lawyers in India

Special Economic Zones - Aping the Orient

Written by: Shikha Ohri - Law Student
Constitutional Lawyers in India
Legal Service
  • In this era of globalization, most developing countries are witnessing a shift away from an import substitution based development strategy to an export promotion policy. In pursuance of this policy, countries are vigorously promoting special economic zones. A Special Economic Zone (SEZ) is a geographical region that has economic laws more liberal than a country's typical economic laws. [1] It is a trade capacity development tool, with a goal to promote rapid economic growth by using tax and business incentives to attract foreign investment and technology. By offering privileged terms, Special Economic Zones attract investment and foreign exchange, spur employment and boost the development of improved technologies and infrastructure.

    In India, Special Economic Zones are being established in an attempt to deal with infrastructural deficiencies, procedural complexities, bureaucratic hassles and barriers raised by monetary, trade, fiscal, taxation, tariff and labour policies. Since country-wide development of the infrastructure is expensive and implementation of structural reforms would require time, ( Special Economic Zones/Export Processing Zones) are being established as industrial enclaves for expediting the process of industrialization.

    One of the earliest and most famous Special Economic Zone was founded by the government of the People's Republic of China under Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s.

    Government of India in April 2000 announced the introduction of Special Economic Zones policy in the country. As of 2007, more than 500 Special Economic Zones have been proposed, 220 of which have already been created. This has raised the concern of the World Bank, which questions the sustainability of such a large number of Special Economic Zones. [2]

    Tracing Indian economic reforms

    In India several attempts have been made to liberalize the system of economic management. In 1980s, the Indian Government focused on reorganizing low-efficient state-run enterprises and partial disinvestment, relaxing the control on private enterprises and foreign capital, introducing competitive mechanisms, reducing protection for domestic industries, promoting and importing advanced technological equipment from abroad etc.

    In 1991, the reformed trade and industrial policy eliminated licensing requirements for private domestic and foreign investment in certain industries and relaxed the restrictions under the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Act on expansion, diversification, mergers and acquisitions by large firms and industrial houses. Special Economic Zones came in pursuance of this export led growth strategy. [3]

    Special Economic Zones were announced by the Government of India in April 2000 as a part of the Export-Import policy of India. The government realized the need to enhance foreign investment, promote exports from the country and at the same time provide a level playing to the domestic enterprises, while ensuring manufacturers to be competitive globally. [4]

    The Special Economic Zones as announced by the Government of India in 2000 were deemed to be foreign territory for the purposes of trade operations, duties and tariffs. These zones were to provide an internationally competitive and hassle free environment for exports. Units were allowed be set up in Special Economic Zone for manufacture of goods and rendering of services. All import/export operations of the Special Economic Zone units were on self-certification basis. Anything could be imported duty free but sales in the Domestic Tariff Area by Special Economic Zone units were subject to payment of full Custom Duty and as per import policy in force. Further Offshore banking units were being allowed to be set up in the Special Economic Zones. The policy provided for setting up of Special Economic Zones in the public, private, joint sector or by State Governments. [5]

    On 31st August 2004 the Department of Commerce announced the Foreign Trade Policy 2004-2009 to create an appropriate institutional framework and policy environment for facilitation and growth of external trade. The basic objective of this policy was to double India's share of global merchandise trade by 2009 and make exports an effective instrument of economic growth and employment generation. The Special Economic Zone Act, 2005 and the Special Economic Zone Rules, 2006 were introduced under this policy, to regulate and promote the development of these industrial enclaves.

    The Act designated the Special Economic Zones a duty free enclave to be treated as foreign territory only for trade operations and duties and tariffs. Under the Act, no license is required for import and no routine examination is to be conducted by the custom authorities of the export/import cargo. To aid backward and forward integration of the economy, the Act provides exemptions to Special Economic Zone units and Special Economic Zone developers from all indirect taxes, including basic customs duty, countervailing duty, education cess, and direct taxes while at the same time domestic sales are subject to full customs duty and import policy in force. The Act provided the freedom to subcontract. It also permitted manufacturing, trading and service activities in the Special Economic Zones. [6]

    India and China : Whether on a Level Platform

    Success stories of large and small developing countries can be explained by the growth of world trade and opening up of these economies with market based deregulation. But from any in-depth scrutiny one finds that the reform package under the broad heading of "liberalization" is very different from country to country. There is no standard recipe of a "reform package". A lot of factors influence the performance of Special Economic Zones in a country e.g. economic history, location, industries, state policy etc. Since India has adopted the idea of the special economic zones from China it becomes pertinent to study the history of economic development in India and China.

    China's success can be ascribed largely because of its effective population control. In the pre-reform days, both in China and India top priority was given to equity, removing poverty and increasing the social aspects of standards of living. This, however, was attempted in China under a total state-controlled economy and in India with the public sector playing a dominant role along with the market forces. Both the economies adopted a strategy of import substitution and heavy industry growth. China over time, realized that maintaining high standards of living becomes difficult unless efficiency in the use of resources is increased. Its attempt to maintain equity through forced saving and administered directives resulted in social unrest, which came to a breaking point after the controversial Cultural Revolution. The key objective of present reform in China is to bring incentives back in the economy by increasing the role of the market with minimum changes in their political institutions. This is defined in China as an experiment in a socialistic market economy.

    In India, heavy import substitution lead to increased inefficiency in production and generation of surplus for maintaining the tempo of equity measures as a result social development became impossible. This led to heavy borrowing, culminating in a balance of payments crisis. To meet the crisis, this new economic policy in India was initiated.

    China's success in attracting foreign direct investment and becoming one of the top exporting countries of the world hinged on the careful implementation of its Special Economic Zone policy. Size, location, flexible labour laws and stable policies were the factors primarily responsible for making Chinese Special Economic Zones attractive to foreign investors. In India, the fiscal concessions being offered to developers and units are the primary driving force. [7]

    Chinese government started building Special Economic Zones way back in 1979. The idea behind the Special Economic Zones was to experiment with liberal policies in certain ear-marked regions while insulating the rest of the economy from their influence. The government identified huge tracts of land, near the coastal region, and started building mega cities with all required infrastructure. Stringent labour laws applicable in China were relaxed in these regions and foreign investment was encouraged by offering concessions and promising of stability.

    In 1980 four Special Economic Zones namely, Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Shantou and Xiamen were opened up. In 1984, fourteen coastal cities were opened up as a further step. In 1985, three delta areas along the Yangtze River and Pearl River and in the southern part of Fujian province as well as several other places were opened up. In the following years, Hainan Island, Pudong New Area in Shanghai, five big cities along the Yangtze River, eighteen provincial capitals and a part of inland and border cities were opened up. These zones were created initially as experimental stations to adjust and watch their operations vis-à-vis open market interactions.

    Though India had a head-start in the direction by building its first export processing zone in 1969 with certain minimum infrastructure and fiscal sops, it could not muster enough political will to build full-fledged Special Economic Zones with foreign territory status in the matters of international trade till the turn of the century. As opposed to five mega Special Economic Zones built by the Chinese government (the largest being Shenzhen built over 49,500 hectares), India opened its doors to private players and allowed sector-specific Special Economic Zones to develop on just 10 hectares of land. As a result, more than 500 Special Economic Zones have been proposed, 220 of which have already been created. The economies of scale, which seems to have worked so well in China by reducing production costs, may not have the same effect in the Indian Special Economic Zone s. [8]

    In China, the government chose the location for Special Economic Zone s with a lot of thought with all five located near the coastal region. This made it easier for the Special Economic Zone units to export their products and import inputs. In India, Special Economic Zones are being built all over the country, wherever land can be acquired by the developers. This has also led to allegations of land-grabbing and conversion of productive agricultural land by developers. As a result, Centre has made it mandatory that all proposals should have a certificate from the state governments notifying that the land being used is non-agricultural for at least 90%.

    Flexibility in labour laws, which played an important role in attracting foreign investors, is absent in the Indian Special Economic Zones. This is one of the prices India has to pay for the advantages of a federal democratic government. India has, however, tried to make up for all the disadvantages by offering attractive fiscal sops. Tax holidays for Special Economic Zones in India are longer and steeper than those given by China. This had given rise to some dissent from the finance ministry which had complained that the fiscal loss would be immense.

    In fact the scheme has generated a difference of opinion between the Finance and Commerce Ministries. While the former is voicing its concerns about possible revenue loss from the tax privileges for the Special Economic Zones, the latter is stoutly defending the policy with statistics suggesting minimal losses and highlighting eventual gains in terms of employment and revenues.

    Reserve Bank of India has also expressed its concerns about the revenue losses and the uneven pattern of development. Reserve Bank of India insisted on factoring the revenue implications of the taxation benefits. The revenue loss for the Government in providing incentives may be justified only if the Special Economic Zone units ensure forward and backward linkages with the domestic economy. Also, as resources are being diverted from the less developed, growth will not be uniform. [9]

    One of the most basic difference between the Special Economic Zone model adopted in China and India is that the Chinese Special Economic Zone initiative is government driven, whereas Indian Special Economic Zones are driven by private sector . In China , the State acquires the land and develops the required infrastructure, while private enterprises are invited to set up units. Under such a system, land continues to be under the ownership of the State. In India, however, private entities are being involved in developing the Special Economic Zone infrastructure. As a result, Land is being acquired by the State and handed over to private developers.

    Current Controversy

    The Economic Survey of 2006-07 highlighted the fact that Special Economic Zone s are testing grounds for the implementation of liberal market economy principles.
    At the same the survey emphasized on some apprehensions against the Special Economic Zones:
    Generation of little new activity as there may be relocation of industries to take advantage of tax concessions,
    Revenue loss,
    Large-scale land acquisition by the developers, may lead to displacement of farmers with meager compensation,
    Acquisition of prime agricultural land, having serious implications for food security,
    Misuse of land by the developers for real estate and
    Uneven growth aggravating regional inequalities.

    The Survey also mentioned that many of these apprehensions, however, could be addressed through appropriate policies and safeguards. [10]
    A major controversy surrounding the implementation of the Special Economic Zone scheme has been the ruthless manner adopted for acquiring land. News reports highlighted protests across the country against acquisition of lands for the purpose of establishing Special Economic Zones. The "SEZ No More" campaign gained momentum after the bloody chapter in Nandigram.

    Since, developing Special Economic Zones involves massive displacement of farmers, it is essential that a systematic approach should be followed for ensuring balance of interests. Consequently, state governments have been advised that in land acquisition for Special Economic Zones, first priority should be for acquisition of waste and barren land and if necessary single crop agricultural land. If perforce a portion of double-cropped agricultural land has to be acquired to meet the minimum area requirements, especially for multi-product Special Economic Zone, the same should not exceed 10 % of the total land required for the Special Economic Zone [11]

    The government has also announced the new National Policy on Rehabilitation and Resettlement 2007 [12]. This policy would provide land-for-land compensation for acquisition of land for development purposes, including Special Economic Zones, and employment to at least one person from each affected family.

    A National Rehabilitation Commission would be set up by the Central Government, which would be duly empowered to exercise independent oversight over the rehabilitation and resettlement of the affected families. Further, wage employment would be provided to the willing affected persons in the construction work in the project. The policy also ensures housing benefits including houses to the landless affected families in both rural and urban areas.

    Adequate provisions have been made for financial support to the affected families for construction of cattle sheds, shops, working sheds; transportation costs, temporary and transitional accommodation, comprehensive infrastructural facilities and amenities in the resettlement area including education, health care, drinking water, roads, electricity, sanitation, religious activities, cattle grazing, and other community resources.

    The benefits expressed in monetary terms have been linked to the Consumer Price Index, and the same shall also be revised suitably at appropriate intervals. Special provision has been made for providing life-time monthly pension to the vulnerable persons, such as the disabled, destitute, orphans, widows, unmarried girls, abandoned women, or persons above 50 years of age (who are not provided or cannot immediately be provided with alternative livelihood).

    A strong grievance redressal mechanism has been prescribed, which includes standing R&R Committees at the district level, R&R Committees at the project level, and an Ombudsman duly empowered in this regard. The R&R Committees shall have representatives from the affected families including women, voluntary organizations, Panchayats, local elected representatives, etc. Provision has also been made for post-implementation social audits of the rehabilitation and resettlement schemes and plans.

    For effective monitoring of the progress of implementation of R&R plans, provisions have been made for a National Monitoring Committee, a National Monitoring Cell, mandatory information sharing by the States and Union Territories with the National Monitoring Cell, and Oversight Committees in the Ministries/Departments concerned for each major project.

    For ensuring transparency, provision has been made for mandatory dissemination of information on displacement, rehabilitation and resettlement, with names of the affected persons and details of the rehabilitation packages. Such information shall be placed in the public domain on the Internet as well as shared with the concerned Gram Sabhas and Panchayats by the project authorities. This policy aims at striking a balance between the need for land for development purposes and protecting the interests of land owners and other displaced people. [13]

    A study conducted by Aradhna Aggarwal on the Impact of Special Economic Zones on Employment, Poverty and Human Development indicated, that Employment generation, both direct and indirect, has thus far been the most important channel, through which Special Economic Zones have impacted on human development and poverty reduction in India. However, the role of Special Economic Zone s in human capital formation and as an engine for promoting new knowledge, technologies and innovations through technology transfers and technology creation appears to be relatively limited. With new generation Special Economic Zones emerging, the scope of human capital formation and technology upgrading effects will widen. It is therefore important for the government to play a pro active role in strengthening these effects. [14]

    For the contribution of Special Economic Zones to various aspects of human development to be realized, it is important to forge linkages between the domestic economy and Special Economic Zones. Systematic efforts need to be made to help zone units forge links with the outside units. Also, the effects of Special Economic Zones are contingent upon the success of these zones in attracting investment, in particular, Foreign Direct Investment. A comprehensive policy framework is required to attain this. The government has to ensure that strategies are developed in a timely manner to strengthen the opportunities that are likely to emerge, protect interests of the Special Economic Zones workers, and forge linkages between Special Economic Zones and the domestic economy. Such a regulated and monitored approach is the only means of attaining the actual potential of these Special Economic Zones.

    [1], visited on 29.11.2007 according to Section 2(za) a Special Economic Zone means each Special Economic Zone notified under the proviso to sub-section (4) of section 3 and sub-section (1) of section 4 (including Free Trade and Warehousing Zone) and includes an existing Special Economic Zone
    [2] Id
    [3] The limitation of this strategy is that it exposes the economy to external shocks besides their inability to cater to changing tastes and preferences in the international market. The strategy can be suited to smaller economies with lesser population dependence. These economies are called butterfly economies signifying rapid growth in a short span of time.
    [4] visited on 30.11.2007
    [5] Id. Earlier the Export Promotion Zone model was adopted in India to promote exports. The old scheme was replaced by the "Special Economic Zones" to provide several lucrative incentives which were not available earlier. Only processing was permitted in the Export Promotion Zones, the government could develop the infrastructure for Export Promotion Zone. In Export Promotion Zones, not more than 25% could be sold in the domestic market against rupees and there were value addition norms. Foreign investment was not allowed and no Indian banks could operate inside the Export Promotion Zone.
    [6] Id. On the International front Appendix F1 of the Kyoto Convention, 1979 concerns free zones, and while voluntary and only suggestive, gives guideline to customs authorities with respect to free zones. The convention notes "National legislation (1) shall specify the requirements relating to the establishment of free zones, the kinds of goods admissible...and the nature of operations..." It also notes that "...the provisions of national legislation may be managed by Customs authorities, by other authorities or by natural or legal persons..." making special zone authorities viable. The agreement suggests that customs authorities have a continuing role to play in the approval of procedures for managing the interface of the free zone with the domestic zone and the international economy.
    [7] visited on 01.12.2007 Also See, T.N. Srinivasan, "China, India and the World Economy", July 2006 available at
    [8] Id
    [9] ( Also See, and Reserve Bank of India Annual Report 2005-06
    [10] visited on 05.12.2007
    [11] visited on 02.12.2007
    [12] Replacing the National Policy on Rehabilitation and Resettlement 2003
    [13] visited on 05.12.2007
    [14] Aradhna Aggarwal, "Impact of Special Economic Zones on Employment, Poverty and Human Development", May 2007. Available at visited on 10.12.2007

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