-- Tapas Ranjan Saha

A Critique of CPI(M)’s Proposed Amendments to the SEZ Act 2005

THE CPI(M) MPs in Parliament quietly voted for the shameful SEZ Act. But when farmers’ protests at Kakinada, Dadri, Navi Mumbai, Singur and Nandigram exposed SEZs as a national shame, CPI(M) started demanding “amendments” to “improve” SEZs on the lines of the “Bengal model”. Well, let us take a look at their proposed ‘amendments’, and compare them – both with the Central SEZ Act 2005, and with the West Bengal SEZ Act 2003 and the WB Government’s )brochure“Doing Business In West Bengal:Policies, incentives, Facilities” published by WestBengalIndustrial Development Corporation(WBIDC).

 Would CPI(M) leaders please Explain:

WHY did its MPs vote to pass the SEZ Act 2005 in Parliament in the first place?

Does CPI(M) believe that it is necessary to create ‘special’ zones of ‘FOREIGN TERRITORY’ on Indian soil in order to promote ‘industrialisation’?

Does CPI(M) believe that industrialisation is NOT possible without giving corporates a ‘special’ license to evade taxes and laws, evict peasants and grab land, and super-exploit labour without allowing it the minimum protection available under trade union rights and collective bargaining?

CPI(M) claims SEZs are a necessary evil forced upon us by the Congress-BJP etc, and all we can do is to ‘amend’ them slightly. But if this is the case, how does CPI(M) explain the fact that its West Bengal Government’s ‘Doing Business in Bengal’ brochure distributed amongst industrialists proudly advertises that “West Bengal is one of the early States to implement the SEZ concept...” and that West Bengal  has passed its own SEZ Act in 2003 itself?

Purpose of SEZ

Central SEZ Act 2005: “the promotion of exports”

CPI(M)’s Proposed “Amendments” : Nil

West Bengal SEZ Act2003: “to accelerate economic reforms”

Comment: CPI(M) claims its amendments will put the brakes on neo-liberal economic reforms, but two years before the Central Act, they passed their own SEZ Act in Bengal with the self-proclaimed purpose to “accelerate reforms”!

‘Foreign Territory’

Central SEZ Act 2005: SEZs declared ‘Foreign Territory’ for customs purposes

CPI(M)’s Proposed “Amendments” : Nil

West Bengal SEZ Act: Same as above

Comment: An assault on India’s sovereignty and people’s inalienable rights. This (and the following two related points) is the most dangerous aspect of the SEZ Act, which the CPI(M) does not even try to ‘amend’.

Exemption from laws of the land

Central SEZ Act 2005 : Section 49 empowers the Government to exempt any or all SEZs from the operation of any central law through a notification. Further, Section 48 protects any SEZ official from any “suit, prosecution or legal proceeding” for “anything done or intended to be done in good faith” under the SEZ Act.

In addition, SEZs are judiciaries unto themselves: Section 23 provides for ‘Special Designated courts’ to try civil and other offences within SEZs.

CPI(M)’s Proposed “Amendments” : Nil

West Bengal SEZ Act 2003: Sections 30-31 identical to Sections 48-49 of the Central Act.

Comment : Corporates freed from the Constitution and laws of free India – nothing short of corporate colonialism.

Local governance

Central SEZ Act 2005 : Local elected governance (in the form of municipality) replaced by privatised parallel governance, by a Corporate ‘Developer’ and ‘SEZ Development Authority’ (SDA) consisting of representatives of the corporate ‘developer’ as well as bureaucrats nominated by State Government (including Development Commissioner) (see Chapter VII of the Act). The ‘Developer’ and the SDA are supposed to “develop infrastructure” (i.e, provide civic amenities like water supply, electricity, roads, education, sewage, etc...) and have the  right to “levy user charges” for the same. This clause is a violation of the 75th Amendment which ensures people’s participation in local governance. Amazingly, the Developer is even entitled to collect taxes! This means that the right to water, power, roads, schools etc. have been turned into saleable services inside SEZs, which the corporate ‘Developer’ can sell for profit. And there is no accountability since the SDA is not an elected body; there is no provision of any penalty in case the Developer fails to provide these services.

CPI(M)’s Proposed “Amendments” : Nil

WB SEZ Act 2003: Chapters IV and V vest the corporate “Developer”  and the SDA with similar powers.

Comment: These clauses completely violate people’s democratic right to accountable, elected governance, making SEZs the ‘paradise of neo-liberalism’, where all basic civic amenities will be privatised commodities.

Violation of workers' rights

Central SEZ Act 2005: The writ of the State Labour Commissioner to hear labour disputes will not run within SEZs; instead the ‘super bureaucrat’ Development Commissioner will perform this function. State Governments can declare SEZs ‘Public Utility Services’, where workers will be denied the right to strike.

CPI(M)’s Proposed “Amendments”: These rules be amended but, as the UPA government points out, labour is a state subject.

West Bengal SEZ Act 2003: SEZs to be Public Utility under the Industrial Disputes Act (Section 29); powers to administer labour laws conferred on the Development Commissioner [Chapter III, Section 4,  (2) (c)]. Further, the “Doing Business in West Bengal” Brochure (Section 6.2.2, page 98) proudly declares that “Certain Key Benefits In West Bengal For SEZ Units” include that “All units in SEZ declared as public utility services”, and “Development Commissioner to be the Reconciliation Officer for all Labour Disputes in SEZ...”.

Comment: Why did the West Bengal SEZ Act 2003 (without any compulsion from any Central SEZ Act) include the same anti-worker pro- visions that the CPI(M) claims to oppose in its proposed amendments?  Since labour is a State subject, surely the CPI(M)-led government could and should have refrained from availing of these anti-worker provisions?

Exemption from environment clearance

Central SEZ Act 2005: State Governments are empowered to allow Development Commissioners to grant environment clearance, bypassing the lengthy process of ‘Environment Impact Assessment’ which also involves a mandatory public hearing among the local population.

CPI(M)’s Proposed “Amendments”: Nil

WB SEZ Act 2003: Chapter VII gives the Development Commissioner the power to grant environmental clearance.

Comment: The last vestige of “people’s voice” in protecting their environment falls prey to corporate devastation. Monopolization of clearance authority by one individual to lead to massive corruption.

Corporate land grab, real estate racket

Central SEZ Act 2005: Thousands of hectares of land grabbed from peasants in the name SEZs, mostly used as a mask for real estate business rather than productive industry. Use of the colonial Land Acquisition Act 1894 by Governments to forcibly acquire land in the name of ‘public purpose’ to hand over to corporates for private profit. No reha-bilitation, no alternate fertile land or livelihood, only one-time cash compensation, that too usually far below the market price.

CPI(M)’s Proposed “Amendments”: Ceiling on land area, limited  acquisition of agricultural land, include model compensation and rehabilitation criteria on Singur-model in SEZ rules, recycle land blocked in closed units, frame National Rehabilitation Policy, amend Land  Acquisition Act, limit infrastructure activities to 25% of SEZ area.

CPI(M)’s Practicing Reality

Land Area: For the SEZ at Nandigram, the proposed area is close to 12, 000 acres. Similarly, other proposed SEZs in the State are equally  massive or even larger.

Agricultural land: Even at Singur (not an SEZ), the Government claims land acquired was single-crop, but fact-finding teams led by lifelong  Leftists like Prof. Sumit Sarkar have vouched for the fact that most of  the land was highly fertile multi-crop land. In five districts around Kolkata, there are 41,000 acres of land lying locked in closed mills, factories and sick units – but rather than put these to industrial use, the  LF Government is preferring fertile land.

Compensation and Rehabilitation: The ‘model’ compensation package at Singur has, according to the State Government’s own status report, provided an average of Rs. 83, 000 per farmer. Sharecroppers  dependent on the land have been promised a mere 25% of the compensation while the absentee landlord gets the lion’s share. (Under the LF Government’s own land reforms, the principle was that the sharecropper was entitled to 75% of the produce, giving only 25% as rent to the landlord. The compensation package turns that principle on its head.) At Singur, there is NO compensation for the landless labourer.

Jobs, Productive Industry: As for jobs, some ‘training’ is promised in  the package, but Sumit Chakravarty, editor Mainstream and a member of the above-mentioned fact-finding team, said that in response to repeated queries about jobs created in the Tata car plant, the State Government’s response was “We don’t know.” (Times News Network, 3  February, 2007). Another member of the same team, Prof. Tanika Sarkar, pointed out that “several other projects at Haldia and Jellingham have failed to do anything for the displaced people”. She cited the way the earlier Jyoti Basu government acquired 32 villages at Rajarhat and ousted all dwellers for commercial projects, asking “Why didn’t the  government put the Rajarhat land to productive use (industry) instead of allowing unproductive uses like five-star hotels?” (Indian Express, January 31). So even without the SEZ Act, the WB Government has chosen to use agricultural land for real estate business like 5-star hotels, rather than for job-generating industry.

Consent and Force: At Singur and Nandigram, the overwhelming  majority of farmers have refused consent, as vouched for by the abovementioned fact-finding team which declares that theirs is a genuine peasant struggle. It is the same colonial Act of 1894 that the WB Government used, declaring Tata’s car factory as ‘public purpose’.

Actual Implications: On PAPER, the Sardar Sarovar Project in the Narmada Valley has the best rehabilitation package possible – but the ground reality, as the protesting NBA activists tell us with elaborately documented evidence, is that not a single promise of this package has  been met. The reality of Singur too demonstrates how “consent” is  manufactured on websites and enforced with guns on the ground! The  UPA Government should first REPEAL the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 and clear its national rehabilitation backlog before talking of any ‘humane’ rehab policy!

Massive tax concessions

Central SEZ Act 2005: The very definition of SEZs is that of a “duty-free” zone. Even out and out neo-liberals like P. Chidambaram, Union  Finance Minister, say that “As per ministry estimates, the exchequer will lose Rs 1,00,000 crore in the next four years owing to tax and duty  exemptions for SEZs”. So even the ‘economic benefits’ in neo-liberal  terms are not justified.

CPI(M)’s Proposed “Amendments”: Various relaxations in the degree of incentives and concessions proposed, but the concept of SEZs  as a “duty-free zone” remains untouched.

WB SEZ Act 2003: identical concessions to the Central Act. The “Doing Business” brochure proudly promises a range of massive concessions and incentives as ‘bribes’ for potential investors in SEZ.

Comment: It is typical of the anti-people neo-liberal logic that Governments refusing to waive debts or assure minimum support price for suicidal farmers are bleeding public exchequers dry to pamper corporates. Instead of rejecting such an anti-people policy, CPI(M) is  playing the same field.

[Liberation March 2007]