Nandigram in West Bengal, Maha Mumbai in Maharashtra, POSCO in Odisha, Reliance in Haryana, Mundra in Gujarat. These are but a few of the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) that have made headlines in the last decade. In its very short existence, the term SEZ has come to be associated with corruption, crony capitalism, coercion, land grabs, displacement, abuse of power, and resistance and social movements. It is possible that the actions and discourses generated by the SEZ Act, 2005 of the Central Government (distinct from the many State-level SEZ laws/policies) may have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back; the camel being the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 that had been used for over six decades in Independent India to convert millions of acres of agricultural land to non-agricultural use; that is, to transform the economic geography of the nation and turn a traditional, agricultural society into a semi-modern, semi-industrialized one.
There is a new law now, at least partly as a consequence of the implementation of the SEZ Act. This new law—the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013—is likely to prove unworkable and seriously damaging to urbanization and the provision of public goods and may need to be amended very soon. But such changes, when they happen, would provide strong support for one of the key arguments made in the book: that India’s SEZ policies (and by my extension, policy in India as a whole) is in a state of ‘permanent reform’. In this condition, the key actors in the political economy (agents of the state, private, and social sectors) are in continuous discourse, using the increasingly varied institutions that enable discourse, as a result of which policies (and even laws) are continuously adapted. An evolutionary biologist might be enthused by the survival potential of such an adaptable system but I wonder whether the biological metaphor has relevance for the development arena.
Before there was a new land acquisition act there was the SEZ Act that established ‘a legal framework for the creation of geographic areas governed by a distinct regulatory regime—where taxes and bureaucratic burdens on business activity, especially the development of export infrastructure, are substantially reduced’ (p. 3). In other words, the Act allowed the creation of spaces that behaved like ‘a country within a country’, ostensibly to surmount the difficulties of doing business in the ‘host country’. One can choose one’s biological metaphor: parasite or cancer, or anti-body or life-saving drug. Individual States created their own SEZ laws/policies, some before and some after the central act, and there was significant variation in these policies. These interstate variations also changed over time.
Power, Policy and Protest is, to my knowledge, the first substantive book that covers this ground. It is an edited volume with two introductory overview essays (one by all three editors and the other by Jenkins alone) and nine chapters covering 11 States, including most of the major States. This is a valuable book and the greatest source of value is the richness and detail of the State-level case studies which have been written by scholars and activists (the two aren’t mutually exclusive categories). Each case study is balanced and questioning (rather than ideological and hectoring), well thought, thorough and well- written, based on field research, informative, and often illuminating. The editing is flawless and the tonal cadence harmonious (with a few minor exceptions), so much so that the book could be passed off as the work of a single author. It is a pleasure to read. And it is a must-read on the state of the art of land acquisition in India. The focus on land acquisition in the book is so intense that it raises a large question: is the SEZ Act merely a device for land acquisition by another name? I return to this question at the end.
The primary finding of the book is that there is no primary finding. Though the SEZ Act is a central law, its implementation is at the State-level. There is so much variation at the State-level—not only between States, but within States—that it is difficult to pinpoint any single dominant pattern. Take, for instance, the common perception that SEZs have faced ‘problems’, almost without exception because of land acquisition. The evidence shows that the experience of land acquisition for SEZs goes from ‘hassle-free’ in ‘entrepreneur’s paradise’ Gujarat (covered by Manshi Asher), or relatively little ‘systematic resistance’ in a ‘politics of silence’ in Tamil Nadu (covered by M. Vijayabaskar), to near-impossible in West Bengal (covered by Partha Sarathi Banerjee) where land acquisition for any purpose is effectively suspended, or impossible in Goa (covered by Solano Jose Savio Da Silva) where the State’s SEZ policy has been revoked (but may not be quite dead yet).
In between are States where each SEZ of significant size is likely to generate its own narrative. The region around Delhi abounds with examples. In Haryana (covered by one of the editors, Loraine Kennedy), where several SEZs have been implemented without trouble, the Reliance SEZ has faced serious resistance, but in different forms at the district level in Gurgaon and Jhajjar. In Uttar Pradesh (covered by Sudha Pai and Avinash Kumar), one SEZ in Greater NOIDA proceeded with hiccups but to fruition, while another in Ghaziabad appears to have failed. If one sees an urban pattern in this, it’s misleading. In Karnataka (covered by Anjali Mody), the Mangalore SEZ near the coast ‘provoked conflict over land, the environment and…development…By contrast, the Suzlon SEZ, situated only 35 km away…was promoted by almost everyone’ (p. 204). Similarly, in Andhra Pradesh (covered by Karli Srinivasulu), ‘resistance has been partial and location-specific’ (p. 72).
The process of SEZ ‘death’ is also varied. Typically it is the decision, taken somewhere—by the State government or private promoters—that sufficient land cannot be acquired because it is too difficult or expensive. But how that decision is taken and who takes it remains mysterious. When does the State use its full police power, including bullets, and when does it not? Which cases drag on till the last possible day (till government mandated time deadlines are violated)? The most extreme case is of death by referendum, of the Maha Mumbai SEZ in Raigad district (covered by Rohit Mujumdar and Benita Menezes), the only such case so far, but likely to be joined by many more in years to come (because a referendum process has been written into the new land acquisition law).
The editors have not tried to identify patterns in these events—of SEZ promotion, land acquisition, ‘success’ or ‘resistance’, life or death, etc. Perhaps that is the wise thing to do. It may be foolhardy to seek patterns in this postmodern mosaic of many processes and paths and outcomes. Nonetheless, I cannot help thinking that an opportunity for a deeper understanding of the state in India may have been under utilized. The editors clearly recognize that this second-generation SEZ policy (after the first one that created Kandla, Falta, and other Export Processing Zones, the first in Asia) was inspired by China’s success with its SEZ policy, especially in Shenzhen. Critical to the success of Shenzhen was not only the ‘country within country’ spatial regime of capital-friendly incentives, but two other, possibly even more important factors. First: the economies of agglomeration/clustering and scale generated by massive new infrastructure investments in five, only five, SEZs. Second: the proximity of these five SEZs to existing location advantages; all on the coast, Shenzhen next to Hong Kong, Zhuhai next to Macao, etc.
India’s SEZ policy had no minimum land size requirement (for single product IT SEZs), or very small sizes like 50-100 hectares at the low end; nor was there any directive on location. As a result, in the first five years after the act, close to 600 SEZs were approved, with locations ranging from the edges of metropolises to deep rural lands. In other words: the SEZ policy in India borrowed the label but not the economic principles justifying the label. A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet, no doubt, but labelling a rock a rose wouldn’t make it produce any fragrance at all. It may not be unreasonable to argue that the ‘inspiration’ of China’s SEZs was a fig leaf; the primary intent of India’s SEZ policy was to help convert agricultural land to other uses. As a result, the politics of India’s SEZs are really the politics of land.
Sanjoy Chakravarty is Professor at the Department of Geography and Urban Studies, Temple University, USA and the author of The Price of Land: Acquisition, Conflict, Consequence, (OUP India, 2013).