Three Propositions on Zones

Mithilesh Kumar October 23, 2012

A Case Study of Delhi


This paper makes three propositions on special economic zones as a site for production of new laboring subjects and the simultaneous spatial, social and cognitive reorganization that takes place. It is a contested phenomenon where both the state and the subject reconstitute and redefine themselves. While the state and the corporations want to have an ‘ideal’ laboring subject forged on the basis of their agenda, the subject is not an unquestioning agent. The state constantly strives to perfect its expertise on governing the new subject while the subject tries to preserve its autonomy and challenge the boundaries of the physical zone. In this piece, I build on the arguments made by Timothy Mitchell in Rule of Experts, where he analyzes how experts continue to reproduce the colonial discourse. I take the position that the laboring subject also accumulates knowledge and expertise by challenging the discourse of the experts.

Before ‘Zone’, the word that was in vogue ’belt‘. In India’s national imaginary it was common to hear descriptions like ‘the tribal belt’, ‘the coal belt’ or ‘the naxalite belt’. These spaces were discrete and spread across the country and the word ‘belt’ testified to their uniqueness. The shift from belt to zone is not a quibble over vocabulary. In fact, the shift in words involves a leap in how spaces are conceptualized and governed. ’Belt‘ was a description of a static space, and implied a centre that acted on these spaces. Zones, on the other hand, are spaces of constant mobility of capital and labour. They imply homogeneity and standardization and, at the same time, spaces that are inherently transitory. In this piece, I make three propositions about Zones: first, Zones as a topological space; second, Zones as a site of conflict and accumulation of knowledge through workers’ struggle; and third, the unplanned, ungoverned and ungovernable production of zones.


In ’Between Inclusion and Exclusion: On the Topology of Global Space and Borders’, Mezzadra and Neilson offer a critique of the topological approach in the study of borders. The first proposition is derived from their work. The textbook definition of topology is: ’a major area of mathematics concerned with properties that are preserved under continuous deformations of objects, such as deformations that involve stretching, but no tearing or gluing’. This definition is an apt description of how special economic zones can be conceived as unbounded space. This property of the zone can be seen in the way production is carried out. Maruti Suzuki’s website tells us that a car is rolled out every 23 seconds from their production line and the total process time from Blanking to Rolling out of a vehicle is 12.5 hours. However, it is what these figures hide that is more fascinating. They do not say that rubber hoses for carburetors are made in Mujesar, a village in Faridabad. Or that inside the huts of this village people work on 1970s machines of German origin. This space is made invisible by the zone and what is more disturbing is that the workforce in this space is made invisible too. The move to consider special economic zones as a topological space, a space that can be stretched to include the site which is not ostensibly a part of SEZ changes its property and the way we conceptualize production, labour and creation of surplus value in new working conditions. As mentioned above, the SEZ is also transitory. Honda SIEL Power Products Ltd. had a factory in Rudrapur in Uttaranchal. According PUDR, the company tried to move the core machinery from the factory to Greater NOIDA in 2002 and created a new production site in Pondicherry to avail tax breaks. This shows that SEZs are not treated as a permanent site of production but an expedient and contingent arrangement open to abandonment and thus a simply transitory arrangement.


The second proposition relates to the production of subjectivity in the SEZ. I would like to give two instances of how workers adapt themselves to new methods of production and how they sabotage it when they take the path of militant struggle. In Maruti Suzuki’s Manesar plant, the workers are allowed two tea breaks of 7 minutes during a shift. In this period they have to take tea, go to the toilet and come back to their production line 1 minute in advance. Being late means a pay cut. The workers devised a way to follow the timeline by using the toilet and having tea at the same time. This is one aspect. In 2005, a militant struggle by workers of Honda was brutally crushed by the police. The workers went around the SEZ on July 25 asking for support from workers of different factories. They were tricked by the district administration, disarmed and surrounded in a public park and the police let loose on them. In 2011, during the struggle at Maruti Suzuki workers had learned their lesson. They knew that in the SEZ, where emphasis is on mobility and speed, it is much better to stop the flow. Try as they might, Maruti Suzuki’s management could not remove the workers from the factory. According to the Gurgaon Workers News, the workers knew that moving from the factory meant the breaking of the strike, as in the Honda struggle. While HR experts were still using the old tactic of making the workers sign the good conduct bond, the workers had sharpened their skills by sabotaging the fundamental philosophy behind the zone.


Finally, as the Communist Manifesto teaches us, the bourgeoisie produces its own gravediggers; the same can be said about zones as well. In 2004, there was a large-scale demolition of slums in Delhi. The displaced were settled in the fringes of the city, in the areas of Bawana and Narela. There are several other areas in Delhi that are irregular colonies. These are spaces that almost continuously encircle the city, forming a zone by themselves despite the best efforts of the state. These zones are unplanned, minimally governed and almost ungovernable. These spaces are also a site for petty production that is directly linked to big global capital. One such instance was the almond workers strike in 2009 in Karawal Nagar. This was the biggest strike of unorganized workers in Delhi since the seven-day strike in 1988. There is an extensive almond processing industry in the Karawal Nagar area, where 60 almond processing godowns are in operation. Nearly 20 thousand workers are employed in this industry. The almonds processed there come from USA, Australia, etc. The unprocessed almonds are imported by the importers of Khari Baoli, the largest dry fruits market in Asia. These importers give thee almonds to contractors in Karawal Nagar for processing. The strike affected the big importers and the contractors in Karawal Nagar, as 80 percent of the almond supply stopped. As a consequence, the rates of almond in the markets shot up by 30 to 40 percent. This militant struggle proved that global capital and its ‘free markets’ can be disrupted and brought to a halt and forced to negotiate with the workers of the ungoverned zones like Karawal Nagar. To use the Leninist term, these ungoverned spaces are now emerging as one of the 'weak links' of global capital.