New Delhi: Corporate India is still in for a tough fight regardless of a government decision this week to push ahead with Chinese-style business-friendly enclaves, rights activists say.
Championed by New Delhi as key to luring foreign investors, Special Economic Zones (SEZs) have already sparked violent protests by furious farmers who say their land is being bulldozed by an ‘economic miracle´ they have no stake in.
Dozens of demonstrators have already been shot dead in protests over the last two years, and activists say the body count will rise further.
“It seems India is faced with a choice -- between democracy and 10% (annual) economic growth,” author and prominent anti-globalisation activist Arundhati Roy told AFP.
“I would like to ask the government how many dead bodies per acre of SEZ would be tolerable for a country that says it is a democracy,” said the 1997 Booker Prize winner, now one of the country’s most vocal rights campaigners.
The government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh -- which came to power three years ago on a pro-poor ticket -- has championed the enclaves as the key to spurring employment and infrastructure growth in the short term and maintaining blistering economic growth figures over the long run.
For foreign firms and Indian conglomerates, the SEZs are certainly tempting: they promise a way out of the country’s notoriously slow and corrupt bureaucracy and its spirit-crushing tax system.
Opponents, however, say the government is merely sidelining the still-crucial farm sector -- stealing labour and prime land from a sector which employs more than 60% of the Indian workforce and generates over a fifth of India’s gross domestic product.
Big business, they also complain, will also be skirting environmental and worker protection laws.
“We want the SEZ act to be scrapped,” said Sandeep Pandey, an activist with the National Alliance for People’s Movement.
“The due process of democracy is being bypassed. It will be the private companies who will make profits.”
After police shot dead 14 demonstrators in West Bengal state during an attempt at forced land acquisition in March, the SEZ approvals process was frozen and a review promised.
But on Tuesday, the government approved 24 new zones and gave a preliminary green light for nine others -- even though the question of how companies can acquire land and how much they should pay remains unresolved.
In all, more than 100 SEZ projects have been formally cleared, with 150 requests pending.
Activists said the anti-SEZ protests are now poised to change from isolated demonstrations to a potentially violent coordinated national movement.
“We have decided to form an all-India coordinating network of resistance,” another anti-SEZ activist, Sumit Choudhury, said ahead of a meeting of campaigners in West Bengal’s state capital Kolkata this weekend.
The struggle, he promised, would be “tooth and nail.”
“We will use all forms of protest starting with non-violent means to armed struggle if necessary. And the campaign will be extended across India if necessary.”
For anti-SEZ campaigners there is some room for compromise, albeit involving more bureaucracy -- precisely the thing the government has been trying to steer clear of as it tries to arm the country with some elusive industrial muscle.
“The people must be consulted as is the case in all democracies,” Choudhury said. “So the approvals must be sought from village and district committees, going upwards.”