08/08/2007, 00.00
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Economic development ought to protect people’s needs, says bishop of Mumbai

In light of a planned new Special Economic Zone in Maharashtra that includes expropriating land, the Indian Church warns that unless economic development takes into account the needs of the population it might lead to violence and social unrest.

New Delhi (AsiaNews) – The government wants to set up the second largest Special Economic Zone (SEZ) of the state of Maharashtra on some 5,740 acres (2,300 hectares) in the Uttan-Gorai area, involving some ten villages. In order to do so it must displace the residents, 90 per cent of whom are Catholics. But as Mgr Oswald Gracias, archbishop of Mumbai, explains, the plan runs the risk of dividing communities and causing violence.

The promoter, Essel World, wants to build a Disneyland or Las Vegas-like theme park, but has failed to disclose to the government that it only held a lease on land most of which is under litigation with Gorai Machchimar Sahakari Sanstha Ltd.

In the past Essel World build similar entertainment facilities disregarding environmental protection laws including development in a mangrove area that was ruled illegal by the High Court.

About 60 per cent of the population that would be affected is involved in fishing; others are salt-pan workers and farmers. If the SEZ is set up, the livelihood of so many who have been practicing their traditional occupations for ages would be endangered.

So far some 10,000 people have a signed a petition against the plan.

The diocese of Mumbai wants a proper assessment be conducted on the SEZ’s impact on the local population.

For that reason on Sunday it organised a meeting at Our Lady of the Sea Church, popularly known as the Bhatte Church Uttan.

In the July 28 issue of The Examiner, the diocesan paper, Mgr Gracias urged everyone to take part in rallies and other initiatives so that local fishermen, toddy tappers and farm labourers are not robbed of their rights and livelihood.

“A world-wide study by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions has said that despite promises of incentives to poor people displaced by development projects, their welfare and rights are often trampled upon. We want a proper study of the project so that the government does not go back on their promises," said Fr Anthony Charanghat, spokesman for the archdiocese.

“We have begun a signature campaign and have a target to collect 3 lakh (30,000) signatures by the end of August.  The SEZ plan does not take the human dimension into consideration,” Dolphin D’Souza, who heads the Bombay Catholic Sabha (BCS), told AsiaNews. “We want to ensure that before project details are finalised, the government takes the locals into confidence rather than going surreptitiously about it. The BCS members have been asked to involve parish priests to make announcements about SEZs.”

Archbishop Gracias is also very concerned by the plan because people ought to understand what it entails before it goes ahead.

“The Church has a mission to guide and help the faithful and also strive to inspire right attitudes with respect to earthly goods and socio-economic relationships,” he told AsiaNews.

“The Church is particularly concerned about the long- term effects of this policy for the people of the area. They may be dispossessed of the land of their forefathers and are ill-equipped to take up any meaningful employment in new areas."”

“Given the violence in Nandigram, Singur and Saturday’s incident in Khamman (Andhra Pradesh) I am seriously worried,” Archbishop Oswald stressed.

“Violence starts when people get frustrated when they are caught unawares and the gravity of the situation overpowers them. This is a situation the Church in Bombay wants to forestall.  [. . .] My urgent wish is to forestall and alert people of the real and pressing dangers of the SEZ. If at these initial stages people are alerted and can study the proposals about what can be done, then the people are prepared.”

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