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India must rework its SEZ policy
February 23, 2007 10:09 IST
India has witnessed a huge rush from private sector companies keen to set up Special Economic Zones. The new SEZ Act was approved in February 2006, and the government has already received over 100 applications. Before the new legislation, SEZ-related laws were scattered among different acts and rules.
The new legislation provides a uniform SEZ policy and comprehensively covers all aspects of establishment, operation and fiscal oversight. The government has also given greater operational freedom to the Development Commissioner as the key authority managing the SEZ. However, the most important change is related to tax incentives.
Well intended. . .
Since countrywide development of infrastructure is expensive and implementation of structural reforms would require time, due to given socio-economic and political institutions, the development of SEZ is seen as an important strategic tool for expediting the process of industrialisation.
Despite the recent pick-up, India's share in world goods exports has been very small - at 0.9 per cent for 2005 - due to the widely known gaps in the business environment. SEZs have long been seen as a means for India to create bigger inroads into small and medium scale manufacturing.
Improving the business environment on a nationwide basis and providing a competitive platform to India's entrepreneurs will take time. SEZs, however, can quickly help create high-quality infrastructure in pockets, providing a liberal and supportive business environment, and thus kick-start the much-needed push for manufacturing exports. They allow the government to experiment with the liberalisation of labour laws.
SEZs can also provide scale-related advantages via the creation of clusters, reducing manufacturing costs. SEZs can be particularly helpful for small and medium-scale entities that cannot afford to set up captive infrastructure facilities, but can share the costs in a large group. Finally, they can attract foreign capital and technology.
Current status of upcoming SEZs
. . . but not well executed
SEZ applications were driven by tax benefits: A large number of new SEZs being planned are primarily aimed at winning tax benefits. Under the new law, units in SEZs will be 100 per cent exempt from corporate income tax for the first five years; 50 per cent exempt for the next five years and, for the final five years, 50 per cent of the profits ploughed back will be exempt from tax.
The new law provides exemption for 15 years compared with 10 years under the old law. Another factor that has attracted corporates to SEZs is that existing tax exemptions for export-oriented units set up in non-SEZ areas such as Software Technology Parks are due to expire in financial year 2009. As per the current policy the tax exemption to STPs is available only if 30 per cent to 50 per cent of the production is exported and it is a net foreign exchange earner.
It is foreseen that companies will simply relocate to SEZ to take advantage of tax concessions being offered and little net activity will be generated. The act will lead to a large-scale land acquisition by the developers, displacement of poor farmers and meager compensation being handed over to them with no alternative livelihood. SEZ will be built on prime agricultural land with serious implication of food security.
Scale-related advantages unlikely: The key purpose of SEZs is to build scale-related advantages. However, most of the SEZs currently being planned are minuscule in size. The new law allows the minimum area for the SEZ area to be 1000 hectares (3.9 square miles) for multi-product zones, 100 hectares for product specific zones and just 10 hectares for IT, gems & jewellery and biotechnology zones (subject to minimum built-up area norms).
We believe that with the rapid globalisation of manufacturing scale, small SEZs appear to have outlived their relevance in today's environment. Among the ones announced, there are probably only two medium-scale SEZs being taken up for development. Both these zones are being set up by Reliance Industries, India's largest private sector company.
Labour issues: The new SEZ law is unlikely to address the critical issue of labour flexibility. A restrictive labour law environment has been one of the major hurdles to the development of the Indian manufacturing sector. The most restrictive central government regulation is one that requires all employers with more than 100 employees to gain compulsory government approval (normally a long drawn-out process) before retrenching workers or closing part of an enterprise.
This provision has not changed since 1982. The original draft of the new SEZ law intended to give state governments the freedom to allow implementation of flexible labour laws within the SEZ area. However, before the final approval from the lower house of Parliament, the government was forced to drop this clause in the face of leftist opposition.
No long-term strategy was drawn to counter the socio economic consequences of the scheme. No serious research was conducted on how SEZ will affect the regional economy, how much fertile land will be lost, how many farmers will be affected and what the tax implications of SEZs will be.
Also, the sectoral breakup of SEZ approvals shows that 61 per cent of the approvals has been given in the Information Technology sector. The manufacturing sector accounts for only one-third of the total approvals. This pattern is worrisome. In view of declining competitiveness of the manufacturing sector, the focus of the SEZ policy needs to be making India a preferred destination for manufacturing.
The new SEZ investments are unlikely to provide the much-needed fillip to Indian small and medium manufacturing sectors' competitiveness. The best solution would be for the government to rework the SEZ policy to facilitate the development of large employment generating SEZs, without hurting the country's exchequer and dissuading all vested interests.
Another possible solution would be to set them up in the barren land or in land with low agricultural productivity.