Thursday, April 30, 2009

Neoliberalism and Popular Resistance in India

This was a draft for a speech to be delivered at Toronto, during the South Asian Peoples' Unity Conference, 23-26 April, 2009. I spoke only about SEZs, and I talked about Lalgarh, not covered here).

Comrades and friends,
I am glad that I can speak here, in a gathering that includes Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis and Nepalis. In South Asia, internationalism is a very necessary sentiment, with most of our governments doing their best to turn our attention away from class conflicts to patriotism and hatred of the enemy outside the border, or the internal enemy (the Muslim in India, the Tamil in Sri Lanka). Yet the neoliberal attack has been a devastating one for us, our economies, especially for our workers and peasants. The Indian economy, touted as far better than the economies of the neighbouring countries, gives ample evidence of the destructions caused by neoliberalism. The overall attacks of neoliberalism have been disastrous, and I can speak about only one small corner of it. Today, we read that we had a socialist economy that had slowed down our growth. Well, what we really had was a state-aided capitalist development, necessary because Indian capitalism did not have enough resources and did not want the profits to go to foreign capital. But it is true, that certain concessions had to be given to workers and peasants, for a complex of reasons. In the name of getting rid of outmoded socialism, those few gains of the toilers are being steadily destroyed. I could provide statistics. Let me instead make just a few points. Malaria has been staging a big come back. Famines are back and the general PDS has been replaced by targeted PDS that leaves a large part of the population in total food insecurity. Fighting the dead socialist past has meant reducing the tax burden of the rich and the super rich, (one estimate of such cuts is, a loss of 1.7 trillion rupees due to tax cuts for SEZs).
The years 1989-91 saw a disoriented left, shaken by the crisis and collapse of the bureaucratized regimes of East Europe, the Tien An Men Square massacre, and the crisis of the USSR, failing to resist this turn strongly. While a number of mass organizations led by left parties did come together, to resist the onset of neoliberalism, this was brought to a halt by the end of 1992 using a line of political argument that is often called popular frontism. Resisting fascism after the Babri Masjid destruction, we were told, means prioritizing secularism over anti-neoliberalism. This ended up in disorienting the workers and peasants and could not halt the growth of Hindutva forces, who were the dominant partners in the NDA, ruling till 2004.
The 2004 elections saw not only a decline of the BJP votes, but defeats for many of the most fervent advocates of neoliberalism, whether the TDP in Andhra or the Congress in Madhya Pradesh. The left, not so much for what it did but for what it said – that it would oppose neoliberalism – received its highest ever number of seats in the parliament: 61 out of 542. After the elections, however, once more in the name of stopping fascism, the left agreed to support a Congress led government, the United Progressive Alliance, and it finally broke with the UPA not over its economic policies, but over the Indo-US nuclear deal.
One aspect of the neoliberal offensive in the present decade has been the push for Special Economic Zones or SEZs. This has three significant dimensions for India’s working people, and the environment. Ever since globalization began, there has been a clamour for changes in labour laws, so that hiring and firing can be a smooth process. This is supposed to help the workers too. Resistance by trade unions and the left parties has made it difficult to enforce as ‘”radical” a set of changes as the employers would like. SEZs are one way of tackling that.
The name and the concept were borrowed directly from the Chinese.
An SEZ is a development zone with state guarantee for the infrastructure, a series of fiscal and non-fiscal incentives, removal of bureaucratic hassles. The SEZ will be a duty free enclave, treated as foreign territory for the purposes of trade operations and duties and tariffs. The state government must commit that the area of the proposed SEZ is free from environmental restrictions, that water, electricity and other services would be provided as required, that the units would be given full exemption in electricity duty and tax on sale of electricity for self generated and purchased power; that there would a wide range of exemption of state level taxes on the supply of goods from Domestic Tariff Area to SEZ units; and that the units will be declared a Public Utility Service under Industrial Disputes Act, which makes calling a strike all but impossible. The union government will allow 100% Foreign Direct Investment, massive income tax benefit for any block of 10 years in 15 years, exemption from Service Tax/Central Sales Tax; and granting a series of further facilities. According to government propaganda, the 130 SEZs notified so far will provide an additional 17,43,530 jobs. In fact, with the exception of SEZs in the IT sector, basically there will be, and is being, a transfer of jobs from industries outside the SEZs. Relatively better paid workers lose the jobs, and the same job then migrates to the SEZ, where there is greater exploitation, no union rights, and often oppression comparable with early industrialization. The violence at Gurgaon, where a CEO was killed, was widely reported, especially in the English language press, which is the voice of India’s ruling class itself. But the background is, trade unionism is practically banned, trade union activists are beaten up, in fact on that day, in the name of negotiation the workers leaders were being beaten up, and when the news went out to the massed workers outside this inflamed them.
An added dimension is the employment of women at terrible wages in the SEZs. Nirmala Banerjee’s studies show that women workers are willing to put up with worse conditions, because many of them feel they will not be working all their lives. They are trying to save up money for a dowry, and are therefore willing to put up with the additional burden. Employers’ unwritten conditions for hiring women workers often include the terms that they have to be young and unmarried. Marriage or pregnancy often leads to immediate sacking.
It also means taking over land from peasants. To give you one example, in West Bengal, thousands of industrial units have shut down over the years. This land, in what has often become prime urban area, is being redesignated as land for housing, fuelling the housing boom till recently. On the other hand, the SEZ Act specifies that unless it is a single item SEZ, its size must be at least 1000 hectares. So agrarian land is being targeted. To take another example, the government is not concerned about helping peasants to shift to organic farming, nor is it interested in resisting Genetically Modified seeds etc. But it has included agriculture among its list of SEZ industries. And we have Reliance Fresh announcing that it wants to set up its SEZ for organic farming, which will then be marketed. This also ties up with the shift to monopoly in retail. The aims of the Indian and foreign large retail concerns, whether Relaince or Wal Mart, add up to a target of about 20% of the retail market within the next decade. So from production to distribution through these monopolies will mean a tremendous loss of jobs. Yet the government of India in its various websites keeps issuing assurances that SEZs will lead to the creation of millions of new jobs.

The BJP-led government started the SEZs, and immediately began giving away land across the country at throwaway prices to big industrial houses. Critics were silenced by the refrain: China had done the same in the 1980s, look at it now. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government pursued the same policy.
I want to talk about West Bengal, not because that is the only place where there has been such attempt at land take over, nor because it is worse there than elsewhere, but because it is a tragedy that a left front government has been pursuing the policy there.
It is possible to mention a whole series of efforts at taking over agrarian land. Rajarhat New Town is coming up on agrarian land taken over at a pittance. And if you look at websites, you can see wealthy locals and NRIs being invited there.
The first large scale resistance came in Singur. The Tatas wanted to set up a private sector enterprise to build the $2000 US nano. But they are not ordinary mortals like you or me. They chose prime agricultural land at Singur.
* The government must procure the land for them. This will cost it Rs 140 crores. But the Tatas will
pay only Rs 20 crores, after five years.
* They will pay no stamp duty.
* They must have a contiguous plot of 997 acres (almost 400 hectares, or 40 lakh square metres). No
Indian car factory has anything approaching this area. (Even Tata Motors's giant Pune factory has only 188acres, including housing for employees.)
* The factory proper, said the Tatas, will have a built-up area of only 1.5 lakh sq m, or under 4
percent of the land acquired.
* The land must be fenced off and protests suppressed. The Tatas mendaciously accused their
"competitors" of fomenting the protests, but couldn't name them when challenged.

That's not all.

* The Tatas demanded "compensation" for "sacrificing" the 16 percent excise duty exemption
offered by Uttarakhand for locating the car factory.
* This means "upfront infrastructural assistance" worth Rs 160 crore on a Rs 1,000-crore project.
Besides, the hyped-up "Rs 1 lakh car" will probably cost a fair bit more. It be must be "cross-
subsidised."
Therefore the government also gifted the Tatas 250 acre further land in Rajarhat New Town and Bhangar.
According to the government, Singur has poor land, identified as capable of producing only one crop a year. In fact, development of irrigation, road networks, and land reforms have combined to produce a multi-crop area here. The government used a 19th century colonial era act that allows the government to take away agricultural land for a compensation in cash, and for public need. In Singur, the “public need” was to give land at throwaway price to the Tatas. The total drain on the state exchequer was estimated to be several hundred crore rupees. The motor car factory is not a labour intensive factory. It was to come up by displacing not only peasants who, willingly or unwillingly, were going to be given cash compensation, but also share-croppers, agricultural labourers, transporters who moved agricultural products, and a range of people who were not going to be compensated at all. The peasants were not anti-development. Rather, they wanted development to suit them. In 2006 a small plot of land of as little as 5 cottas could encourage a sharecropper to send his kids to school nourishing an aspiration for a better future. This was what was brutally destroyed on 2 December 2006 through massive violence, even though despite all government and CPI(M) efforts, peasants in half the area had refused to even take the compensation cheques. Resistance continued. So did state and party violence. On 8 December, Tapasi Malik, a young woman (18) leader of the resistance struggle, was strangled, and then burnt to death. The CPI(M) in India, and some intellectuals in the US, claimed that Tapasi’s father and brother had killed her (PD 7 May, counterpunch). After a protracted fight, including a campaign to have not the state criminal investigation department but a central body, the Central Bureau of Investigation, look into the murder case, a CPI(M) leader and a CPI(M) activist were arrested. A lower court has found them guilty and sentenced them to life imprisonment, but the case is going on in a higher court.
Peasant resistance also created a major upset. In the rural self government bodies’ elections, the district was won by the rightwing opposition Trinamul Congress, as its leader Mamata Banerjee had supported the peasants. Banerjee had been a partner in the BJP led coalition that had initiated the SEZ projects in India, so her role is purely opportunistic. But that she changed positions shows the degree of popular anger at the land acquisition policy. And in the end, the Tatas pulled out. But an adamant government refuses to hand the land back to the peasants.
Singur was followed by bigger plans. A huge SEZ was to be set up in Nandigram, in East Medinipur district. A traditionally strong left base, Nandigram also has a record of militant fighting. On December 29, 2006, Lakshman Seth, the CPI(M) strong man of Haldia, a nearby town, held a public meeting where he announced that land would be taken for a chemical hub, to be set up by the Salim group of Indonesia. They are not any ordinary group, but cronies of Suharto, and accomplices in the mass murder of communists in Indonesia in 1965. For this SEZ and associated work, the total area to be acquired was to be just under 18547 acres. Over 15,000 families would have to be evicted. 137 schools (mostly primary, but also some secondary), and 3 health care units were to be shut down. 16,652 water bodies would be filled up.
To resist this, Nandigram peasants dug up roads, cut down wooden bridges, and prevented government personnel from coming into the areas between January and March. There were clashes, and some local CPI(M) leaders, attempting to fire on peasants, were counter attacked. One of them was killed and his house was burnt. A large number of CPI(M) supporters left the area, claiming they were unsafe. The CPI(M) retaliated by organizing an economic blockade of Nandigram. CPI(M) camps on the road to Nandigram searched vehicles. Peasants set up a committee, the Bhumi Uchhed Pratirodh Committee(land eviction resistance committee). Between 11 and 14 march they were sending telegrams and appeals saying they feared an attack. On the 14th, police and CPI(M) goons attacked, killing at least 14. Hundreds were injured. Some of us went there in a relief team. We saw attempts at resistance, but no trace of “outsider” Maoist guerillas, who, according to the government, were fomenting trouble.
Finally, in April the government stated that an SEZ would not be built in Nandigram, but they refused to pay any compensation for those killed, injured and raped on March 14. No attempts were made to arrest and punish the guilty. So called peace talks were held, but the BUPC was never called for peace talks at the state level. The CPI(M) claimed that the BUPC had ejected 3500 of its supporters from Nandigram area. But civil liberties groups trying to meet those people were not allowed to do so. The APDR estimated that the real number of people ejected were around 300. From late October the CPI(M) again stepped up armed threats, culminating in a mass attack in early November. On 6 November, several villages were torched. Two days prior to this, CPI(M) all India leader Brinda Karat had called for public violence on the people of Nandigram. By 7 November 25000 people had been rendered homeless. Medha Patkar, travelling in a car that also had one of my colleagues, Prof. Amit Bhattacharya, was not allowed to proceed to Nandigram.
Nandigram was taken back by the CPI(M), but at a high price. In East Medinipur too, the party lost in the rural elections. More important, the left political culture in the state received a severe jolt. On 14 November, between 60,000 and 100,000 people took part in a citizens’ demonstration condemning the party-state violence in Nandigram. For the first time, this was a demonstration not called by any political party.
The environmental dimensions of SEZs are less discussed, because the position of all mainstream political parties is a contemptuous one towards environment. Broadly, there are three kinds of impacts that SEZ can have on access to water for the people in the SEZ area. First would be due to the diversion of water for use within the SEZ. Second impact would be the impact of release of effluents from the SEZ. Here the situation at locations like Ankleshwar in Gujarat and Patancheru in Andhra Pradesh, among scores of other places is illustrative. At these places, the release of untreated effluents from the industrial estates has created a hell for the residents of the area. Thirdly, the conversion of land to SEZ would mean destruction of groundwater recharge systems. SEZs even in relatively small areas can pump out huge quantity of water, drying up the wells of the surrounding area.

In the 13 000 ha Mundra SEZ in Kutch in Gujarat, 3000 ha area is covered by Mangroves, which are already being destroyed for the SEZ. Mangroves are also facing destruction at a number of other locations in Gujarat due to industrial expansion along the coast in Kutch, Saurashtra and South Gujarat. Potentially the largest SEZ in the country, the Mundra SEZ will destroy fisheries and livelihood of large number of fisherfolk and they are protesting against the SEZ.

By now, across India, over a hundred have died resisting the SEZs. The tragedy is that the major traditional left parties have swung to wholesale acceptance of SEZs where they are in power. This gives rise to a major problem. Unless a left wing response can be developed, it seems likely that the right wing may benefit, as Mamata Banerjee is showing in West Bengal.

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