…And now Himachal too stuck in the SEZ conundrum


By: Manshi Asher

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.

The writer is an independent researcher and activist currently based in Himachal Pradesh. She has been tracking, studying and documenting issues related to SEZs for the last two years. She can be reached at manshi.asher@gmail.com

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  1. hi ,
    a nice piece would have been better if details of the gagret sez could have been mentioned like the area, people involved and so on. actually there has been acomplete deceit by the government both the previous one as well as the incumbent one on this issue. i must say complete hoodwinking.

  2. Madam Manshi,

    Our Country is facing today with more acute problems such as Unemployment, Corruption, Injustices to masses, inequalities, and on the root of all problems is OUR POPULATION EXPLOSION. Qlty of manpower, most of it is illeterate who get easily mislead by so called leaders of our society and follow their lines and get trapped in their hidden agenda.
    Our learned few are requested to come out with suggestions as to how they propose to tackle this situation.
    I some time feel that Countries in our sub-continent are only managed by God, Sab Kuchh Ram Bharose Chal Raha hai.

    Everywhere and anywhere, an Industry is planned, there is lot of hue and cry by the so called Environmentalists, viz. saviors of our society, having contributed nothing in resolving the root causes of our aforesaid problems.

    With the current growth rate of population, increasing rate of literacy, we may be seeing in coming years, graduates, engineers, doctors, engaging in murder, docaity, easily falling in the hands of extremist for few hundred or thousand rupees because they will not find any jobs when they come out of their colleges.

    Yesterday only I saw on TV a country like Somalia being mismanaged,anarcy every where. Tomorrow it would be our country and other developing countries in the region.

    Only God will Save our country unless we wake up against the call of vested interests wanting to keep our country in Stone Age, Without development, Wrapping ouselves in Leaves, living in jungles, while other economies of the world progress and we remain in jungles.
    I may have my own views but there is danger when I start forcing others to follow me. Others must understand.

    Madam Manshi, I would have been enlightened, if u would have mentioned, what are so called losses, how much land, (irrigated Unirrigated, Banjar) is being acquired and how many people really depend on them vis a vis how many would have benefitted on it.
    I know a case where one third of effected farmers owned less than a quarter bigha, they work somewhere else to get two times meals and their so called saviours claim they are effected.
    If 500 Farmers earn Rs.10 Crores worth of Net Income on their land and a project gives employment to 1000 people with their yearly salary of 100 crores, Taxes of 200 crores, profit to the industry of Rs.50 crores, which one should be preferred.
    These are my views, you may differ on it, I want to know if I am wrong, and where?

    Regards – SS Jaryal

  3. Regarding the project gives employment to 1000 people with their yearly salary of 100 crores, Taxes of 200 crores, profit to the industry of Rs.50 crores analysis I must say that the CM has a perfect opportunity to shift the entire project to his home district and let Hamirpur be a show case for the SEZ model of devlopment for the entire state.

    And to Everywhere and anywhere, an Industry is planned, there is lot of hue and cry by the so called Environmentalists, viz. saviors of our society, having contributed nothing in resolving the root causes of our aforesaid problems. I must add that I am a simple fellow doing a 9-6 job. I must say that all fears of these enviornmentalists are not wrong. I will quote an example of Nathpa Jhakri project. After the tunneling of the river for the dam, the entire belt around the river has been affected. This was one of the most produtive apple belt area. Now with the river being reduced to a rivulet, no rainfall occurs on time. No snow fall occurs before 20 January. In the absence of rainfalls the orchards are dying and no new plantation is succeeding. There is a severe drinking water crisis 8 months a year where I live. All this happened because of the tunneling of the river water. Kinnaur region where the entire tunnel is located is facing severe ecological damage. All in the name of development. How has the locals benefitted from all this is beyond my understanding. We do not get a single penny from the royalty earned by the state. Just look at the road conditions beyond Shimla. This road is not fit for any form of motorised transport. Only bullock carts can ply on this road and this is the main NH. What to speak of village roads! There are no docs in the interiors, no proper teachers, No drinking water in summers, No timely PDS for the poor and needy. I feel like laughing when ever I see the photo of our CMs receiving the royalty cheque. Where is all the royalty going?? Beats me!!!

    Here is a link to Manshi’s another story on Mundra Port SEZ in Gujarat. A compelling reading.

  4. Hi SS Jaryal,

    you really pointed out the real issue of the growth of the state which is intensely needed by common peoples of the state, but for the growth what should be the direction of the economy, do you think the only way to grow the state is SEZ or something like the pure capital investment and left the question of the participation and involvement of the commons, secondly we all know What does SEZ mean, it doesn't only mean the development but the it is other weapon of the exploitation of the toiling mass, agrarian peoples.

  5. Ms. Manshi , pl accept my Valentines day greetings. I congratulate u for taking up SEZ as ur research topic. I too got enrolled for research on SEZ in Andhra University. I had completed the empirical survey of an sez. The SEZ had grabbed land from small and tiny land holdings from the very poor peasants. No project has been launched by the SEZ nor the Rehabilitation process has been initiated. The economic/SEZ policy may have laudable objectives but the state of affairs at the Project Affected Areas are heartening. However, could u get the opinion of the Supreme Court on SEZ policy ? If so mail me the details or the copy of the relevant order. I will be grateful to u forever.

    bye. with regards,


  6. sez opposition is totaly by political people they are collecting few people on wine and alcohal,they just want to opposit of the ruling party and be in news it may be either by bjp or congress doesnt matter.

    how many people have time to go amb at their own for protest against the sez no one i new the capability.

    a normal person need the basic things like food and shelter.

    and all time spent in this.

    the people going for the "julus" are the waiste of the city dont have work or like parasite depend on other for there food and expenses.

    few farmers also help in this kind od protest for there earning of 100 rs / day.

    they even dont know for what they are going, they just need there money and snacks.

    and the politicial want the media and votes.

    any one who read the newsa next day he watch the "chutbhaiya neta" on news paper and think they are fighting for farmers

    all are fake and just doing time pass

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