Signs of an impending disaster


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SUPPORTERS of India’s SEZ policy, when challenged on its potential consequences, have been fond of pointing out that the zones are nothing new. SEZs are merely modified Export Processing Zones, an ostensibly time-tested strategy for export growth, industrial transformation and foreign investment. Moreover, in China, it is claimed, SEZs have worked wonders. India’s SEZ policy drew on this background to, as Commerce Minister Kamal Nath put it in his interview for this issue, ‘come up with an India-specific SEZ Act that suits our conditions.’

On at least one count this position is correct: the notion of export-oriented industrial zones does indeed have a long pedigree. But the experience of such zones has been varied, complex and in many respects disturbing. Special zones have come in several kinds, shifting in orientation with wider changes in the global environment, and bringing in their train complex socioeconomic impacts. Chinese SEZs, in particular, are a far cry from the unblemished success that Indian commentators often portray them to be; and in many respects the Chinese SEZ story offers more of a warning than a model.

Moreover, the brief survey of the international experience here shows that Indian SEZs are arguably the apotheosis of the zone idea, taking elements of the policy to an extreme rarely found anywhere in the world. This ‘radicalism’ is by no means a positive feature. Indeed, viewing it against the international track record it offers some of the strongest arguments for why Indian SEZs are likely to be, in the long run, an unmitigated disaster.


Jayanthakumaran (2003) describes the basic characteristics of Export Processing Zones as:

* EPZs consist of an ‘enclave’ dedicated to the promotion of export-processing and isolated from the domestic economy;

* Within these areas, state controls over industry are relaxed and bureaucratic procedures simplified;

* Foreign (and often domestic) investors in zones are given favoured treatment with respect to taxation, import controls, infrastructure and, in some cases, labour laws;

* In return, ‘investors are expected to process all intermediate imports within the zone and to export without adversely affecting the domestic economy.’

This set of features is indeed shared by most export, special and free trade zones. But the apparent similarities between these zones masks the fact that EPZ’s have in fact changed considerably in terms of their role in industrial policy and economic strategy. These changes in role in turn correspond to wider shifts in both national and global political economies. Broadly, while there is considerable overlap and ambiguity, three types of zone policies can be distinguished.

Type I: Zones as part of an export-oriented development strategy. EPZs first gained prominence as a result of their apparent successes in Taiwan and South Korea, which introduced zones in 1966 and 1970 respectively. EPZs in these economies were part of a larger economic strategy that focused on export-oriented industrialisation. But contrary to the assumptions frequently made today, this ‘export orientation’ was very different from the export orientation being promoted by liberalisation. Instituted as an alternative to the import-substituting industrialisation that was then the norm in most developing nations, this strategy aimed at industrial development through careful stimulation of certain types of exports. Using directed credit, controlled exchange rates, sector-specific incentives, disciplinary measures against both capital and labour and similar state instruments, foreign and private investment were directed into a few favoured sectors – electronics technology in particular.1 


Export processing zones fit into this larger strategy. While the zone programme provided infrastructure and relaxed some controls on repatriation of profits, incentives were subject to meeting high performance standards in both exports and value addition. Regulations were also put in place to prevent capital flight and to incentivise reinvestment.2 These helped to reduce the tendency for zone investment to be ‘footloose’. As a further result, import dependence of these zones was proportionately less than in other Asian zones. As of 1986, net exports (exports minus imports) in South Korean and Taiwanese zones constituted 53.2% and 48.7% of gross exports respectively, as compared to 33% in Malaysia, 28% in Sri Lanka and 16.4% in China.3 

Gross economic statistics appear to bear out the claim that these EPZs were a success: the zones drew considerable FDI, and in 1986 produced 460 million dollars and 2.4 billion dollars worth of gross exports in South Korea and Taiwan respectively.4 Yet there are a number of caveats. First, though the export to import ratio in these zones was higher than in other Asian zones, it still remained low – significantly reducing their contribution to foreign exchange. Second, these zones largely peaked in the 1980s, prior to these countries’ change of growth strategy towards the current pattern of generalised financial, trade and industrial liberalisation. As a result, zone incentives became less attractive and investment declined.5 Finally, zone policies notwithstanding, repression of labour and consequent low wages remained a key attraction of EPZs in these countries. Strikes were effectively banned and union organising crushed.

Thus, when the democratisation movement finally provided the space for workers to organise in South Korea in the late 1980s, Masan EPZ saw significant wage increases – and in turn two major investors ‘restructured’ their facilities or withdrew, while overall zone employment dropped by 50%.6 Seguino (2000) has also demonstrated how the use of patriarchal norms to suppress women’s wages and labour rights played a major role in the export gains from the EPZs and the general economy.


In sum, zones in these countries formed an integral part of a larger political and economic matrix. Zones were envisioned not as an export or investment strategy but as an industrial policy in a wider development strategy. That strategy, in turn, was shaped by an autocratic ‘developmentalist’ industrial bourgeoise, clearly dominant over both labour and a landlord class decimated by land reforms.7 Internationally, these countries enjoyed a double advantage – the guaranteed access to US markets resulting from being ‘bulwarks against Communism’, and the prevalence of import-substituting industrialisation in most developing countries, which made zone incentives more attractive.

This model of EPZs did find some other takers, particularly Malaysia. Simultaneously, in the 1970s a wave of EPZs were established in other Asian countries, including Indonesia, Sri Lanka, China and India.8 But, to varying degrees, these zones differed from their South Korean and Taiwanese counterparts. In India, Sri Lanka and China particularly, a key difference was that zones were not a part of a larger industrialisation strategy, but an effort at increasing exports and addressing the increasing foreign exchange crunch that plagued import-substituting industrialisation. This was to inaugurate what we can call the second type of EPZ.


Type II: Zones as a crisis response. Broadly, we can classify most zones in the world into this second category. Here, zones are a response to a failure of the overall economic strategy to generate a desired output: in the early stages, foreign exchange, in later stages exports, and finally, as we shall see, private investment itself. The zones here reflect a compromise – a decision to implement policies desired by international capital in a geographically limited territory, as such policies would be infeasible or disastrous if adopted across the economy as a whole.

As said above, initially such zones sought to generate additional exports in order to earn foreign exchange. As import-substituting industrialisation collapsed under the hammer blows of neoliberalism in the 1980s, the need for foreign exchange shifted into a generalised requirement to promote exports. Whereas in the first type of EPZs exports were a calibrated part of a development strategy, exports now became an end rather than a means.


The paradigmatic example of such zones are the EPZs set up by various Central and South American governments in the 1980s. These zone policies essentially revolved around repression of labour, tax concessions, elimination of tariffs and lax regulation. Such zones attracted capital desiring unskilled, cheap labour, with high levels of industrial mobility. The garments industry rapidly became a key sector, as it fit these requirements perfectly, while also being subjected to a specific need to disperse production due to the Multi-Fibre Arrangement.9 

The resulting explosion in exports was quite spectacular. By the late 1980s, zones in Mexico and the Dominican Republic produced more than 50% and 80% of their respective countries’ manufactured exports.10 In Sri Lanka, which followed a similar model, clothing exports rose from 623 million dollars in 1990 to 2.7 billion dollars in 2000, mostly through EPZs.11 


But such statistics masked an inherent and rapid rise in vulnerability that these zones produced. The zones relied on brutal suppression of labour rights, withdrawal of social regulation and increased risks to the economic stability of the host nation. Latin American EPZs became so notorious for violence and labour abuse that a consumer movement sprang up in the US in the late 1990s against them.12 Reliance on the ‘race to the bottom’ of incentives also meant frenetic competition for attracting foreign capital, with any shift in global consumer or production markets easily spelling disaster. An excellent example was the rapid decline in garment zones following the end of the Multi-Fibre Arrangement in 2003, resulting in en masse migration of garment companies to China. In 2002 alone, China’s share in the US garments market jumped from 31% to 59%; glove exports from China grew by 291%, while those from Guatemala, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, three countries with garments-dominated EPZs, fell by 65%, 48% and 47% respectively.13 

Such zones reflected the dominance of international capital over labour and, as an integral part of neoliberalism, over the domestic industrial bourgeoisie, which either integrated with its global counterparts or collapsed. Hence the zones’ relative failure to channel EPZ production into gains in the larger economy, in contrast to their South Korean or Taiwanese counterparts.

Hence also, however, a gradual decline in interest in such zones as the ability of international capital to shape domestic policy grew. When entire countries’ economies and the global trade system were being thrown open, there was less and less need for incentive-driven zones. Thus by the late 1990s, the international financial institutions and development agencies – nearly all of whom, excepting to some degree the ILO, had earlier supported EPZs – began to sound increasingly sceptical. Thus by 1998, the World Bank had declared that they were a ‘second-best policy choice’ and ‘should not be established in liberal, low-protection economies’ (World Bank 1998). Meanwhile, steps in the WTO to bar export subsidies as ‘anti-trade’ mechanisms led eventually to the application of the Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures, which bars any form of export incentive, to all developing countries (UNCTAD 2003). This effectively nullifies any advantage from EPZs and demonstrates how little importance is now attached to this strategy by the forces of international capital.

It is striking how this last development, which puts paid to any notion of SEZ-driven exports, has basically been ignored in India. But perhaps one should not be surprised at this, for Indian SEZs are not of the same stock as this earlier generation of zones. They instead represent a radically different policy, an evolution of zones towards far larger objectives than mere exports. This evolution is epitomised by the history of zones in the country now touted as a role model – China.


Type III: Zones as new arenas for capital. After repeated swings between creating such zones and rolling them back, the first two Special Economic Zones were established in 1979 by the Deng Xiaoping-led government in China (two more were created in 1980). These zones allowed for foreign investment, contract labour, more decentralised economic management and other ‘reforms’. Contrary to the efforts of the media to conflate such ‘reforms’ with liberalisation in India, it bears repeating that these changes took place against the backdrop of a socialised command economy without private property, contract labour or ‘market forces’.


As discussed above, a key initial reason for creating such zones was the need for foreign exchange. In addition, the zones were to serve as an instrument for developing the southern coastal regions, this being the primary reason for their large size.14 While the zones did generate some initial foreign investment as well as increasing the share of manufacturing in China’s exports, they were plagued with smuggling and became centres of durable good imports, ironically increasing foreign exchange shortages while threatening to drive up inflation. As a result, in December 1981 a moratorium was imposed on further SEZs, imports of 17 goods were banned and the policy reviewed.15 

Yet the purpose of SEZs underwent a radical transformation in the following years, as China accelerated its famous shift towards ‘market socialism’. The zones now formed a key part of what came to be known as the coastal development strategy. This new strategy, though not formally announced till 1986, was based on three tiers: the SEZs would have the most ‘open’ and laissez faire economic policies and investment regulations; the fourteen ‘Coastal Cities’ would have less open but still liberal policies in order to draw investment, technology and generate a high rate of savings for further investment; and the interior regions of the country would focus on production for the domestic market and eventually on picking up the successful policies of the other two. Over the 1980s, measures of liberalisation in SEZs included competitive bidding for construction, contract responsibility, labour contracts, floating wages, liberalised banking and so on. This three-tier hierarchy was also a hierarchy of experimentation, with the SEZs being the ‘laboratories’ of new policies.16 


It is critical to understand the importance of this change. Chinese SEZs now ceased to be exporting centres; their primary importance became explicitly political. They were to be areas where new methods of capital accumulation could be applied, in the context of policies that increasingly treated rapid accumulation as the goal of state action. The zones were – and were stated to be – the model of China’s future.17 

Unsurprisingly, investment from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan poured into the Chinese zones, whose dazzling ‘foreign investment’ figures are almost entirely composed of investment from these geographically close capitalist centres.18 But domestic investment also grew in the SEZs, and continued to be larger than foreign investment even up to the mid 1980s.19 Capital in China, foreign and domestic, clearly saw the zones as the new arena for accumulation, through methods previously unknown in China – and in some senses, given the sheer scale at which they came to operate, anywhere in the world.

The best example of the new accumulation processes at work, and the zones’ most disturbing outcome, was in the arena of land. In the late 1980s, SEZs in China pioneered the introduction of trade in land use rights and leases in China.20 This set off a rapid string of changes in land administration laws. Provincial and SEZ administrations were granted more powers over land regulation, including acquisition of village lands – which can only be transferred to the state in China – and conversion of village lands into urban lands.21 


The result is not difficult to predict: an explosion in real estate speculation. Requisition of rural lands was followed by rapid transfer of such lands between speculators. This ‘stir frying’ took place on a grand scale. Between 1986 and 1995 approximately 5 million hectares of arable land were transferred to infrastructure and real estate development.22 In the 19 months between January 1992 and July 1993 alone, rights over 127,000 hectares of land were granted to real estate developers across China, but only 46.5% of this land was actually developed.23 

The zones were not only models for such speculation; in large measure they became an instrument of speculation themselves. ‘Zone fever’ gripped the country. The national government itself followed the initial SEZs with new technological zones, eventually reaching 54 such zones in 2006, as well as a new SEZ in Hainan in 1988.24 Meanwhile, provincial and local governments declared their own special zones, providing incentives and land to industries and real estate speculators. This trend rose so fast in the early 1990s that there were no accurate figures on how many ‘development zones’ actually existed. 1993 estimates ranged from 6000 to 8700 such zones, and their total area by 1992 was estimated to be 15,000 square kilometres – more than the built-up area of the existing cities.25 


Within the zones, speculation became so rife that, as early as 1986, the Chinese government was forced to restrict construction of hotels, restaurants and commercial buildings.26 Hainan is a particularly glaring example. In 1992, The Economist reported that Hainan was the ‘world’s biggest speculative bubble’; Hainan had ‘few industrial firms and little industrial output.’ ‘Nobody any longer keeps track of the number of 30- and 40- storey office buildings being put up,’ declared the magazine, stating that ‘This is not happening because anybody actually wants to use the space. ... What is going on? Speculation, almost pure and simple, and tax evasion.’ 1993 figures show that almost half of the available housing in Hainan was unoccupied, even as construction was underway that would double the available housing units.27 In June 1998, the Hainan Development Bank, the main banker to the provincial government, closed down under bankruptcy.28 

Hainan eventually recovered from the real estate collapse by turning not to industry or export but to tourism, now the mainstay of the island’s economy.29 By 1998, the Chinese government was forced to pass a new law for strict regulation of further conversion of arable land.30 In 1996 Chairman Li Peng announced that within five years, foreign and domestic investors would no longer be able to import materials duty-free nor enjoy such unusually low tax rates.31 This announcement was understood by Reardon (1996) as ‘taking the ‘special’ out of special economic zones,’ and today Chinese SEZs offer significantly less tax and duty concessions than zones elsewhere.32 


This sobering story is the most striking, though not the only, example of the kind of capital accumulation promoted by zone policies in China. A further facet is the repression of labour and the explosion in smuggling and crime. 70% of Shenzhen’s population are migrant workers, with almost no legal or social protections.33 In 2003, at least half the firms in Shenzhen owed their employees wage arrears,34 and at least one-third of Chinese zone workers received less than the minimum wage.35 Indeed, Shenzhen workers are so desperate that despite the lack of any independent unions, more than 10,000 wildcat strikes took place in 2006 alone.36 

Shenzhen now has a crime rate nine times higher than Shanghai, and is notorious for trafficking of women and the sex trade.37 Relaxed customs have also led to large-scale smuggling; two of the original zones, Shantou and Xiamen, were hit by massive tax and smuggling frauds in 2000 and 1999 respectively.38 

Thus, over the late 1980s and 1990s, China’s zones were less and less concerned with exports, foreign investment or foreign exchange, though they remained important actors on all those counts. Instead, they became the sites of a political transformation of the Chinese state, an institutional shift whereby one-party rule was reshaped into the authoritarian dominance of capital over all other sectors of society. This shift in turn promoted a new model of capital accumulation through the aegis of the state – accumulation that consisted as much of speculation, fraud and dispossession as it did of ‘industrial growth’.


To understand a zone programme, it is thus crucial to see it as an instrument shaped by the larger balance of power in society. Superficial similarities between zone policies do not by any means imply that they will have the same outcomes. While all zones constitute a strategic recognition by a ruling class of the need for concessions to capital, the crucial variable is the interrelationship between these concessions and the larger political economy that shapes both the zone policies and is, in turn, shaped by them.

In the first type of zone mentioned above, the zones were one piece in a much larger effort at economic transformation by a dominant class force. The growth of the power of international capital, in particular finance capital, led to the second type of zones, where they became a strategy in breaking the resistance of labour and domestic capital to neoliberalism. In the third, they became instruments for reshaping the state machinery itself and generating a new relationship between the state, capital and other sectors of society.


Against this background, it becomes increasingly clear that Indian SEZs belong to the third category – and indeed go even further in that direction than China’s zones. Inherent in the policy itself are several indicators of this fact. First, India is almost unique in its concept of creating SEZs on demand: i.e. the location, size and nature of the zone is explicitly determined not by state economic policy but by the demands of private capital. Moreover, the only condition for setting up such a zone is the possession or intent to possess a sufficient area of land. This combination is a remarkable ‘innovation’ that, in essence, marks the full and final transcendence of the notion of a zone as part of industrial policy. Indian zones are simply not concerned with shaping industrial development, unlike the stated objectives of all the three types of zones above.

Second, the Indian policy has very little regulation on the activity within a zone. Notwithstanding claims of export-orientation, the only requirement imposed on SEZ units is a vague need for them to have a ‘positive net foreign exchange balance.’ Even that only applies to industrial units in the zone. But, as per the regulations, most of the zone – the so-called ‘non-processing area’ – can be used for entirely non-industrial purposes. Regulation of activity in these areas is non-existent, and the SEZ Rules and subsequent Central guidelines explicitly provide that real estate activity, entertainment complexes, housing, etc. can be part of an SEZ. As with Chinese SEZs, the goal is clearly that the zone should be far more than an export or industrial centre – it should be a new economic territory.

Finally, to complement this economic territory are various legal provisions that essentially create the SEZ as a new political territory. These allow for the total isolation of the zone from the larger regulatory, institutional and even legal environment. Thus all labour and environmental regulation will be in the hands of the zones’ Development Commissioners; no elected municipal or public bodies will exist; zones will have their own special courts and a different system of investigations of criminal offences. The SEZ Act moreover grants the central government an arguably unconstitutional power to withdraw or modify the application of any central law, excepting labour laws, to SEZs.


The lack of regulation over economic activity on the one hand, combined with the creation of a politico-economic territory on the other, take the Chinese policy model to greater extremes. But there are also striking similarities with China in terms of potential economic activity in SEZs, most of all in the arena of land. As with China, India also has a segmented land market, with ample opportunities for speculation through state acquisition and land-use conversions (as described in this issue). The ability of SEZs to serve as a vehicle of real- estate speculation is highly apparent. As of October 2006, indeed, at least 60% of private sector SEZ developers were real estate companies.39 

The potential consequences of this combination are very apparent. We have seen how special zones, wherever they have been tried, have been accompanied by repression of labour and violation of workers rights. We have seen how the second and third types of zones above were built around excessive incentives to foreign capital, destabilising domestic economies. And we have seen how the Chinese model of SEZs led to negative impacts across both the zones and the economy as a whole.


But the Indian SEZ policy goes further than any of these. It has lost practically all its links to the stated goals of industrialisation, technological development or even export growth. In their place, it is concerned with erecting new territories across the country – territories whose sole distinguishing characteristic will be the near total power wielded over them, and by implication also over the resource economies of the surrounding areas, by large corporations. This is not a recipe for industrial development. It is a recipe for speculation, fraud, instability and violent conflict.



1. See for instance Morrissey and Nelson (1998).

2. Jomo 2001.

3. Amirahmadi and Wu 1995.

4. Amirahmadi and Wu 1995.

5. Jomo 2001.

6. Lee 1999.

7. Kay 2002.

8. India’s first EPZ – the Kandla zone in Gujarat – in fact was founded in 1965, before South Korea and Taiwan. However, the other main zones in Santa Cruz, Noida, etc. came up in the 1970s.

9. This agreement, intended to protect industrial countries’ apparel manufacturers, subjected garment exports from developing countries to quotas. As a result, nations like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Honduras, Nicaragua and so on became attractive to garments exporters looking for unfilled quotas. See Jayanthakumaran 2003.

10. Amirahmadi and Wu 1995.

11. ICFTU 2003.

12. See, for instance, or

13. ICFTU 2003.

14. Wong 1987.

15. Reardon 1996.

16. Ibid.

17. Cartier 2001.

18. See Gopalakrishnan 2007 for more details.

19. Wong 1987.

20. Cartier 2001.

21 .Huang and Yang 1996.

22. Cartier 2001.

23. Huang and Yang 1996.

24. Deheng 2006.

25. Cartier 2001.

26. Wong 1987.

27. Ibid.

28. Cartier 2001.

29. Yiping 2003.

30. Cartier 2001.

31. Reardon 1996.

32. ICFTU 2003.

33. Ngai 2004.

34. ICFTU 2003.

35. Jayanthakumaran 2003.

36. French 2006.

37. Goswami 2007.

38. Business China 2006.

39. Gopalakrishnan 2007b.



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