Saturday, October 14, 2006

SEZ and the protests

Rural storm over SEZs exposes chinks in the ruling system

By P. Raman

The ever deepening confusion about the special economic zones clearly reflects the state of affairs in which the nation finds itself. When the bill to set up the SEZs was adopted no one had anticipated it will lead to such massive protests across the country. It was virtually a unanimous passage with the Left expressing reservations over the possible curbs on labour rights within SEZ. Some members did talk about the need for taking care of the farmers’ rights. But it was so casual and general.

Now every political party, every player in the whole game, feels they have been taken unawares by the sudden show of protests from almost everywhere. The commerce ministry, which had initiated the grandiose programme, suddenly climbs down to rewrite the rule book, and asserts no fertile land will be acquired for setting up SEZs.

Instead of protesting, even the business bodies now endorse the suggestion that the land owners should get adequate compensation and three-crop land should not be used for the purpose. Two aspects of the SEZ muddle the widening cleavage between political bosses and the masses and the executive’s despotic style of decision making are worth noting. When the SEZ bill was passed the general expectation was that a couple of zones would be opened in each state.

More would be launched after assessing their performance. No one had thought that as many as 225 SEZs or is it over 350? will be allowed at one stroke on well over 80,000 to one lakh hectares.

The turn of events has made the Congress establishment bitter about what some of them describe its government’s brinkmanship. There is lot of difference between coping with the farmers’ problems with a couple of SEZs and facing the embarrassment of agitations in such a large number of places. This was what had made Sonia Gandhi (who is now increasingly opening her own direct channels with the party’s grassroots leaders) to come out with her snowballing declaration on the non-use of fertile land for SEZs.

Those close to the party establishment say that Kamal Nath, himself a seasoned politician, should not have lost balance. He should have anticipated a severe rural backlash. A little interaction with those outside the bureaucracy and economic technocracy might have convinced him about the pitfalls ahead.

Instead, he and the omnipresent Montek Singh Ahluwalia took the SEZ-in-eachblock idea as a great economic revolution on which the Congress Party could sweep the polls. It was similar to the NDA’s `golden triangle’ highway and Promod Mahajan’s `Shine India’ dream.

Before the Sonia snap came, hardly did they recognize that it was the greed for cheap land under the Land Acquisition Act that had led to the SEZ revolution. Even the leading industrial houses had taken into account the windfall land gain while working out the cost. Such strategic miscalculations do happen in an atmosphere of isolated government functioning.
Ministerial bureaucracy under the post-reform era has been part of the belief that a government’s job is to enforce the globally ordained economic prescriptions.

Under this concept, dialogue with the opposition or own party establishment will only delay the reform schedule. The more the cleavage between the party establishment and a globally committed ministerial bureaucracy, the more the government gets distanced from the mass of voters. This has been the experience of Tony Blair to Atal Behari Vajpayee.

Political mishaps could be avoided only when the party establishment which is normally less prone to global pressures, is able to strike a fair balance between the governmental action and voting public’s responses. The party establishment as a watch dog account for the long survival of the Left government in West Bengal.

The other factor the growing disconnect between the political parties and the people they represent has its origin in the bureaucratic style of political functioning. In the present case, even the Left has got it off-guard despite their preoccupation with the Tata unit in West Bengal.
In each case, the SEZ protests had come from the affected farmers and landowners. The political class realized the `potential’ only when gram sabhas passed resolutions and put up their own resistance.

Incidentally, some politicians made quick balance sheets of farmers’ vote strength and the industry contributions and the complexion of the new SEZ population. Spontaneous protests came from Raigad (Maharashtra), Ekvira Zmin Bachao Andolan in Pune, Gujars and Jats in Dadri and several parts of Haryana. The magnitude of the rural storm in terms of voter power is really startling.

For Realiance’s Mumbai SEZ alone, acquisition notices have been issued to one lakh land owners. On this basis, the number of affected land owners for the already approved 280 SEZs will be 2.80 crores. Total vote strength of these families will be more than 8.5 crores. Adding the farm labour and other dependents, it is going to be a huge disgruntled block which no political party can ignore.

Incidentally, the first target of the farm protest has been the Left government in West Bengal where initially even the front partners joined the protests. Even the Congress Party has joined hands with Mamata against the Tata land purchase. The Brand Buddha had to retreat and new incentives were to be offered to the farmers and farm labour. In UP, the upsurge is both against the SEZs and Ambani’s power plant.

Raj Babbar’s Jan Morcha led by V.P. Singh and supported by such parties as the CPI, Ajit Singh, is competing with JD(U) president Sharad Yadav’s new front. Yadav has the support of Apna Dal and Akalis. Sonia Gandhi’s sudden fatwa on the SEZs has been the direct consequence of the popular ire in the poll-bound UP where Rahul Gandhi is set to lead the Congress.

Sharad Yadav has also contacted the Left and BJP for a wider national front against the SEZ misuse. He will organize a bandh on October 12. Medha Patkar is organizing a `JanAndolan’ under the banner of National Alliance of People’s Movements. A large number of intellectuals, including Arundhati Roy, attended her conclave.

The SEZ protests have raised certain valid questions. Why should the government acquire land at a cheap rate for private owned projects? How can the government prevent misuse of the land for multiplexes, malls, entertainment parks and housing complexs which have nothing to do with exports?

Can the farmers and farm labour expect jobs in the SEZs when more competent workers claim the posts under the competitive ambience? Lack of firm answers to such valid questions provide more grit to the protests.

Acknowledgment : , October, 14th, 2006