A Supreme Court bench of chief justice JS Khehar and justice DY Chandrachud, on August 4, 2017, warned states to file their responses, on a plea seeking the return of unused land acquired for special economic zones (SEZs) to farmers, within four weeks, failing which, their right to respond would be closed. The court had, on January 9, 2017, issued notices to the centre and Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, West Bengal and Punjab, on a PIL that alleged that almost 80 per cent of the land acquired for SEZs was lying unused. As on July 4, 2017, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Punjab had not filed their replies.
“State governments, which have not filed the response, have been granted one last opportunity to file the reply within four weeks,” the bench said and posted the matter for final disposal after eight weeks. Solicitor general Ranjit Kumar, told the court that land had been granted by the respective state governments. Moreover, SEZs are there in 20 states and only eight have been made parties and the rest 12 are needed to be impleaded in the case, along with the SEZ developers, he said. The law officer also sought the deletion of the name of the cabinet secretary, from the list of parties.
The plea, filed by the SEZ Farmers Protection Welfare Association, alleged that in last five years alone, 4,842.38 hectares of land was acquired for various SEZs and only 362 hectares were utilised, leaving around 4,480 hectares unused. It also referred to a Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report of 2012-13 and alleged that not only have the farmers been deprived of their land, but also consequential benefits, such as employment generation and industrialisation of the acquired areas have not taken place.
Some companies, for whose SEZs the plots of land were acquired, raised loans by mortgaging the land documents as collateral securities with banks, but strangely did not use the loan money to develop these SEZs, the PIL said. The farmers’ body also sought initiation of civil and criminal proceedings against the holders of land, meant for SEZs, for ‘not performing the obligatory duty under the contract, resulting to unemployment, wastage of natural resources and causing loss to food security’.
Besides returning the vacant, unused land to farmers, the plea also sought declaring of the land acquisition as unconstitutional, being violative of the fundamental right to life and equality on the ground that they have caused ‘joblessness to farmers and agricultural labourers’. The plea has sought a direction to the centre and the states to conduct a comprehensive social impact study on the affected farmers and their dependents, on account of land acquisition for SEZs.
Quoting Rajya Sabha proceedings, the PIL said: “Now, the government has also admitted to the fact in the Rajya Sabha that as high as 40 per cent of the total land acquired for SEZs, across 20 states of the country, remained unutilised up to March 13, 2015. In four states, 100 per cent of the SEZ land acquired remains unutilised, while in seven out of 20 states 50 per cent of the total land acquired under SEZ remains unutilised.
The states with 100 per cent unutilised land are Nagaland, Manipur, Goa and Jharkhand. Some of the states with high rate of unutilised SEZ lands include Chhattisgarh (78.24 per cent), Haryana (70.69 per cent), Rajasthan (82.31 per cent), Uttar Pradesh (63.24 per cent), Tamil Nadu (53.08 per cent), Punjab (67.04 per cent), Chandigarh (59.60 per cent),” it said.
Over 77 per cent of notified SEZ land is concentrated in four states of Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, it said, adding these states have acquired 35,415 hectares of land, out of 45,782 hectares of total land acquired by the 20 states. The NGO, in its PIL, also referred to the apex court judgement in the Singur case and sought judicial intervention in getting necessary reliefs like ‘compensation for keeping the land vacant for a long time and return of the land to tribals, farmers and other weaker sections of the society suffering from the harsh effects of unnecessary, unmindful and unwarranted land acquisition by the government in the name of creating special economic zones’.
It said the SEZ law was framed to ensure generation of additional economic activity, promotion of exports of goods and services, promotion of investment from domestic and foreign sources and creation of employment opportunities. However, the desired results have not been achieved, it said.