The “Special Economic Zone” Debacle of the Left Front in West Bengal


Analytical Monthly Review, published in Kharagpur, West Bengal, India, is a sister edition of Monthly Review.  Its January 2007 issue features the following editorial. — Ed.

In an article entitled “Capital, Technology and Development,”1 Harry Magdoff, refuting the myth of bourgeois social science that capital and technology are the magic which will bring the entire world into the Garden of Eden, wrote:

Since the obstacles to successful capitalist development (in third world countries) are today so gigantic, the pursuit of industrialization inevitably involves the accumulation of capital at the expense of keeping the masses down.  Agriculture remains backward, investment is insufficient to cure unemployment in urban and rural areas, and wages are kept at pitifully low levels to provide adequate incentives for entrepreneurs.  Production decisions are, and must be, made to satisfy the desires of the middle-and upper-income sectors of the population, those that have the money to buy.  The technology introduced is the kind most favored by, and closely tied in with, foreign capital, since this is the technology best suited for profit-making and for squeezing into some of the interstices of foreign trade.  Brazil is an outstanding example of what I am referring to.  Brazil has been successful in taking a significant step forward in industrialization — one in which native capitalists have actively participated, along with foreign investors from a number of advanced capitalist states.  With what consequences?  The real wages of the working class have declined and the backward agricultural regions have remained stagnant and poverty-stricken.”

Today, thirty years later, every word rings true for India.

The global counter-revolution of these last thirty years has only added a more vicious aspect.  It is only in these last few decades that global trade and capital flows — as a share of world production and savings, respectively — have again risen to the scale of the prior imperialist golden age that preceded the First World War.  But this increased transnational dominance of the capitalist market (“globalization”) does not mean that national states — even those not of the imperial center — are becoming obsolete.  Rather, ruthless state actions associated with neo-liberalism, policies designed to enhance “competitiveness” and “flexibility,” not just for individual firms but for whole national economies, are required.

In India, the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) policy of the government, formulated in 2000, and brought fully into force in the SEZ act in February 2006, is a clear example of the brutal mobilization of the state for neo-liberal ends.  Supposedly based on a Chinese model, in fact the SEZ act goes far further — a complete capitulation to imperial capital.  It is sufficient to point out that the supposed Chinese “model” does not permit the sale of land to the corporate SEZ promoters and developers.  Until September 2006, the Board of Approvals committee of the Ministry of Commerce had approved 267 SEZ projects all over India.  Land area for each of these projects “deemed foreign territories” ranges from 1,000 to 14,000 hectares.  Developers of large, multi-product zones with a minimum area of 1,000 hectares are required to utilize only 25 per cent of the SEZ for industrial purpose.  The rest can be utilized for residential and shopping purposes, hotels, malls, and the other trappings of “development.”  Moreover, the developers have a completely free hand to allocate space and other facilities within the zone on a commercial basis, in short for real estate business.

It is estimated by some experts that in the first phase only, 375,000 acres of land will be required.  The well known historian Sumit Sarkar, an author of Khaki Shorts and Saffron Flag — A critique of Hindu Right (Delhi: Orient Longman, 1993), commented that “this is liable to create one of the greatest land grabs in modern Indian history.”  India has never before witnessed the coerced transfer of hundreds of thousands of hectares of agricultural land to private industry — and private real estate speculators.

Within the SEZ the trappings of Indian bourgeois democracy fade.  The central government’s “Development Commissioner” is delegated the powers of the labor commissioner.  All suits of civil cases and even specified criminal offenses that arise in the SEZ shall be tried in special courts.  These corporate Guantanamos also offer formidable fiscal “incentives”: exemption from custom duties, central excise duties, service tax, central sales taxes, and securities transaction tax to both the developers and the units; and tax holidays for fifteen years, including one hundred per cent income tax exemption for ten years of the fifteen for SEZ developers.

And at the root of this gigantic theft is the seizure of the land for these global capitalist profit zones from the cultivators through state coercion via the British colonial Land Acquisition Act.  Even “consensual” transfers are therefore coerced, since use of the Land Acquisition Act looms behind the shoulder of the governmental “negotiator.”

It should be no surprise then that there has been a great rush to create SEZs in the year since the act was passed.

Into the situation created by this initiative of Chidambaram & Co. the Left Front government of West Bengal has, spectacularly, blundered.  Arrogant from a triumph in an election in which it had attempted to project the supposed success of its model of capitalist industrial development, it was blind to the rising anger of the cultivators targeted to be displaced for profit.  What followed was the ruthless use of the coercive power of para-military forces, police, cadre, administrative and legal apparatus; all to drive thousands of peasants and share-croppers off a thousand hectares of agricultural land for the benefit of . . . the Tatas.  The resulting debacle at Singur saw the worst enemies of the Left Front, the Hindutva fascists and their ally Mamata, posturing in the world media as the friends and leaders of the oppressed.  Fortunately, the extra-parliamentary left (and the SUCI) did not permit the fascists to seize this position by default, but damage has been done.

What then is now at stake for the left parliamentary parties of the West Bengal Left Front?  Throughout India, Singur-like scenes are brewing.  In Maharashtra alone, 70 SEZs will be set up, and 31 of these SEZs will be in the Konkan region alone.  Almost everywhere, landholding peasants, along with ryots [subsistence farmers], pattadars [leaseholders], sharecroppers, agricultural workers, and other affected people are preparing for battle to resist land grabbing.  Protests are going on in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, in the face of atrocities by the state.  In Haryana and Punjab, the farmers are out on the field against the acquisition of multi-cropped fertile land tilled for years.  Protests are now spreading to Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamilnadu, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Assam.  Orissa, which witnessed continuous and brave resistance of the people against indiscriminate land-grabbing by the state government on behalf of foreign and domestic mining corporations for the last few years, is now boiling with new vigor against the projects of POSCO, VEDANTA, Tata Steel, and proposed SEZs.  Shall the Left Front parties now stand everywhere before the people of India as the open advocates of the coerced displacement of the agricultural poor in the interests of capitalist profit?

As of now, the Left Front government had “succeeded” in driving the Singur residents off the land and establishing a fenced perimeter defended by armed police.  After Singur, a notice of land acquisition for an SEZ project by Salim group of Indonesia (a Suharto-connected crew), to be spread over 10,000 acres, set off protests in Nandigram, East Modnapore.  The death of six villagers was reported as clashes broke out.  Further West Bengal land acquisition by government for SEZ private profit, in the first phase, has no fewer than 28 projects with total land to be acquired of approximately 105,000 acres, spread across the entire state.  How many more such “successes” as Singur can the Left Front survive?  To continue on this course is suicidal.

In Nandigram and other targeted communities, cultivators, sharecroppers and agriculture laborers have begun to organize themselves, excluding all cadre of the parliamentary parties.  And, indeed, none of the parties has opposed the model of development that the ruling classes have adopted.  A new force from below in embryonic form is in the making.

1  Monthly Review 27(8), 1-11 (1976).

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