A panel of six visiting Indian MPs, all members of the India-US Forum of Parliamentarians, broadly agreed on Wednesday that Special Economic Zones (SEZ) were a good idea, but the concept was being implemented poorly.
Addressing a meeting of the Asia Society in New York, BJ Panda, Rajya Sabha MP from the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) said there was "a debate over SEZs and we are right in the middle of it." There is a consensus building process going on but the consensus has not been reached, he admitted.
Each MP seemed to have a different reason to support the SEZ policy. Panda spoke about the job opportunities that would be created. Suresh Prabhu, Shiv Sena Lok Sabha member, said the SEZs would help India rejuvenate its "world infamous" infrastructure. Robert Kharshiing, Meghalaya Rajya Sabha member of the Nationalist Congress Party, said India needed to migrate its farmers into factories and this was one way to do so.
After a token mention of the finance ministry’s concerns about tax losses, everyone agreed the main political headache about the SEZs was what to do with the people who would be moved off the land.
Dinesh Trivedi of the Trinamool Congress gave an impassioned speech about the human costs of the Tata Motors plant being set up in Singur. "The SEZs are about us adopting a China model. Should we adopt Tiananmen as well? This is what we see in West Bengal," he told his surprised audience. After describing farmers being beaten and threatened, he surprised his audience further by promptly admitting Singhur was not an SEZ at all.
Congressman Sachin Pilot, Congress Lok Sabha member from Rajasthan, attacked the SEZ policy more violently than the opposition MPs on the panel. Claiming they had become cesspools of corruption and speculation, he said, "SEZs are just about real estate."
Clearly irritated at the political messiness of the SEZs, he asked rhetorically, "Why can’t the private companies buy the land themselves? Why does the government have to do it?" On this point, even Panda supported him.
The Orissa parliamentarian reassuringly laid out how his government had persuaded the roughly 1000 people being moved to make way for the $ 12 billion Posco steel plant in Orissa to give up their land: money for the land, a job for each family, an equity stake in the steel plant and free technical education. "There is light at the end of the tunnel in my state. We need to get a couple of successes to get the SEZ model right."
Citing examples of how the SEZ policy had been abused – "there were companies who were given clearance to buy forest land in 48 or 72 hours" – Kharshiing nonetheless said, "The policy will go ahead, but with certain modifications."
BJP Rajya Sabha MP, Ajay Maroo, after noting that his state of Jharkhand had only one SEZ of 36 acres, largely kept silent.
Trivedi provided several more harrowing tales of torture and mayhem in his state before declaring, "Please come and invest in West Bengal." The session thus closed with the audience of largely financiers and businessmen guffawing loudly.