`A trigger for social unrest'

Published : Oct 20, 2006 00:00 IST



Interview with former Prime Minister V.P. Singh.

FORMER Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh is one of the first political leaders to highlight the potential problems posed by the manner in which the concept of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) is advanced by the UPA government. He and his colleagues in the Jan Morcha have consistently campaigned against the SEZ policy. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

The acquisition of land for SEZs and the consequent displacement of populations have been constant themes in your campaigns. But the Prime Minister is on record as saying that SEZs have come to stay.

This is indeed a peculiar assertion. I wish the Prime Minister would also clarify how the SEZs would stay. At what cost and under what parameters? Is it that the SEZs have come to stay and farmers and farm labour have to go? If that is the policy direction and that is the governance priority, let me also state that the SEZs might stay, but those who are promoting them in this manner will have to go [out of office]. I may sound harsh while saying this, but I am not in the least diffident about it. Village after village is being appropriated. In every village, there is 25 to 30 per cent labour. Where will they go? There is no rehabilitation for them. The current promotion of SEZs is unjust and would act as a trigger for massive social unrest, which may even take the form of armed struggles.

But there is an Act passed by Parliament to facilitate the promotion of SEZs.

My point is that this promotion [of SEZs] is completely skewed. The Finance Ministry has expressed reservations that it would cause a revenue loss of Rs.90,000 crores, the Reserve Bank of India has questioned the tax concessions being granted to SEZ projects and the big Pope of globalisation and liberalisation, the International Monetary Fund [IMF] has also raised its voice against the way things are being advanced. And, of course, farmers across the country are agitating against the virtual confiscation of their land. Even leaders of the government such as Sonia Gandhi and Sharad Pawar, have advised caution in the promotion of SEZs. It is clear from all this that the SEZ Act cannot be pushed forward in the current form.

Our demand is that in this situation there should be a six-month moratorium on the implementation of the policy. In this period, there should be a national referendum on it and finally the government should come out with detailed guidelines on how the Act can be implemented. Our suggestion is that there should be a regulatory authority for framing the guidelines and monitoring the implementation. The authority should include representatives of farmers' organisations and social activists because the virtual confiscation of agricultural land without paying adequate compensation is a central feature of the SEZ promotion. This has created a situation where the government is acting as the muscle man of corporate powers to usurp the land of farmers. The government is virtually forcing the farmers to subsidise industry.

The advocates of the SEZ policy are of the view that such subsidising may be required to build up infrastructure.

Even accepting that for the sake of argument, why is it that this subsidising is confined only to land? Building infrastructure requires cement too, but why is the government not acquiring cement from the Birlas at subsidised rates and handing it over to the SEZ developers? And why not impose similar subsidy parameters on developers of hi-tech cities? But all that we are seeing is the systematic and merciless grabbing of farmers' land rights in the name of development.

Development is, of course, required. But if you say that to promote development the basic rights of lakhs and lakhs of people have to be denied, if you say that the interests of corporates have to be advanced at the cost of farmers, that is not acceptable. And all this is being done in the name of market economy. The essence of market economy is freedom of choice for the buyer and the seller; to sell or not to sell or to buy or not to buy, everything depends on individual choice. That choice is being denied to one party in the way the SEZs are currently being pushed.

You talked about framing guidelines for SEZs. What, according to you, would be these guidelines?

To start with, if the entire initiative is based on market economy let it be ruled and guided by the actual operative mechanisms of market economy. That is, let it operate as it should. Let the SEZ developers negotiate with the farmers directly and arrive at a mutually agreeable compensation.

That is, no appropriation using the government's might. Secondly, let there be a clear affirmation that fertile land or land with double crop would not be given to SEZs. Sonia Gandhi and Sharad Pawar have talked on these lines but let them make it the law of the land. And most importantly, let the farmers and their families get not only jobs in the prospective SEZ firms but also a proprietary stake in them. Let there be an inclusive approach and not an exclusive one.

The UPA leadership has indicated a readiness to accept some of these suggestions, especially in the background of Sonia Gandhi's statement at the Nainital conclave of Congress Chief Ministers.

I consider the statement at the Nainital conclave very inadequate. What is the point in merely cautioning Chief Ministers of Congress-ruled States that they have to be careful while acquiring agricultural land? Such sermonising and advising have no value on their own. The advice is given to Congress Chief Ministers, so does it mean that non-Congress Chief Ministers can act the way they want? If the Congress were serious about the issue, it would have passed a resolution suggesting changes in the SEZ Act. Statements acquire real merit when they are followed up by concrete steps in legal and administrative sectors.

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