SEZs — Stop the runaway train
The concept is a dangerous force that aligns self-interest in a particularly intense manner
I wrote an article in this publication a few weeks ago that was critical of Special Ecomomic Zones (SEZs). Among the responses were a surprising number from professionals in the corporate sector — those who were involved in working on SEZs. And their sentiments were deeply disturbing: without exception, the common refrain was that the SEZ idea was a runaway train, and that it was using the singular, concentrated force of greed and self-interest to rip open the land market in the country.
An executive from one of the big four consulting firms told me:
“I advice my clients on succeeding in being a part of these SEZs, but I am selling my soul.”
Another lawyer said: “Unfortunately, it’s the biggest money-making opportunity we have ever seen.”
A senior IT industry executive said: “I agree that it’s a land scam, and it shouldn’t be happening. But we ourselves are bidding for them, because we can’t be left behind. I have my shareholders’ interests to protect — they would tell me, ‘You want to be Gandhi, don’t do it on our money’”. So much for Munnabhai.
Shenzhen, arguably among the most ‘successful’ of China’s SEZs, raises more questions than answers for us. A sampling: “The costs to the state for developing Shenzhen will not be recaptured until probably the second decade of the 21st Century. The size of the net loss was projected in 1990 to be US $131 billion by 2003.” (Wu, China’s Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, 1990).
“Early on, manufacturing took on the most important focus. The following few years saw more real estate speculation than industrial development. Speculation in the property market has been ‘little short of anarchic’” (Studwell, Unlocking China: A Key to Investment Regions). I looked up the list of countries that have SEZs: Brazil, China, Hong Kong, Kazhakstan, Leichtenstein, Monaco, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, Sri Lanka. I thought of India’s buzzword in Davos 2006, when we made the big splash — “The world’s fastest growing democracy”.
Examine our august SEZ company when it comes to this qualifier: there is not one mature, functioning democracy in that list—with Kazhakstan, we are really scraping the bottom of the barrel. So have we reduced democracy to a tagline now? There is an old proverb— “cross the river by feeling the stones”, meaning, do it carefully. As we gingerly tread the path to economic prosperity, our democracy is what is holding us together. We do have a system of checks and balances—however inefficient it may seem to an outsider or a layman.
Clearly, there is an urgent national economic imperative, especially given our demographics, and what seems like an opportunity to capitalise on the current momentum. But we are also beginning to slowly rip apart into two countries, with the naxalite movement spreading across more than 30% of the districts.
There is an 85-km barrier fence with check-points that separates Shenzhen SEZ from the rest of Shenzhen municipality. Is this what we want our cities to look like, walled-off economic fortresses? These boundaries will become the contested terrain of conflict between the two Indias, one globalised and competitive, the other left behind, with no tools to participate and only the rage of disaffection. This is besides other distortions, like the the use of fertile agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes, or skewed spatial planning outcomes.