After India enacted the Special Economic Zones (SEZ) Act in 2005 and the rules governing SEZs came into effect in 2006, about 378 SEZs were notified. However, as of March 2022, only 268 of these were operational; the government has de-notified those SEZs that were not functional. In her last budget speech, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the government’s intention to revise the legislative architecture relating to SEZs. She cited lack of demand as a reason and also the fact that significant changes to taxation and incentive regimes in the past decade have made the existing notion of SEZs much less attractive. Further, a couple of years ago, the WTO ruled that the tax-related incentives given to SEZs violated global agreements on subsidies.
The Context of the DESH Bill 2022
The biggest reason why India’s SEZ regime needs a relook is because the business environment has changed substantially in recent years. The SEZ regime was originally intended to promote exports so that we could earn valuable foreign exchange. The existing SEZ regime has undoubtedly benefited the Indian IT industry, and this has contributed hugely to building our foreign currency reserves. However, with IT/ITES company business and delivery models changing to include greater on-site delivery capabilities, the sheen has worn off. Also, the manufacturing sector has not been able to leverage SEZs to deliver as much export-based economic benefit as was expected. Change was therefore needed, and this is why the government has been planning a thorough revamp of the existing SEZ system.
This is the Right Time for Change
With a number of disruptive events accelerating global shifts in supply chains, investment-intensive manufacturing capabilities in new sectors are becoming critical for India. It is also important to boost trading and other services beyond IT. It has become even more important to look at new ways of attracting capital to complement our demographic strengths. Also, rather than continue to cluster economic activity in certain urban areas, what India needs is more broad-based activity across various states. Only strategies that enable all this will accelerate job creation and hence socio-economic growth and development in India.
This is the context in which the government of India plans to introduce the Development of Enterprise and Service Hubs (DESH) Bill in the ongoing monsoon session of Parliament.
Broad Contours of the DESH Bill 2022
The DESH Bill seeks to encourage the creation of two types of hubs: one for services and the second for other enterprises. The former will have requirements for built-up areas and allow a broad range of services-related activities (including R&D), while the latter (which can house manufacturing and/or services), will have land-based area requirements. Both types of hubs can be created by the government (Centre/States), jointly, or by any registered goods and services provider. The idea is to encourage private sector investments to serve the domestic market and not just exports. The expectation is that greenfield or brownfield projects will encourage the creation of infrastructure in non-urban areas.
The Bill proposes to simplify ease of doing business by enabling single window clearances (both central and state). The bill will also make the hubs WTO compliant (tax incentives will be delinked from exports). However, some indirect tax benefits are expected to be provided. It is also likely that businesses operating from these hubs will be allowed to utilize idle capacity to service domestic customers (unlike SEZs that could only export).
What is known about the DESH Bill 2022 so far indicates that the central government is keen to use it as an instrument to activate three key levers of economic growth:
- Creating infrastructure of the scale needed to become a global manufacturing and services hub – especially as western countries are looking at alternatives to China and other countries (even smaller ASEAN nations and some in Latin America and Africa) are positioning themselves as viable destinations at least in niche sectors. (Some of China’s hubs are more than 250 sq km in area, while Indian SEZs are hardly ever more than 2.5 sq km. Chinese hubs are fully integrated towns with well-developed infrastructure and linkages to ports, airports etc. This explains the huge difference in scale between Chinese hubs and those anywhere else in the world – a gap that India is keen to bridge).
- Leveraging India’s scientific/technical talent to innovate and leapfrog competition in areas that will become key not just for self-reliance (e.g., pharma, energy, electronics etc.) but also critical to our security (e.g., drones, space technology, composite materials, semiconductor chips etc.)
- Fostering better cooperation and greater alignment between central and state governments (and inter se) so that outcomes such as employment generation and optimal resource utilization are not sacrificed on the altar of petty political differences or short-term gains.
Let’s hope the DESH Act will achieve all that it seeks to, and not become just another legislation that did not deliver to its potential.
*”Desh” is the Hindi word for “country”. It is interesting that many acronyms coined by the government are easy to remember because they mean something related in Hindi.
The Bill proposes to simplify ease of business by enabling single window clearances (both central and state). The Bill will also make the hubs WTO compliant (tax incentives will be delinked from exports). However, some indirect tax benefits are expected to be provided. It is also likely that businesses operating from these hubs will be allowed to utilize idle capacity to service domestic customers (unlike SEZs that could only export).