Wednesday, January 17, 2007

On why Goa needs no SEZ

I’d like to address the issue of whether Goa needs Special Economic Zones (SEZ). For those who have not yet heard the news, there are a good number of SEZ planned for Goa. As of now we know for a fact that the Goa State has leased over 900 acres of land to four companies who have been approved as developers of SEZ. Let us concern ourselves with the extent of land as of now, even though there are other as important issues as well. For example that this amount of land, is even more than what the Central Board of Approval for SEZ had approved, and that much of the acquisition of land precedes even the approval of the SEZ.

What is the logic of the SEZ formula? The logic simply put is that India- and by that implication Goa- is a developing country and needs to catch up with the industrialized and developed west. Since it does not have the resources to invest in infrastructure all over the country, it provides a special area for a few industries, which then operate as the push factor, pulling up the surrounding regions along with them. India even before Independence has been imagined as this vast country, full of starving illiterate farmers, a country with little or no basic infrastructure. This is a serious national self-image problem, and one that has been internalized by its leaders and policy-makers. This allows then for the country to create such schemes that are designed to bring pieces of the West into India, to operate by their own laws, so that we can then emulate these islands of prosperity and be pushed into development. That this idea is wholly disrespectful of the intelligence and desires of the people we shall leave be for the moment. What I would like to draw attention to are the facts of Goa. Goa has a decent infrastructure and a rather high standard of living, even though there are pockets within it that need more attention. Goa in no way measures up to the image of a starving, infrastructure-less land. Quite clearly the economic and policy remedy for Goa is not the SEZ but something that is tailored to the local conditions.

The SEZ policy also rests on another logic; that the citizens are stupid and illiterate, have no idea of modernity and need the wisdom of some enlightened bureaucrat to help them get out of poverty and into modernity. Now quite clearly Goa does not fall into this category at all. If anything, Goa has the most vibrant civil society and political sphere in the country, where every issue is subjected to the minutest public analysis. Goa has had a system of Panchayat Raj (however restricted it may have been) since before the Constitution of India was in force. This has laid the foundation for the noisy and contested Gram Sabhas which though we may dislike them, are indicators of a conscious citizenry. In such is the case, why then do we need to have these Special Zones set up which disrespect entirely the demands of the Indian constitution that the local self Governments have a larger say in the administration of the country? The SEZ legislation envisages a single window clearance system for industries within these zones. What this translates to is a bureaucratic office over-eager to please and willing to disregard every law and regulation that has been set in place. The SEZ are also exempt for local taxes and fees. Take a look at the wealthy Panchayat of Sancoale. The source of its income is the industrial estate located on the hill above it. In the case of Sancoale, the Panchayat can take up matters of concern and also benefit economically from the location of industries within its jurisdiction. All of this because it has control over the land on which the estate is located. In the case of villages whose land will be annexed for the SEZ however, they can kiss any dreams of wealth from rightfully owed taxes goodbye. All they can hope for is the possibility of jobs that may or may not come to them.

And this is another issue that we need to address. The SEZ does not cater to existing local problems of unemployment or lack of industry. It caters to the interests of big capital and profit-making. As such, it is not going to be a carefully tailored solution to local crises, but create huge amount of jobs, that will require labour from outside the State. Goa and Goans are not closing the doors of their State, but surely we need to realize that what the SEZ policy is doing is merely displacing problems from one part of the country to another. This smacks of another type of internal colonialism, one of the country, by the country, for the interests of global capital.

No sir, Goa does not require the SEZ. While it requires more industry and employment opportunities t the method of achieving this must be one that respects not just the Goan citizen, but also the local dynamics of the problem. We already have a thriving tourist industry how do we internally regulate it to make it yield more to Goans so that they have a desirable job option within the State? How can we improve the local transport system so that we can have people move frequently within the State, creating not only jobs in transportation, but job options within the State? How can we invest in infrastructure that will improve quality of life for the local, and also have the local service this infrastructure? The solution to all of these lies not in the ill-conceived idea of the SEZ, but in a developmental policy that is genuinely dialogical and respectful of the local and one that can emerge out of the Panchayati Raj system which is perfectly suited to this objective.

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 17 Jan 2007)

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