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by Manshi Asher, Himvani (Republished in Sanhati)

This article is a critical note on the proposed SKIL SEZ, in Gagret, Himachal Pradesh.

Last week 22 villages of Raigad District in Maharashtra went through an elaborate voting procedure not to elect a representative but to establish that they were indeed not in favour of giving up their lands for Mukesh Ambani’s mega SEZ to be spread over an area of 35,000 acres. The referendum was a consequence of a two-year-long agitation by farmers and fishing communities against the SEZ, a last resort for the exasperated government to ‘verify’ that the opposition was genuine and the only way for the local movement to prove its majority. It has had Reliance running to court challenging the Maharashtra government’s decision to hold the referendum in the first place. The voting, which came out with a crystal clear “No” to the SEZ obviously did not go down well with the media and the industrial lobby still reeling under the Singur happenings. In the same week the Union Ministry of Commerce’s Board of Approvals gave formal approval to 18 more SEZ proposals taking the count of approvals to 531.

In the list of in-principle approvals is the contentious mulit-product SEZ to be developed by SKIL which has faced stiff opposition from the farmers of 14 villages in the Gagret block, Una (Himachal Pradesh) where it is proposed to be located.

This has more or less been the trajectory along which the SEZ drama has unfolded over the last three years since the passing of the Act. The dissent on the ground has gone hand in hand with the chunk of SEZ approvals every month. It seems like the government, even in the election year, has no time to pause and review this policy which has drawn scathing criticism. Such is the compulsion of economic growth that the writing on the wall has become meaningless to the rulers and policy makers. The only time that the government took a brief pause was after the Nandigram movement against the land acquisition for Salim group turned violent back in January 2007. But by then 150 SEZ approvals were already granted. The Empowered Group of Ministers that was reviewing SEZs, lifted the cap from 150 approvals in April 2007 after meekly tweaking the policy, by putting an upper limit on the area of the SEZs and asking the state governments not to acquire land forcefully (using the colonial Land Acqusition Act 1894) for SEZs. Despite this, state governments continue using “acquisition” or the threat of acquisition as a method to transfer land to SEZs.

The Gagret SEZ is a case in point where even the State government has announced that there would be no land acquisition. Information provided under the RTI however reveals that the responsibility of providing the land to SKIL lies with the Himachal government. Other examples are Kakinada (Andhra Pradesh) and other states where the State Industrial Development Corporations are acquiring lands forcefully and then handing over to the private developers. SEZs are being used as mechanisms to grab, using stealth, force and deceit, livelihood resources, specifically land (and water) from poorer communities, which is the key reason for the opposition at the local level.

That the government continues to harp about the employment created with no mention about the livelihoods lost in the process of SEZ creation distorts the picture completely. Even in the employment argument it is clear that the losers of livelihoods are not the gainers of employment. Points out Aseem Srivastava, an economist, “if we look at the Commerce Ministry figures we see that it is taking 33 lakhs of investment to create a single job in an SEZ. With the same kind of investment 10 to 50 times the jobs could be created through schemes like the NREGA”.

Academics from across the country and even the proponents of free markets have argued that the SEZ policy by providing differential treatment, in terms of tax holidays and subsidies, is creating monopolies at the cost of the economy in the domestic tariff areas (areas outside SEZs). The Comptroller Auditor General’s annual report reviewing the SEZ policy found that “almost Rs 2000 crores worth of revenue losses were incurred as a result of the irregularities as well as provisions under the policy”. While the ‘development’ argument is repeated over and over again, the counter argument has been of regional imbalances and in the case of SEZs it is amply obvious that the developers are making a beeline for the areas that have enhanced infrastructure and are thus developed. Maharashtra, Gujarat and the southern states which are already advanced industrially for instance are where these SEZs are concentrated. Even within these states it’s the peripheries of urban centers, big towns and coastal areas whose resources are going to be sponged off by the SEZ developers.

However, the most perturbing aspect of these enclaves designated is that they are not merely industrial clusters as is being portrayed. Export Processing Zones (very few) and industrial parks have been around for a long while in India. But the basic differences between these and SEZs are that the latter are private enclaves for integrated development (which means apart from industrial activity about 50% of the area would be earmarked for other commercial activities – housing and entertainment complexes). They would be gated townships and communities owned, managed and governed by the private developers themselves. All powers for governance of labour, environment and land use would be centralized in the hands of a Development Commissioner. The SEZ Act provides these enclaves have to be treated as ‘industrial townships’ which would not be in the purview of Municipal Corporations or any other local self governing body.

Related to this is the issue of planning. Sivaramakrisnan of the Centre for Policy Research giving example of the National Capital Region where as many as 18 zones are planned argues that existing bodies for planning in the NCR have been kept out of the process of locating of these zones.

As farmer and leader of the movement in Gagret, Narender Parmar, rightly laments “All it takes is for a developer to put a finger on a location he wants and the government, notwithstanding the existing use, users and inhabitants of that area, will readily clear out the place and make it available (to the developer)”. This brings us back to the crux of the SEZ Act – it is conspicuously silent on the crucial questions of where the land for these zones will come from and how it would be handed over to the developers. But the judiciary in our country has provided the answers. In a recent judgment the Supreme Court ruled that Land Acquisition for infrastructure and revenue generating projects would be qualified as “public purpose’ and hence cannot be challenged!

In recent times no other economic policy or piece of legislation, has spurred the kind of controversy, especially at the local level, as have Special Economic Zones, especially post the passage of the SEZ Act in 2005. SEZs are not the only projects facing opposition but they embody and manifest all tenets of capitalist development and hence have brought to the fore the larger debate on accumulation of capital by dispossession. That the print and electronic media despite its preoccupation with Bollywood and Cricket has found the time to talk about the growing dissent along the country side over acquisition of farm lands for mega industrial projects and SEZs is one indicator. Regrettably, but not surprisingly even this critical issue has been reduced by the media into a cock-fight between industry and agriculture. No points for guessing where the readers/viewers dreaming of the swanky laktakia or an apartment in upmarket locations are putting their money. Though, if we are concerned enough to look beyond the shallow debate in the mainstream media we are sure to find the political quagmire that has been created by this new mantra for growth called SEZ.

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