Monday, April 02, 2007

Say it for SEZ

Rescue a good idea from Luddite politics

Posted online: Monday, April 02, 2007 at 0000 hours IST

The government would have to think clearly and act quickly if we are to,
as promised by P Chidambaram in China, develop special economic zones
(SEZs) in "our own way". As SEZs begin to look exclusively like a land
acquisition issue, a wider discussion about jobs, infrastructure and
growth multipliers has been reduced to a sterile farmer-versus-industry
debate. SEZs, sadly, have been projected by some politicians as some
kind of land grab. This is an irresponsible accusation in a country
where almost two-thirds of the population still works on land. Ruthless
CPM politics that resulted in the Nandigram tragedy has had its effect.
Bengal politics may be sui generis, and other states don't suffer from
such methods, but the demonstration effect seems to be hurting the case
for SEZs elsewhere too. There is now talk of halving the size of the SEZ
near Mumbai. If good infrastructure is integral to SEZs, then there is
no point in reducing their size to a few hundred hectares. We need large
SEZs that invigorate the landmass around them and have far-reaching impact.
With Rs 60,000 crore of investment planned, the importance of SEZs
cannot be overstated. So, what should the government do to repackage and
resell the SEZ concept as a credible instrument for raising output and
aam aadmi incomes? The first step should be to publicise SEZs where land
has been acquired without a hitch. Some good publicity is urgently
required. Second, SEZ developers should be encouraged to acquire land
though direct negotiations with landholders. Developers can and should
incorporate innovative strategies to answer questions of small
landholders especially. Corporates should also be encouraged to set up
commercial 'collectives' of displaced persons, as has been creatively
done by the Tatas at Singrur, to supply labour and resources for
construction work at the project site. That would ensure the displaced
have a stake in the new venture. But it is also true that investors
won't wait endlessly for this positive process to begin. The push has to
come from the government. Rescue SEZs from Luddite politics.


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