent.

Before allotment within an industrial estate it is mandatory for the state’s Industrial Development Corporation (in this case, the Goa Industrial Development Corporation, the GIDC) to conduct a study or assessment of the project. This was not done. The company was allotted land merely on the basis of a letter from the then chief minister asking the GIDC to “help them”.

As the group expanded its RTI applications from the Verna Industrial Area to cover the rest of the state, they unearthed violations in the other SEZ projects too.

Armed with their knowledge of the dangers of SEZs and the unearthed “frauds”, the four started an awareness-building campaign initially in their villages and subsequently throughout Goa.

“We held numerous street-corner gatherings and formal meetings, and conducted powerpoint presentations. We also got in touch with other locals and groups where SEZs were coming up. The response was fantastic,” says Gama.

“Villagers not affected by SEZs also turned up in large numbers to show their support. The media supported us unstintingly. We only had to call for a press conference and provide our data,” says Monteiro. On a number of occasions, individual press reporters came up to him and said: “Being Goan it’s our duty to protect our land.”

Does the middle class care about industry and jobs?

People living around the Verna Industrial Area say: “We are not averse to industry. But we have experienced haphazard industrialisation at the cost of our local ecology and culture. Jobs have gone to migrants who have strained the local resources,” says Orwell D’Silva, a tribal rights activist and social work graduate from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).

The Verna Industrial Area was built in 1989 with promises of area development and jobs to locals. Instead, people lost their forests, pasturelands and the majestic hills that were blasted to accommodate factories.

A large perennial stream, the source of drinking water and irrigation, is almost dry thanks to numerous borewells and the extraction of groundwater related to activities inside the SEZ.

Locals fear that with further industrialisation and migration, the large Verna freshwater lake will become a sewage dump. “Then we will lose our heritage,” says a worried Peter Gama.

Perhaps more than the fallout of migration, the average Goan is unable to visualise development in isolation of the surrounding natural beauty. They deeply value the thick forests, gushing springs, large freshwater lakes and majestic hills dotting the landscape.

Swati Kerkar says: “We are often called lazy and unambitious. Rather, we are susegad, meaning ‘contented’ in Konkani. We have what makes life beautiful. We don’t need huge salaries and high-profile jobs. What we earn is enough for us. We cannot imagine our life without the surrounding nature. Why should we look towards industry.”

Albertina Almeida, lawyer and GBA activist, says: “Even middle class youth are okay with (the idea of) migrating abroad or to other parts of the country for work. But they will not tolerate the destruction of their rich lands in favour of industry. Expatriate professionals and NRIs are anxious to preserve their state and its culture so that they can come back home, often tired of the stressful, cluttered city life.”

Sabnis and Almeida, also members of a group working on communal harmony, readily agree that the regional plan has helped unite middle class Goa, and that the present SEZ struggle is testimony of the average Goan’s ability to rise above religious differences to save the land. Catholics and Hindus together form 80% of the state’s population.

“No government dares go against our interests,” says Sabnis, adding, “after all it’s a question of votebanks too!”

Anna, owner of the Tropical Spice Plantation Resort, concludes: “The current model of development means more destruction. If we start looking at everything from a commercial point of view we will ruin our life and nature. If we desire to turn everything into gold like the proverbial Midas, what will we leave behind for the next generation? Ultimately, humans cannot survive without food and nature.”