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Special Economic Zones — A takeover of coastal areas

Manju Menon

The proposed SEZ in Tadri, in Uttara Kannada, will hit hard the livelihoods of the villagers, who depend on the abundance of fish in the Aghanashini estuary for their survival.

THE Exim Policy of 2000 paved the way for what seems to be an industrial takeover of the country's coastline. Gujarat, Karnataka and Orissa have been working to get the Centre's approval for the creation of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) that are seen as a boon to a liberalising economy.

Recently, the Union Cabinet approved the proposal for a Central legislation for the establishment of SEZs. The government machinery certainly works with speed and efficiency in some cases. But when it comes to making changes in the Land Acquisition Act 1864, and finalising a national rehabilitation policy — urgent steps warranting immediate action by development planners — there has been practically no action.

These assume great importance as more and more tracts of land, primarily in tribal/rural areas and rich in biodiversity, are converted into revenue-garnering factories with their inhabitants pushed to the margins of well-being.

Many areas demarcated for development of SEZs also happen to be fragile ecosystems. These are the coastal areas, whose dynamic ecological nature and productivity are yet to be fully studied and appreciated.

The importance of the coasts was legally established when the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification (CRZ) was drawn up in 1991 under the Environment Protection Act, 1986. The CRZ notification lays down norms for safeguarding the sensitive coastal ecology, recognising that these areas form the livelihood base of thousands of traditional communities.

Unfortunately, the notification was amended in mid-2002 to allow for the establishment of SEZs, defying the very spirit of the law. This was despite the concerns raised by environmentalist and social activist groups including the National Fishworkers Forum and the Bombay Environmental Action Group.

State-level policy documents on SEZs may want to stimulate `more efficient use of local resources; but can end up affecting the coastal ecosystem. State governments too have been quick to identify coastal areas and lay out the red carpet for private investors. Investors are promised such support facilities as transport and communication, which include roads, ports and airstrips; as also health, educational and entertainment facilities.

The promotional advertisements almost always mention that the investors will not have to deal with such hassles as resistance from locals unwilling to give up their lands; and the livelihood of the local people and their age-old connections with the environment take the back seat.

For instance, the Industrial Development Corporation of Orissa (IDCO), an arm of the State government, declares in its communication that its `experience and expertise makes forestland alienation faster'. It also states that acquisition of land for industrial purpose is treated as being for `public purpose' and that the emergency clause of the Land Acquisition Act is used to speed up this process.

If indeed the `rights' of the coastal population are to be upheld, scarce land should not be handed over to private `external' parties and for purposes other than for residences and the livelihoods of traditional fishing and agricultural communities.

Allowing SEZs here often means land acquisition and conversion of land use with no commensurate benefits to the affected population and a loss of their livelihoods.

The Goa government plans to convert the whole of Pernem taluk into an SEZ. As part of this, plans for constructing an international airport at Mopa village in Pernem have been cleared. Also planned in the SEZ are a cyber city, a film city and institute, a fashion design centre, a central convention centre, and a jewellery exports unit. Looking at the possibilities of growth in tourism once the airport comes up, the State also plans to set up a recreation park — a Disneyland in South Goa!

The State government has not yet acquired land for the proposed airport, the Chief Minister has ordered the administration to `freeze the land' so that the owners do not enter into fresh deals with builders.

The Positra SEZ in Gujarat will take up 4,600 acres belonging to poor farmers to house textiles, chemicals, pharma, metallurgy and IT industries. The area where the SEZ is to come up is not vacant; it is home to some 18,000 people. Had it not been for a case filed by an NGO in the Gujarat High Court, the many villages would be long gone. The Court ordered that while all other work related to the SEZ could go on, the villagers were not to be displaced until the Resettlement and Rehabilitation scheme was approved by the State.

In Karnataka, SEZs are planned at Tadri in Uttara Kannada, Padubidri in Udupi, and Baikampady in Dakshina Kannada. Padubidri was where Cogentrix was to set up its power plant. The Barge Mounted Power Plant (BMPP) and the expansion of Tadri port have been, and continue to be, severely criticised by the local people for the negative social, economic and environmental impacts they can have.

Tadri is situated on the banks of the fertile and productive Aghanashini estuary and the villagers fear the fallout of such `development' on their rice-fields, salt-pans, fisheries, clam collection and mangrove diversity. Tadri, in fact, had a ship-breaking unit in the early 1990s. This was shut down under public pressure, on grounds of ecological damage, and is reflective of what the people of this area consider more important.

One of the key issues of setting up an SEZ is land. Often, some parcels of land allocated for the SEZs were acquired much earlier by a private party or the government for other purposes that did not fructify.

For instance, a large parcel of land in Orissa's Gopalpur was bought by a large business house for a steel plant. But that project did not come up and, therefore, the Vizag-Parwada-Anakapalle SEZ is to be established on that land.

The other important issue is that of impact assessment procedures. Only some of the projects proposed in the SEZs may come within the purview of Schedule I of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification, 1994.

These projects will have to comply with the conditions of organising a public hearing and allowing local people to voice their objections and suggestions about the project. Projects not falling in this schedule are assessed by the State government, and the clearance processes does not mandate a public hearing.

Instead of assessing the pollution load and other aspects of individual projects, it would make more sense to carry out the environmental and social impact assessment of an SEZ as assessing the cumulative impact is crucial.

Further, such an assessment should also be juxtaposed with carrying-capacity studies of the area. As per the Orissa and West Bengal policy documents on SEZs, the Town and Country Planning Act of an area will have no bearing on the SEZ.

These zones are to function as independent industrial township areas and they will not be under the Municipal Corporation, the gram panchayat or any other local body.

This is against the spirit of the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution, which give local bodies powers of self-governance.

These constitutional provisions were designed to allow the local people to have control over their socio-economic, environmental and political governance.

Associated with development of SEZs are golf courses and hotels at some places. These too have been allowed in the sensitive coastal areas that were protected under the CRZ regulation until the amendment of May 2002.

The CRZ amendment of May 21, 2002 states that "non-polluting industries in the field of information technology and other service industries in the Coastal Regulation Zone of Special Economic Zones (SEZ)" can be allowed.

It is not clear what exactly is covered under service industries, but to term them as non-polluting is absurd! Even IT is not a pollution-free sector. It accommodates people, generates wastes of various kinds, consumes resources and requires energy and infrastructure for its functioning.

In "First draft of SEZ legislation ready" (Business Line, August 22, 2002), the Commerce Secretary, Mr Deepak Chatterjee, was quoted as saying that his Ministry would hold extensive consultations with other Ministries as the proposed legislation would cover a number of existing pieces of legislation."

Hopefully, the other ministries will include Environment and Forests, Rural Development, and Tribal Welfare, and they will have something to say during these `consultations' to protect the constituencies they are responsible for.

(The author is associated with Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group, Pune.)

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