back to issue

SPECIAL Economic Zones (SEZs) are today being promoted as the new mantra to shift India onto a new, and higher, growth path. Promising ‘world-class’ infrastructure and ‘freedom’ from what many see as an antiquated tax and labour regime, they are expected to help the country industrialise as also create higher value employment opportunities. Little surprise that within months of announcing the new policy, there is a flurry of applications to set up new SEZs.

It is not that the SEZ policy does not have its share of detractors. The finance ministry is concerned about possible loss of revenue, with figures as high as Rs 1,60,000 crore by 2010 being tossed around. So is the RBI. For others the greater concern is the takeover of land, including fertile farm land, for these ventures, in the process displacing millions from their survival occupations. The commerce ministry counters these apprehension by claiming that there would be fresh investment of over Rs 100,000 crore, an additional creation of five lakh jobs and a net revenue gain of Rs 44,000 crore.

In all this, insufficient attention has been paid to the democratic rights of those facing the threat of forced dislocation. Nor is there sufficient discussion about the moral correctness of a procedure wherein the state ‘takes over’ land using the Land Acquisition Act and makes it available to private parties, domestic and otherwise, ostensibly for public purpose. Even if the state ensures a reasonable compensation to those whose assets are being taken over, do they not, as citizens of a democratic republic, have a right to be consulted and their concurrence sought before they are turfed out from land that they have been long occupying? Even more questionable is a policy of setting up ‘republics’ within a republic, where normal laws of the land, in particular to do with labour rights, stand suspended. No surprise that this policy has engendered massive unrest across the country.

Nowhere are the potentially negative implications of this new policy of industrialization more evident than within the state of Orissa, with formal approval already granted to four SEZs and ‘in principle’ approval awaited for eight others. Clearly, despite the earlier unrest and violence associated with the Tata Steel project in Gopalpur and in Kalinganagar, the state government seems committed to pushing ahead.

Even if it is agreed that no major dent can be made on poverty levels without effecting a transition from low economic value, survival activities to those promising higher returns, it is equally undeniable that marginal farmers, foraging tribals, fisherfolk, among others – who eke out a survival living without any great help from the state, will face an even more bleak future once divested of these resources. To assume, as our policy-makers so easily do, that by merely providing them some compensation, they have the right to redeploy those resources to alternative ends can only be described as undemocratic and draconian.

And when they protest our political rulers call them anti-national Naxalites who deserve to be put down with a heavy hand. If only we care to read accounts of these struggles (for instance, Chronicle of a Struggle and Other Writings by Achyut Das and Vidhya Das, Agragamme Publication, 2006) we might understand why so many of the socially sensitive young are losing faith in our democratic system.

Agragamee has been working with the marginal communities in Kashipur for over 25 years. Long acclaimed as a stellar organization which has made remarkable contributions to education and food security, Agragamee made the mistake of opposing the takeover of tribal lands for alumina mining. For this impertinence, the organization was blacklisted and cases foisted against its workers. The ensuing repression also resulted in the loss of valuable lives even as its key personnel remain embroiled in fighting cases in court and coping with constant harassment.

As much as the amazing courage of the activists and tribals and their persistence in seeking a nonviolent and legal resolution to their problems, the story also exposes the seamy underside of Indian democracy. More than the financial scams and corruption that inevitably accompany such efforts at social engineering, it is the complete contempt which our ruling elites display towards the aam aadmi as also the rule of law which shocks. Possibly this new phase of industrialization will transform the Indian economy, even help it compete with China. What is certain, however, is that in the process we will have lost more than a bit of our collective soul and our right to be called a democratic republic.

Harsh Sethi