Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2008 > April 26, 2008 > Locational Disadvantage

Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 19

Locational Disadvantage

Sunday 27 April 2008, by Sheetal Sharma

By now discussing advantages and disadvan-tages of establishing Special Economic Zones (SEZs) is nothing new. What is new is that what was being discussed so far in theory and debates has now started to show its consequences in reality. Here is one instance. Pelpa is a small village in Jhajjar district in Haryana bordering Delhi and Gurgaon. A little more than a year ago hundreds of acres of land, belonging to the landed in Pelpa and neighbouring villages, was acquired by the State Government to facilitate a private company set up an SEZ. The landed have been paid ‘compensation’ for acquisition of the land. Since then the socio-economic character of the village has undergone radical transformation. Pelpa, hitherto a typical North Indian rural settlement with agriculture as primary occupation and source of income to most of its residents, is now a hamlet of gaping oppositions—ebullient nouveau-riche and jobless landless labourers. Those who once owned acres of green farmland now own hefty bank balances. The property-rich and cash-poor have overnight become cash-rich and property-poor. How long will the two, money and its current owners, stay together is debatable but with abundant money, the once landed have surely been exposed to a style of living that money alone can buy. The nouveau-riche is intent at enjoying every luxury—of the ilk of gyms, fitness centers, public school education, exorbitant weddings, shopping at malls, swanky cars, SUVs, multi-storied palatial houses, latest gadgets, booze at pubs—that money can procure. Parvenus strut around the rural landscape with arrogant airs and ostentatious lifestyles. Not everyone was a landowner in this village. The life of landless people and weaker sections, who worked on these fields as daily wagers, has become worse after the land acquisition. The farmland was not only the source of income and occupation for landless families but was a source of fodder for their cattle as well. Gainful employment and procuring ‘chara’, that is, green fodder, for cattle has become one of the major problems in daily routine as the SEZ land is out of bound for these people. Previously, though the land was privately owned, it still had a liberal symbiotic relationship with all its villagers. With due respect to the cultivated crops, the landless and peasants had a kind of moral, if not legal, right to shear fodder for the livestock and procure bathua saag for the evening rotis. The symbiosis had the baggage of history for its peaceful longevity and vibrancy. Now with land everything, including the cultural practices the mutual interdependence and the holism so typical of the Indian social set-up, is gone as there is no work or source of income for most of the people—especially the landless. With little left for natives in the village there is no option other than to sell their livestock and look for employment elsewhere. People are forced to abandon their meagre belongings and migrate to neighbouring towns like Delhi and Gurgaon. But with little or no education or metro-friendly knowledge, skills or attitude, life for them is not likely to be easy in these cities obsessed with individualisation and upward mobility. This is true for many such ‘Pelpas’ all over India—from Singur, Nandigram, Rajgir to Jhajjar and Goa. Emanating from such Pelpas there are a couple of issues calling for serious attention.

To begin with, why establish these SEZs in States like Haryana that not only have one of the highest per capita income and standard of living, as economists like to call it, in the country but also compare with the best in the world in terms of agricultural productivity? It is often humoured, not just for rhyme alone but for good reason as well, that the only culture that Haryana has is agriculture! Nearly 80 per cent population of the State is, directly or indirectly, engaged in agricultural activities. Haryana ranks second in foodgrain production in the country and ranks first in production of rapeseed and mustard. The State contributes about 45 lakh tones of foodgrains to the Central pool annually, besides meeting its own requirements. About 86 per cent of the area in Haryana is arable, and of this 96 per cent is cultivated. About 75 per cent of cultivated land is well irrigated through an extensive system of canals and tubewells. Agricultural land, as we know, is a non-replenishable and non-replaceable resource. What a colossal waste of resource it would be to turn this fertile chunk into concrete! Moreover, fertile agricultural land has been the cultural and socio-economic heritage for generations of landowners and landless people in rural India. Closely-knit social institutions of villages form the fundamental structure of the Indian social milieu that has survived for centuries on this source of income and occupation. But soon this heritage would fade out of our memories. One stroke of applied logic of industrialisation would wipe out the history of generations. The future generations of these areas are likely to be ‘dislocated classes’ of (un/semi-) skilled labour searching for jobs in the callous industrial world. The ‘poorly-planned’ measures to accelerate growth are jeopardising agriculture making things hard for the landowners and the landless, by forcing farmers to abandon farming, relocate themselves, breaking down traditional social structures and making way for gigantic projects in which they may not have any stake.

In an attempt to circumvent some of the felt and anticipated consequences of establishing SEZs on agricultural land, the government decided to locate these zones on wastelands. But the government’s decision to locate SEZs on wastelands has already begun to open up a plethora of problems for the landless and local populace who are heavily dependent on these so-called wastelands as in the case of Pelpa. In Pelpa, because of the proposed SEZ, people have started facing the misery that (un)mindful industrialisation is causing. This land locally termed as bani, charagah, banjar, jungle, gaucher, jhoond, padit bhomi etc. is the prime source for timber, fuel, fodder non-timber forest produce, herbs, bamboo, straw etc. villagers and is the grazing ground for cattle. What we label as wasteland from the urban and industrial perspective has multiple utility especially for the landless people inhabiting rural areas.

HOWEVER, the question is: if neither agricultural land nor wastelands then where do we find place for SEZs? How do we keep the momentum of industrialisation and associated growth and development going? The answer partially lies in planning the course of development. The process of development should attempt to eliminate inequality and ensure all-encompassing growth and development instead of being selective and myopic in approach. Ideally industrialisation and development should aim at ameliorating the regional imbalances. India exhibits stark regional inequalities in terms of the parameters to measure industrial development and growth. The policy adopted on SEZs is feeding the already well-fed areas. SEZs in close vicinity of cities and metros like Delhi, Gurgaon and Mumbai may not contribute much to their existing pace of development. Instead of ensuring good for these regions the current move is disturbing the prevailing equilibrium that socio-economic structures have attained over time. Envisaging SEZs in areas such as Haryana would cause a setback to agriculture and the rural economy. It would lead to immature invasion of serene rural units and their disconnected integration into cities leading to a new set of problems. Without necessarily compromising on the pace and need for development of industry, these SEZs can be planned in areas which are not as fertile as the Northern Indian plains of Haryana, Punjab and UP. Resources and efforts for industrialisation could be directed towards development of a particular category of land in remote areas that are ecologically less significant, agriculturally less productive, farther from the village hinterland, thinly populated, and have comparatively fewer social and environmental implications. Some of these areas even exist in the form of semi-developed, dying or abandoned spread all over India. A thrust on infrastructure development, provision of power, reviving industry and real estate management would resurrect life in these areas benefiting the local community and eliminating regional imbalances. Some of these towns are sick industrial townships or parts in major cities such as Kalyani, Modinagar, Rourkela, Durgapur, Asansol, Mumbai, Kanpur, Howrah, Allahabad and Sholapur. As necessary evils they can be planned and executed in areas having least ecological and social cost. As the recent opposition and subsequent decision to scrap 11 SEZs in Goa has shown, the issues have emotional overtones for the indigenous people that have underpinnings of respect for the cultural and environmental heritage of the diversity that India is. It also, to a greater degree, takes care of regional imbalances in terms of prosperity and poverty. The latter has socio-political implications for the country as a single political entity. The case of influx of people from UP, Bihar and other poor areas of North India and its vehement opposition by regional, often parochial, parties and individuals like the MNS and Thackerays is current. It makes strong economic sense for any business house to locate their industry on account of locational advantage thrown in terms of inertia, skilled manpower, law and order, infrastructure and market. The idea has to provide this advantage and benefits of economic growth to areas that are hitherto untouched and are a reflection of state apathy and lack of attention. There is no dearth of such places either.

Rapid industrialisation and urbanisation, especially in the last decade, has contributed to growth. However, in the light of the prevailing social and institutional context of the nation, we cannot emulate the models of development of the developed world without modifications. As popularly seen and believed, tradition and modernity, manifesting itself in the form of science, technology and industrial development here, are not rivals. They can very well coexist without endangering the continuity of the other. Before it causes an irreparable damage we need to adopt a cautious approach towards development that does justice to both rather than one at the cost of the other. What the experience and anthropo-economic scholarship has taught is that although the whole concept continues to be debatable, with debates hinging on expedient development versus people-centric environmentally sensitive growth, means versus ends, regarding their need and viability but the manner in which the land for these zones has been acquired militates against the principles of democratic values and the concept of partnership and participant decision-making that are the very cornerstone of our national industrial policy, social organisation and have been the fountainhead of the building of the Indian nation through the struggle for independence. It is high time that independence and equality in economic, social and cultural domains catch up with the envious freedom and equality every Indian has in the political arena. Not only should the state not pauperise many to ensure prosperity for a few, the locational aspect has to factor in the social implications, ecological impact and regional economic and HDI imbalances. The scope for the role of extraneous considerations has to be significantly and systematically minimised, if it is not possible to be done away with altogether.

Dr Sheetal Sharma is an Assistant Professor, Centre for European Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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