New Delhi: The government promised on 19 March to “refine” its controversial policy to set up special economic zones, a week after 14 people trying to stop the compulsory purchase of their land were killed by police.
“The SEZ policy will be refined in consultation with the state government, the farmers who own the land and industrialists,” Home Minister Shivraj Patil was quoted as saying.
Protesters in Nandigram — a village 120 km south of Kolkata — were killed on 14 March when police opened fire in the bloodiest demonstration yet against state government plans to buy land to set up the zones.
The killings led to a one-day general strike in West Bengal where Nandigram, the proposed site for a chemical industry hub backed by Indonesia’s Salim group, is located.
Patil told reporters the government has an “open mind” on the policy of setting up SEZs. The comments suggest the policy will undergo more consultations but will not be reversed in the light of the protests.
The zones are meant to be privately run enclaves with world-class infrastructure and tax breaks to attract foreign investment.
The West Bengal government last week ordered police to break a blockade by villagers at Nandigram which had been a no-go area for authorities since 11 people died in protests there against SEZs in January.
The unrest in January led the federal government to suspend plans for scores of SEZs, and last week’s violence prompted West Bengal’s ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) to announce the proposed Nandigram zone would be scrapped.
In New Delhi, parliament adjourned several times on 19 March over the Nandigram shootings, with opposition MPs trooping into the well of the house and demanding regular business be set aside for a special debate on the killings.
Repeated requests by the speakers of both houses of parliament for order fell on deaf ears, with Hindu nationalist lawmakers calling the West Bengal administration and Congress-led government at the Centre “anti-farmer.”
After parliament adjourned, opposition leader Lal Krishna Advani threatened to stall proceedings again on 20 March if the government did not agree to a special discussion.
The violence in Nandigram has renewed debate over whether farmland should be used for industry in India, where some two-thirds of the billion-plus population live off agriculture.
The protests have piled pressure on the government to review its policy on SEZs, 14 of which are in operation so far.
Their creation under a 2005 law passed by parliament was hailed as one of the biggest spurs for industrial expansion in post-independence India, and was inspired by the tax-free zones China set up a quarter of a century ago that helped propel its rapid growth.