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Lively Debate On ‘Special Economic Zones In India’ Held At Asia Society

Ajay Ghosh

Lively debate on ‘Special Economic Zones in India’ held at Asia Society
Ajay Ghosh
A lively Parliamentary debate by members of both the Lower and the Upper Houses of Indian Parliament was a rare treat to a group of nearly a hundred business leaders and media persons on February 13, 2007 at Asia Society, New York, NY, when a delegation of the India-U.S. Forum of Parliamentarians (IUFP) exchange views about the proliferation of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in India and discuss the opportunities they provide as well as the risks involved with export-driven industry.
"The debate over SEZs’ utility is rather compelling and as India strives to create an investment climate friendlier to foreign investments, this debate will continue to rage," said Vishakha N. Desai, President of the Asia Society. In her opening remarks that set the tone for the open discussion by prominent Indian Parliamentarians representing diverse political parties in India, Desai asked, "In its quest to catch up with China to achieve accelerated economic growth, the debate in India today is, are the policies and programs of the government of India creating islands of poverty? Are they good for the greater number of Indians or do they increase the divide between the few and the millions of poor? Do benefits of reforms outweigh the losses suffered by the poor, the environment and the tax revenue?"
Special Economic Zones were first conceptualised during the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government. The government began giving away land across the country at throwaway prices to big industrial houses. Critics were silenced by the refrain: China had done the same in the 1980s, look at it now.
Continuing with the NDA government's policy, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government notified 63 places in various states to set up SEZs. In all, it is planning to set up 235 such zones.
The UPA government believes these SEZs will lead to investments to the tune of Rs 300,000 crore (Rs 3,000 billion) and also create 4 million jobs. As the second-fastest growing economy in the world, India needs these investments, it said. But, early in 2007, violent protests by the downtrodden in West Bengal's Nandigram and Singur forced the government to slam the brakes and put these projects on hold till a new and better compensation policy is arrived at. And the debate has gained international attention and Asia Society seized the opportunity to have the lively debate on this most contentious issue when the Parliamentarians from India visited New York.
B.J. Panda, Chairman of the IUFP and a member of the Rajya Sabha, representing Biju Janata Dal, who was leading the delegation, gave an overview of the circumstances that led to the creation of the SEZs and the need to continue implementing them with more transparency and a humane face. Other participants who were part of this timely debate included: Suresh Prabhu (former cabinet minister, Shiv Sena, MP); Dinesh Trivedi (senior Trinamool Congress leader, MP); Robert Kharshiing (NCP, MP); Sachin Pilot (Congress, MP); Depeender Singh Hooda (Congress, MP); and Ajay Maroo (BJP, MP).
Robert Kharshiing, a member of Rajya Sabha from Meghalaya, expressed the need for transparency and effective steps to combat corruption in order to make SEZs effective for everyone. He said. "Offering equity shares to farmers whose lands are used for industrial purposes will go a long way in gaining the confidence of the people," he said.
Ajay Maroo, who represents the state of Jharkhand in the Rajya Sabha, called SEZs as the "biggest land grabbing project in the entire world," stating that 237 projects have already been approved and there are over 400 projects that are under consideration.
Sachin Pilot, a member of the Lok Sabha from Dausa, Rajasthan, "Just as in life, so in politics perceptions are sometimes more important than reality. In my view, the intention behind creating SEZs was right. After all, if you have to build industries in India, you can't make them in the air. You do need land for it."
"The question to think is whether the land is fertile or not. And secondly, why do our state governments have to acquire land for corporations. I belong to the ruling party and we want SEZs, but let us find the best possible options through discussions," Suresh Prabhu, a senior member of the Lok Sabha, representing the constituency of Rajapur in Maharashtra, said. Prabhu, a former cabinet minister under BJP ministry that originally gave rise to the creation of the SEZs, said that, "The concept is good. However, the issues that is giving rise to agitation is the way it is being implemented."

Comparing the situation in Singur in West Bengal, where the state government has acquired agricultural land for the Tatas and when met with protests by the local people responding with bullets, to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in China, Trinamool Congress general secretary and Rajya Sabha member Dinesh Trivedi. Said, "What is happening today in West Bengal resembles closely to what happened in Tiananmen Square. We do not have tanks there, but we have people there going to farmers' houses and beating them up and threatening to kill them." SEZs, he said, symbolized the central questions relating to the land acquisitions by various state governments in the name of SEZs and added, "Try and take a golf club and I dare the government of India to do that. You won't be able to do that because they are influential people. The debate is not about SEZs, but about democratic rights of poor people, implying their right to life."

Although not all Members of Parliament belonging to other parties were in apparent agreement with what Trivedi said, a consensus emerged that while there was no denying the fact that SEZs are required for India's development, it will take some time before a unanimous decision could be taken in terms of land acquisition for SEZ and implementation of the guidelines.

"The debate is far from over. Issues are not decided overnight in a democracy like India where it is always a consensus building process. We have seen that when it comes to economic reforms in general and on this SEZ the consensus has not been reached. It will take us some time," Panda, chairman of the Forum concluded.

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