What can Rs. 100,000 crores buy?

IN THE 2004 elections, Indian voters threw out the Hindu-chauvinist, BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), and brought in the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA). At the same time, the parties of the Left, and the two communist parties in particular, made spectacular gains, winning over sixty seats in parliament, and becoming, for the first time, a major force in national politics.

Activists and intellectuals on the Indian Left were euphoric about the success of the Communist Parties. The fact that the UPA would have to rely on the Left’s support, they claimed, would force the government to adopt more “people-friendly” policies. But this euphoria was misplaced, as recent events have clearly shown.

The Comnunist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)]-led Left Front government in the state of West Bengal has embarked on the same path of neoliberal privatization as that of the UPA, insisting that export-oriented industrialization is the key to the state’s development. Invoking the colonial-era Land Acquisition Act of 1894, the government began to woo investors with free land, tax-free status, and other perks, in an effort to create Special Economic Zones (SEZs). In 2006, it decided to give away 1,000 acres of prime agricultural land in the village of Singur to the Indian corporate giant, Tata. Following this, it announced a similar gift of 10,000 acres of agricultural land to the Indonesian Salim group of companies in the township of Nandigram.

First in Singur, and then in Nandigram, farmers, sharecroppers, and rural laborers rose up in protest against the stealing of their land. They barricaded themselves in, and mobilized mass protests. But in January 2007, the Tatas began construction of their car factory in Singur, ignoring the wishes of the local population.

Then, on March 14, the government of West Bengal ordered its police forces to open fire on protesters in Nandigram, killing fifteen and injuring dozens more. The killings set off a series of protests by Left activists and intellectuals, many of whom had hitherto supported the CPI(M) and its policies. A crisis erupted within the Left Front coalition itself, as other coalition parties joined the protests.

There is, of course, a veritable pantheon of apologists for the Left Front’s policies, including some very learned economists, it seems. See, for instance, the paper by Mritiunjoy Mohanty of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Calcutta, titled “Singur and the Political Economy of Structural Change.” The fact that an IIM researcher’s work appears on an “alternative economics” website should speak for itself. Be that as it may, Mohanty’s claims that the Left Front’s acquisition of land in Singur must be seen as a progressive measure; an argument that is reminiscent of the calls justifications for forced industrialization in Stalin’s Russia during the 1930s. I can’t get into the specifics of Mohanty’s article in this post, but will revisit it at some length in a few days.

Well, on March 27, parliament passed a bill that would put an end to the government’s acquisition of land for private companies, in a move that the media dubbed the “Nandigram effect.” However, this comes as little solace to the thousands who have been displaced to make way for some 400 SEZs that have already been approved across the country.

Round Two

And now, the Indian government has approved yet another 21 SEZs, according to a front page article in The Hindu! These innocuously named regions are certainly “special”: for the likes of Mukesh Ambani, the head of Reliance Industries, whose proposal for a petrochemicals SEZ was among those approved today.

Even the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), essentially a club of some 20 of the world’s richest countries (plus smaller economies like Mexico and Ireland), recently came out against the tax cuts that the Indian government was offering through the SEZs. (As Deepa Kumar pointed out to me, it is because that puts the OECD nations at a competitive disadvantage. She’s probably right.)

But think about it: According news articles, the SEZs will essentially give over Rs. 100,000 crores in tax cuts to corporations that develop SEZs over the coming years! How much money is that? And what can it buy? My very rough calculations put it at $25 billion. That’s a lot of money to be giving away gratis to folks like Mukesh Ambani.

Poor Mukesh. Perhaps he needs the money more urgently than the well-fed farmers of Singur. After all, his net worth is only $20 billion, and he is only the 14th richest man in the world.

Meanwhile, the working classes and the poor need fairness, equality, and justice.

Can a hundred thousand crores buy that?