THE SEZ QUESTION AND NANDIGRAM
There has been extensive coverage on the stand of the Left parties on the current SEZ policy of the government in these columns. The major areas of our disagreement with the extant policy pertain to nature of the land use, extent of land use, the tax package and the rehabilitation package. The design of the current package of the government has undergone a qualitative change when SEZ rules were framed under the Act and process of approvals which has led to sanctions being given to 237 SEZ proposals.
This huge number immediately brings to the fore the contrast with China which had successfully executed the SEZ approach to ensure investment and employment generation. The total number of SEZs in China is only 6 and they are concentrated on manufacturing exports by linking these zones to physical infrastructure like port and other transport facilities.
In India, apart from the already sanctioned 237 SEZs, the Board of Approval gave the ‘in-principle’ approval for another 166 SEZs within less than a year of the promulgation of the SEZ rules. A scan of the number and nature of these SEZs reveal a clear-cut picture of regional and sectoral imbalance. Of the 237 sanctioned SEZ proposals, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamilnadu account for 147 SEZs which is 60 per cent of the total sanctions. Again, 148 out of the 237 SEZs approved so far are in the IT sector. Further, preliminary studies are also revealing a major possibility of real estate activities in many of these proposed and sanctioned SEZs instead of actual manufacturing/processing activities which would have been desirable from employment generation point of view.
The crux of the difference between the government, on the one hand, and the Left parties, on the other, is on the nature of investment. Unless investments lead to production and employment generation, the stated objective of the SEZ policy will stand defeated. On the other hand, the present situation poses the danger of investment flowing into financial activities which can, at best, heat up the economy without any corresponding employment generation – a classic example of ‘jobless growth’.
Nandigram in East Midnapur district of West Bengal is one of the seven SEZs sanctioned in West Bengal. The proposed SEZ will develop a mega chemical hub. The choice of this mega chemical hub in the Haldia region is the result of a long exercise undertaken by the government of India where this venue was chosen alongwith four other sites in the country. With the existing petroleum refinery of the IOC, the petrochemical plant at Haldia in the joint sector and the huge facility of Mitsubishi chemicals, this decision to have the mega chemical hub located here was a natural conclusion. Incidentally, the Haldia petrochemicals have led to 700 units in the downstream providing an employment to over 1 lakh people. The government of West Bengal has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Indian Oil Corporation to be an anchor investor for the project, while the Salim group will be the promoter for building the infrastructure. The Salim group will also build a 100 km six-lane expressway bypassing Kolkata and the new township at Rajarhat and Salt Lake, the eastern satellites. The expressway will be a major link and part of the central backbone of the road network in the state linking Darjeeling Hills in the north to the Sagar islands in the south. The expressway will also link to a bridge over Hooghly river which will connect South 24 Parganas and East Midnapur in the Haldia township.
Beyond this, there has been virtually no other progress towards the Nandigram SEZ. It has to be pointed out that unlike largely real estate-driven activities in the SEZs in other parts of the country, the West Bengal government has maintained and sponsored proposals for SEZs where 50 per cent of the total land will be used for actual industrial-processing activities with major emphasis on employment generation. 25 per cent of the land will be related to social infrastructure of this real economic activity. This position of the West Bengal government is identical to the position taken by the Left at all India level. The proposed SEZ at Nandigram will strictly adhere to this basis.
These columns have published the statement of the central committee of the CPI(M) describing the actual incidents in Nandigram. It is true that a particular document circulated by the Haldia Development Authority (HDA) had created confusion. The chief minister of West Bengal has categorically stated that no cognisance of that document need to be taken and that no progress on the project will take place until after widest possible consultations are held with elected representatives in the panchayat and the people of the area. As there has been no survey done and consultations held, the question of land acquisition does not arise before these processes take place. People’s Democracy has also editorially commented on the document by HDA. In any case, under the provisions of the Land Acquisition Act, HDA does not have the executive authority to notify acquisition.
Given these facts, therefore, the situation in Nandigram needs to be brought back to normal. Right now, roads, bridges and culverts remain disrupted with urgent need for repairing them. There is obstruction in doing that. This is putting the entire population in the four gram panchayat where incidents had taken place to great trouble.
It is only when such normalcy returns that a proper discourse on Nandigram SEZ can take place. There is no doubt that land acquisition will only take place if a credible plan for improving the quality of life and livelihood can be put forth. This is the overall approach of the CPI(M).
Having stated all these, it is difficult not to comment on the nature of political forces that have come together in Nandigram. This conglomeration with BJP on the extreme right to the various naxalite groups on the extreme left, to put it most mildly, is strange and unprincipled. It is also important to note that distinctions need to be made between legitimate protest and planned violence.
With passage of time, all the pros and cons of the mega chemical hub project will be discussed and debated. No doubt, the compelling reason for any such project in the state will be premised on the question of employment generation and improving the lot of the poor and disadvantaged sections. As stated earlier, the Left Front had anticipated the need for such a project on the eve of the last elections. Therefore, the Left Front election manifesto had clearly stated: “Industrial parks have been decided to be set up in the task of modernising the traditional labour-intensive industries, and to make them competitive. Parks will be set up for foundry, jute, rubber, garments, textile, iron & steel, chemicals polymer, light engineering, and food” and “A minimum of four big industrial taluka and special economic zones will be set up in the state”.
It is with this manifesto that the Left Front had approached the electorate in the 2006 assembly elections. And, it is on the basis of such plans for the future that the Left received its massive mandate. Many personalities from different parts of the country who have now taken positions on the principles on which the state government is functioning may not be aware of the electoral commitments of the Left Front nor the nature of the mandate of the people. So far as the specifics of the project are concerned, no doubt, concerns will be addressed.
PARTISANSHIP WITH THE POOR
The Left Front government in West Bengal has come back to office for the seventh time. This is unprecedented in the history of electoral politics of the country. The principle underlying reason has been the fact that the government has been partisan – partisan towards the poor. Lakhs of acres of land h
as been redistributed among the rural poor. Thousands of CPI(M) leaders and activists have laid down their lives to achieve the advance and empowerment of the poor in the state. And, it is with their support that the Left Front is trying to improve the overall economic situation in the state and develop industries. It will be foolhardy to assume that the CPI(M) can relinquish the achievements that the peopleof the state have scored.
There is no conflict between agriculture and industry. But the nature of the industry, the manner in which it takes place is not completely under the control of the state government. In the present age of globalisation, the major direction of neo-liberal policies is aimed at de-industrialisation in third world economies. In the face of this, industrial development, particularly in manufacturing and processing sectors, is, in itself, a struggle against those policies. It is true that private corporate’s way of viewing industries and that of the Left will differ. Marx and Lenin had written a lot on this in the context of Luddites and Narodniks. The working class does not demand the closing down of an industry because it exploits them, they work for changing the nature of the ownership. As communists, we know that socialism is the future, and, therefore, the improvement of the material basis of the economic activities is important. But these struggles cannot overlook the specifics of the immediate context. The struggle for industrialisation in West Bengal will continue without giving up the struggle for consolidating and further improving agriculture in the state. The bottom line is the constant need for improving the conditions of the working people – be they in the rural areas or in cities. And, the lesson of learning from the people will never be forgotten.