Special Economic Zones and the Land Question in India

The land question in India has recently gained extraordinary importance in the media, with various agitations and social movements advocating for land rights and against forced displacement. The historical significance of land rights and its association with tribal rebellions and uprisings against British imperialists has been largely overlooked by the media. This article explores the intersection of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and the land question in India, highlighting the impact of SEZs on farmers, displacement, and the social and economic disparity in rural India.

The Historical Significance of Land Rights

Throughout the intricate tapestry of India’s history, the question of land ownership and the rights of sharecroppers has emerged as a poignant thread weaving its way through the fabric of society. From the echoes of the great Telangana, Punappra Vylar, and Moplah uprisings to the fervor of movements in Naxalbari, Bodh Gaya, and Srikakulam, this struggle has been etched into the very soul of the nation. The canvas of these movements reveals a narrative that transcends time—a narrative of resilience, defiance, and the pursuit of justice.

At the heart of these uprisings lies a rallying cry—the impassioned demand for “land to the tiller.” This cry, birthed in the crucible of hardship and inequality, has been taken up by organized left movements and other organizations united under the banner of land rights. A battle against the alienation of tribal land, this struggle embodies the yearning of the marginalized to reclaim what is rightfully theirs—their connection to the soil, the source of sustenance and identity.

Yet, this struggle is not confined to the pages of history. It resonates in the modern world, against the backdrop of post-colonial India. Here, the narrative finds new dimensions—a saga enriched by the complexities of displacement and the upheaval wrought by mega developmental projects. The lands that have nurtured generations, that have been imbued with stories and sweat, now face the specter of transformation. The churning wheels of progress, while bringing promise, also cast shadows of uncertainty and upheaval.

As we traverse this continuum of struggles, the essence remains unchanged—a quest for justice, for the recognition of the right to land, and for the empowerment of those who toil upon it. The movements that have unfolded are not merely rebellions; they are chronicles of resilience, testaments to the indomitable spirit that courses through the veins of the dispossessed.

These stories transcend boundaries, echoing across time and geography, as the fight for land rights and sharecroppers’ recognition reverberates not just within India, but within the very heart of humanity’s quest for equity. They remind us that the soil beneath our feet is not just a resource; it is a legacy, a bond that ties us to the land, to each other, and to the timeless struggle for dignity and justice. In this ongoing narrative, the battle for land remains not just a fight for ownership, but a fight for the soul of a nation and the heart of its people.

Gaming for Everyone

India’s Paradox of Enormous Wealth and Extreme Poverty

India possesses vast fertile lands, forests, and natural resources, yet a majority of its population lives in extreme poverty. The country’s ruling classes adopted a public sector-supported capitalist development path, sustaining rapacious neocolonial plunder through international institutions and imperialist corporations. As a result, over 75% of the population subsists on a meager daily income, pushing millions into starvation, disease, and premature death. The extreme backwardness of agriculture, rising costs of inputs, and low commodity prices have driven farmers to the brink of disaster, leading to distress migrations and suicides.

Our Vision for the Future

Displacement and Loss of Livelihoods in SEZs

The establishment of SEZs has resulted in the displacement of numerous farming households and farm worker families, leaving at least one million people facing eviction. Despite promises of humane displacement and rehabilitation, historical records indicate a lack of effective rehabilitation for those previously displaced. The concentration of land in the hands of a few upper caste absentee landlords perpetuates agrarian crises, extreme poverty, and socio-economic disparity in rural India.

Gaming for Everyone

Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in India

SEZs are designated areas of land owned and operated by private companies, considered foreign territory for trade, duties, and tariffs. These zones enjoy exemptions from custom duties, income tax, sales tax, and service tax, aimed at promoting exports and attracting foreign investment. As of now, India has numerous approved SEZs, covering a vast area of predominantly agricultural land capable of producing significant food grains. The establishment of SEZs has raised concerns about displacement, loss of livelihoods, and the endangerment of the country’s food security.

Employment in SEZs

Despite the claims that Special Economic Zones (SEZs) generate employment and contribute to the country’s economic growth, the reality paints a different picture. The growth of employment in the organized sector, particularly in SEZs, has been rather negligible. One of the key reasons for this limited job creation is the rapid advancement of automation and technology, which significantly reduces the labor requirements in various industries.

SEZs, often touted as hubs for Information Technology (IT) and IT-enabled services (ITES), have not been able to live up to the promise of providing substantial employment opportunities. The reliance on automation and advanced technologies has replaced traditional labor-intensive processes, leading to a decline in the demand for human workers. As a result, the anticipated surge in job opportunities within the organized sector has not materialized as expected.

Moreover, another concerning factor lies in the provision that allows large SEZs to allocate up to 75% of their land for non-industrial purposes. While this may have been intended to promote diverse economic activities within the zones, it has also opened the door to potential land grabbing by private players, especially in the real estate sector. This loophole could result in the diversion of land away from industrial development towards speculative ventures.

The consequence of land grabbing for real estate speculation is twofold. Firstly, it diverts valuable land resources that could have been used for industrial purposes, thus hindering the development of crucial manufacturing and export-oriented industries. Secondly, it exacerbates the problem of unequal land distribution, as powerful private players may acquire large portions of land, leaving small and marginalized farmers at a further disadvantage.

To address these challenges, policymakers must reconsider the allocation of land within SEZs to strike a balance between industrial development and other activities. It is essential to ensure that sufficient land is dedicated to industries that can create employment opportunities for the local population and contribute to the overall economic growth. At the same time, regulations and safeguards should be put in place to prevent speculative land grabbing and protect the interests of vulnerable communities.

SEZs can still play a vital role in India’s economic development, but it requires a careful and comprehensive approach that considers the needs of various stakeholders. By focusing on inclusive and sustainable industrial growth within SEZs, India can harness the potential of these zones to foster economic progress, create meaningful employment, and uplift the living standards of its citizens. Only through well-thought-out policies and regulations can SEZs truly become engines of economic prosperity and social well-being for the country.

SEZs and the New Colonial Urbanization

SEZs have also emerged as a form of colonial urbanization, contributing to slum growth, displacement, and migration. Maharashtra, being a top destination for investment in India, hosts the highest number of SEZs. However, the rapid urban growth in the state has been artificial and driven by the devastation of agriculture, leading to slums and distressing living conditions for millions.

Comparison of SEZs in India

StateTotal Approved SEZsSEZs with “In Principle” ApprovalSEZs Notified After 2005 ActSEZs Functional Before 2005 Act
Uttar Pradesh45211410
Tamil Nadu3116105
Andhra Pradesh2812106


The issue of land rights and the establishment of Special Economic Zones in India are intertwined, with SEZs having significant implications for displacement, livelihoods, and socio-economic disparity in rural areas. Radical land reforms prioritizing “land to the tiller” remain critical to addressing the country’s socio-economic challenges and achieving equitable development. Balancing economic growth with social and environmental concerns is crucial for India’s sustainable future.

What are Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in India?

SEZs are designated areas of land owned and operated by private companies, considered foreign territory for trade, duties, and tariffs. These zones enjoy exemptions from custom duties, income tax, sales tax, and service tax, aimed at promoting exports and attracting foreign investment.

How do SEZs impact farmers and rural communities?

The establishment of SEZs often leads to the displacement of farmers and rural communities, resulting in loss of livelihoods and socio-economic disparities in rural areas.

Are SEZs successful in generating employment?

Despite claims of SEZs generating employment and boosting the economy, the growth of employment in the organized sector has been negligible. The concentration of automation in modern manufacturing limits labor requirements.

What challenges does India face in addressing the land question and socio-economic disparities?

India must prioritize radical land reforms, ensuring equitable distribution of land and livelihood opportunities. Balancing economic growth with social and environmental concerns is crucial for achieving sustainable development.

What is the relationship between SEZs and urbanization in India?

SEZs have contributed to a new form of colonial urbanization, often leading to slum growth and distress migration due to forced displacement from rural areas. The rise of SEZs has shaped urban growth patterns in states like Maharashtra.