EVEN as the Congress and the CPI(M) and their respective governments in New Delhi and Kolkata are busy covering up the state-sponsored barbarism in Nandigram, the ‘empowered group of union ministers’ has cleared the deck for the government’s SEZ campaign with only a few minor modifications in the SEZ policy. There will now be a cap on the size of SEZs – individual SEZs will henceforth not exceed 5,000 hectares. Half of the area in an SEZ will now be earmarked for the main processing activity with the other half still left free for real estate business. And governments will apparently no longer be involved in the act of forcible land acquisition – that part of the job will from now on be left to the free market! Of course, very soon after this announcement, Kamal Nath has declared that these rules are not final and binding – they will be reviewed if a particular case calls for it!

With these minor modifications, the government has now paved the way for immediate notification of formal approval for as many as 54 SEZs. Another 29 SEZs just await clearance from the Law Ministry, while 88 applications are now passing through the stage of verification. Then there are 162 SEZs that have already secured in-principle approval and only formalities remain to be completed. And then there are 350 new applications waiting for approval. Add up all these categories and the total is already close to seven hundred! If the average size of an SEZs is assumed to be 2000 hectares or 5000 acres, seven hundred SEZs would occupy around 1.4 million hectares or 14,000 square kilometres! And this is all prime land – agricultural or otherwise – in the vicinity of India’s major urban centres.

There is absolutely not a word regarding the enormous tax concessions that the Government’s own finance ministry had been questioning. Tax concessions apart, SEZs will continue to promise a massive immunity from the laws of the land. Municipal regulations or labour laws will all remain eminently dispensable. And it is not difficult to envisage how easily big corporations can subvert each of the minor modifications mooted by the group of ministers. To take just one example we already hear reports that the giant Reliance SEZ in Haryana, originally proposed to sprawl over 25,000 acres, will now be broken up into five separate zones: one large multi-product SEZ and four smaller ones, to conform to the new norms.

What will be the state’s role in the new scheme of things? We are told that the state will no longer directly lend its hand to the act of land acquisition. In other words, the peasants will now be directly subjected to corporate thuggery and the armed forces of the state will wield their batons and bullets to enforce corporate ‘rights’ on peasant land. If the people who are robbed of their land insist on the implementation of promises made to them – cash compensation, rehabilitation, employment in SEZ projects – they have Kalinganagars in store for them. Let us not forget that the gas victims of Bhopal have not been rehabilitated till date and Honda workers in Gurgaon were brutally beaten up just because they had dared to exercise their most elementary right to get unionised. The so-called ‘retreat’ of the state from the direct business of land acquisition does by no means signal any neutrality on the part of the state in enforcing corporate interests.

When the SEZ Act was passed in parliament, it saw little debate and no party, including the CPI(M) and its allies, voted against it. With mass resistance intensifying, the CPI(M) began making some noise about amending the SEZ Act. The amendments are mostly of a procedural nature and not substantive; in fact, it has now all boiled down to haggling over the size of SEZs. While the government is arrogantly bypassing all public debate and steamrolling its way to enforce its SEZ policy, the CPI(M) and its allies are fulfilling their duty by merely criticising the government for its ‘obsession’ with SEZs. And the government is perfectly aware that as the architect of “Operation Nandigram”, the CPI(M) has little moral courage and credibility left to risk a showdown with the Congress over the issue of SEZs. Indeed, for ruling parties of different hues, the debate over SEZs is just one more opportunity for another bout of shadow-boxing. The people of this country have become sick of this shadow-boxing, their opposition to SEZs is most urgent and real. They are staking their lives to resist this corporate land-grab.

It is now as clear as daylight why like POTA and AFSPA, we must fight for a complete repeal of the SEZ Act. Whichever way the government may implement this Act and whatever be the average or maximum size of the SEZs, the people of this country cannot accept this corporate land-grab which will drain away their resources into corporate coffers and mortgage their rights to brutal corporate power. Let us intensify the resistance to SEZs and let this resistance redefine the lines of political demarcation. Parties and governments that stand on the corporate side of the SEZ fence can have no claim to the legacy of the Left.

[Liberation May 2007]