Thursday, April 5, 2007

What is so special about SEZs?


What is so special about Special Economic Zones?

By Dr P.C. Alexander

Faced with mounting protests and criticism against the scheme of Special Economic Zones (SEZs), the Prime Minister has chosen to announce a few days ago that the decision to go ahead with the scheme is irreversible. He has admitted that there have been “inadequacies in compensation and ensuring the interests of all stakeholders,” but has affirmed that all such concerns will be addressed and the government is in the process of formulating a “humane, effective and just policy” regarding SEZs.

However, the Prime Minister has not held out any promise that the whole idea of establishing SEZs will be reconsidered in the light of the experience in the implementation of the projects. On the other hand, by publicly affirming the irreversibility of the decision on SEZs, the government seems to be having a closed mind on the need and suitability of a scheme like this for the country’s industrialisation and export promotion needs.

The SEZ scheme has its origin in the visit of the former minister of commerce, Murasoli Maran, in the year 2000 to China. He was so impressed by the SEZ projects in operation in China that he became an instant convert to the idea and of its suitability to India. But the irony of it is that the SEZs, which were supposed to be inspired by the Chinese model, are quite different from those implemented in China. One is tempted to say that the only thing in common between the two is the name.

In China, SEZs are owned and managed by the government, while in India they are mainly owned by corporate bodies and private developers. The SEZs in China are very large zones in close proximity to the sea, so that exporters of the products from these zones will not be handicapped. But in India their locations have been decided upon without any special consideration for easier access to the ports.

An important argument in support of SEZs in India is that they will help in accelerating the ongoing industrialisation process, but an examination of the projects so far approved shows that this objective is hardly likely to be served. Out of the 237 projects approved, as many as 143 are IT related. IT units have grown in India so far without the support of the facilities of SEZ projects and there is no reason to believe that further growth in this line needs such extensive props and concessions. Another disturbing feature of the 237 approved and the 167 “approved in principle” SEZ is that a good number belongs to the category of real estate development, which cannot be expected to have any impact on accelerated industrial development.

A parallel has sometimes been attempted to be drawn between the industrial estate projects started by the government in the mid-Fifties and the SEZs of the present decade. But the two are entirely different in objectives and do not merit a comparison. The policy for industrial estates was adopted in India as part of the comprehensive programme for the development of small industries after very careful study of such projects in UK and the United States, and with several major modifications with the exclusive focus on small scale industrial development. In the UK, industrial estates were expected to facilitate the development of “depressed” areas or regions identified as relatively backward on the basis of the high incidence of unemployment there.

While India borrowed the idea of industrial estates from the UK, the government used the scheme exclusively to promote small scale industries in India and did not extend to the units in the industrial estates any concessions or incentives normally not available to other small units located outside the industrial estates. Further, industrial estates were built on very small plots of land measuring two or three hectares, which rarely involved any displacement of farmers.

Two crucial factors, which the government seems to have ignored while going ahead with the acquisition of land for SEZs, are the extreme shortage of cultivable land in the country and the highly sentimental attachment the small farmer has to his land. India has 16.6% of the world population but only 2.42% of the land area of the world, while the US has one-third of India’s population but thrice India’s land area. Australia has a population of only 18 million people (the number India adds every year to its population) but has 2.1/2 times India’s land area. The share of land owned and cultivated by the farmers in India has been dwindling with every generation because of partition in the families and of the steady increase in population.

One of the oldest and most hated legislations concerning land in India has been the Land Acquisition Act of 1894, which gave very large powers to the government to acquire land for what it considers as required in “public interest.” But when the government acquires the land belonging to a small farmer, he is reduced to the status of a “landless person,” which is the greatest of the indignities that a farmer has to suffer. When he sees that his land has been acquired by the government in the name of “public interest” and allocated to rich industrialists and large real estate developers, his sense of indignity gets aggravated to a sense of injustice and he resorts to public protests and demonstrations in spite of indiscriminate use of force by the government to suppress such protests.

Apart from the criticism that SEZs have facilitated large scale land grab by big corporates and real estate developers, the government should have seriously addressed the question whether the benefits for the nation to be derived through the SEZs are really worth the heavy costs involved. Creation of additional employment is the main plus factor in favour of these projects. But the question is, additional employment at what cost?

A look at the long list of concessions and incentives offered to the developers of SEZs will show how over generous the government has been to them. The concessions include income-tax benefits [under Section 80 (1) A] for any block of 10 years in 15 years, exemption from service tax/CST, exemption from customs duty on import of capital goods, raw materials, consumables, spares, etc., exemption from Central excise duties on procurement of capital goods, raw materials, consumables, etc., from the domestic market, besides various other facilities, which make SEZ a deemed foreign territory for trade operations.

The rough estimates of the loss of revenue to the exchequer because of these concessions indicate that they may run into several thousands of crores of rupees. One wonders how the ministry of finance, which is expected to be zealous in monitoring the use of every rupee of public expenditure, could be so generous in the case of the SEZ developers. No highly industrialised country in the world, e.g., Japan, the US or the West European countries, had considered it necessary to offer so many special concessions and incentives to promote industrialisation or exports and India in its present fairly satisfactory stage of industrialisation and export development does not have to offer such facilities particularly to a class of people who are not in need of any special assistance.

Dr P.C. Alexander was the governor of Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu and is at present a Member of Parliament (RS)

Courtesy_

Deccan Chronicle

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