Monday, February 12, 2007

Singur - The truth about subversion of truth

Medha Patkar writes about Singur, about the half lies and cover-up of the Left government, about CPI(M) cadre intimidating villagers, all to help develop people of Bengal.

Today when the world celebrates the 58th anniversary of the UN Charter of Human Rights as the International Human Rights Day, the people of Singur or Narmada or Raigad (Maharashtra), Dadri-Bajada (UP) cannot. They cannot be out of struggle for survival, for dignity, for life even for a moment to be able to breathe freedom and enjoy rights not just as citizens but as human beings.

The struggle of people of Singur continues at various fronts, ranging from the fasting group of women and men in Singur area itself to the one in Kolkata, from the everyday small and large actions by the representatives of various people's organisations to the solidarity fora of the academics. It has gone beyond the heated Metropolis to the various districts of North & South Bengal since the voice raised from Singur is echoed in other places, why battlegrounds, and has also effected other mass movements against similar onslaught of the corporatised State as in Midnapur district (against 2 SEZs & 1 Nuclear power plant). The prolonged violation of human rights and postponement of free, fair and informed dialogue on Singur is startling. With a large alliance and network of people's organisations beyond electoral political allies or opponents of the West Bengal Government, a possible dialogue could have been possible by now but for the over confident attitude and arrogance expressed by the West Bengal Government. The lack of initiative coming from anyone of the Left Front allies towards taking a serious cognizance and an urgent resolution through a decisive dialogue is certainly shocking.

With the police force still active, and Singur kept closed for many of us, with a misuse of law through section 144 IPC, alleging us of' malicious reasons', it is clear that there is no intention still to respect democratic rights, and freedom to question development plans by those facing the backlash.

Having come out of West Bengal, where the State kept me encircled by three to six police vehicles until I left, under watch day and night, arrested four times during a week but without following any formal or legal procedure, I look back and look forward with much revelation on this special day. Throughout last many days we heard of and even witnessed that the party cadres did not just move into the project affected areas but intimidated people… police continued its brutality and women kept narrating the story of policemen's misbehaviour of molestation while 18 of them (including 4 women activists) were charged (now bailed out) under section 307, (attempt to murder). Four youths and elderly people were seriously injured and hospitalised. It is obvious as to why some of us were not allowed to step in. Those in peaceful marches along with women activists and also journalists, were brutally lathicharged - why?

The obvious reason was and is, to hide the facts. It is another story that we still could investigate, beyond the public hearing held on October 27th and could get a survey of 400 families done through 15 eminent activists and journalists. We have already brought out the report by the panel with Mahasweta Devi, Justice (retd) Malay Senguptaji, and Deepankar Bhattacharyaji as other three members. The fact remains that the state of West Bengal neither opened the Singur area to us (as they did open even the Assembly after the unjustifiable event on December 1st) exhibiting selective transparency so as to allow the civil society only to see whatever the State would like them to, as a Bengali poem goes.

Singur remained all throughout my stay in Kolkata, a foreign territory to me, an Indian citizen without either a passport or a visa! It was indeed amusing, more than disturbing, that a lady police even climbed up (by order) the aeroplane I took for return, in order to ensure that I was in the seat with belts. The only pleasant surprise was the people's mandate that was conveyed to me by no one else but the same policewomen who said to me in a hush-hush voice, "I am your fan. I need an autograph please." The courage and greatness not of a handful of activists but the people of Singur who have been persistent, is the only power that would challenge those who boast of the electoral mandate, ignoring and even crushing the electorate. The force to counter in the present politico-economic context with SEZs and STZs around, which no doubt are to be worse than Singur is the very mandate that is exploited and marketed for their own profit and private interests of persons, parties as also those of the allied forces, at the cost of the people.

All throughout last two decades we, in the Narmada struggle, have had to face a distorted paradigm of development and a subversion of the total system to the powers- to- be. The generations old communities in the oldest of the river valleys civilizations in the world did not matter to those whose eyes were always on the giant designs and the games played through the vote banks. Every inch of land had to be saved or gained only through a battle at every front. With more than 1.5 lakh people(40,000 families) still in the submergence area and with much better rehabilitation policy in hands, the adivasis to other farmers in the hills and plains still have to continue the struggle for survival of ever increasing number of development victims Singur and its people are smaller yet significant new entrant to the battle field. One only hopes that all that the people of Narmada have faced and witnessed will not be a fate accompli for Singur too. Till date, however it seems inevitable that we begin and continue "Satyagraha" against the falsehood that is propagated as economics and development politics.

THE CPM STATUS REPORT ON SINGUR: Truth cannot be subverted with power

Soon after coming out, into a `free zone' this day, I could see a status report on Singur, compiled by the West Bengal Government, circulated by the office bearers of CPI(M). Much impressive with statistics, the report is presented as a counter to "the arguments against the project, not based on facts", and as a truthful narration of bare facts in comparison to the "exaggerated claims of the atrocities" with a request to many "to see for themselves whether the LF Government deserves the criticism which some of our friends in the Ultra-Left are making."

We should take this report seriously and welcome it. I do because, otherwise to this date, even this much of an official data-based statement was missing. No documents have come to us even upon written request and a promise by the Industries Minister, Mr Nirupam Sen. It is also important that we know from the official source that our claims are considered to be exaggerated and the motives doubted. A rejoinder to the status report thus is necessary and follows. First and the foremost, there is no level playing field. While the government or the party, CPM, has all access to the data and the documents, we do not. Apart from the gross violation of the RTI Act 2005, we, at least some of us, were not even allowed to go to the villages in this crucial phase of the struggle where one could check the official claims. In Narmada too, there is a battle over numbers but we are based in the field and not the government.

There too the Chief Secretary or the Managing Director, Narmada (Sardar Sarovar) Corporation writes to our eminent supporters against us, with allegations but we have lists, the submergence village level data and data from the rehabilitation sites in Gujarat and Maharashtra with which we can question and prove the Government to be wrong. Here we have some lists, some statistics but collected under enormous pressure, against all odds by whoever could reach in. We again reiterate our stance: Open up Singur and we will find out the truth.

• Come one, come all…as party representatives, office bearers too and see the situation, assess it and take an appropriate stance.
• Jointly with us, form an impartial body, a Commission of Inquiry with three eminent members acceptable to all as honest and known for their integrity, with a six month period granted, and all official documents furnished to them. Let us furnish all of our data
and present views before this commission and accept a status quo on land acquisition, on occupation, repression, and mass protests too. Yet meanwhile let us comment and critique the CPI (M)/ West Bengal Government report.

1. The report is only on land acquisition and rehabilitation and there is nothing on the Tata Motors Project itself, neither the economics nor the MOU agreements and process of finalisation, except for a list of a handful of meetings.
2. All the nine meetings held within four months at the most have been held with the party representatives and Panchayat members (not much different from the former) but not with any Gramsabha, the community with all the Project Affected. Why? The 74th Amendment of the Constitution and the faith in democratic rights and process of planning would require this. It must happen, even now, with transparency.
3. It is clear that there are no details of the project, its cost and benefits, provided also to the Gram Panchayat and consent of the Gram Panchayat is also not sought, as reported to our panel for Public Hearing held at Gopalnagar on October 27th 2006, by Dhud Kumar Dhara, a member of GP.
4. The report is truthful about no consent granted by the local bodies and elected representatives and the fact that it was without any consensus that the land acquisition and the Project was and is being pushed ahead and hence the use of police force.
5. As we were saying all the time and were informed by the villagers, farmers, Bargadars, labourers, others themselves through many sources including personal hearing, there is opposition to the project by 45% to 50% of landholder–cultivato Rupees and a few thousand families of other workers dependent on them, who are opposed to giving away their land. This was all through denied and ridiculed by the official sources, right up to the Minister for Industries and CM, who projected a picture of total consent. To quote CM himself, there is hardly 1% resistance. The same we found was informed to the President of India, the Governor of West Bengal and also probably the Tatas.

This status report brings out the reality to be different.
• Out of 997 acres, it was for 620 acres that consent was granted before passing the Compensation Award. We cannot accept this as given and will like to see the documents, under the RTI Act. Why not? In any case, it's not 100% or 99% families' consent.
• We also have affidavits recently proposed and submitted to us by individual farmers who have not and do not want to give away their land totalling 347 till now.
• Our number of landholders too was being challenged. This report itself shows the landholders number for 635 acres to be 9020. This shows the small size of landholdings in the area as we claimed.
• What does post-award consent mean? It means consent under duress, when you complete acquisition under law, declare the same, it is not `Free Prior Informed Consent', a pre-condition that is recommended for large dams and development projects in our Report of the World Commission on Dams, which I was a member of, and is also demanded by all democratic organisations. We must be allowed to look into the consent papers and have copies and get those checked with the villages themselves, please.
• Many of our friends and some of the LF partners too were asking for even a single case of dissent. More than this report our affidavits bring out many which can surely be checked and compared.
• The fact not mentioned is that most of those dissenting have not even accepted land acquisition notice under section 4 of the age old Land Acquisition Act, (which LF friends too challenge, as in their note on SEZ to the UPA) and hence acquisition in their case is ex-parte, on paper.
• It is also clear that there is no Rehabilitation Policy or package clearly put forth… except for cash compensation. As we know, there is no state level rehabilitation policy, either. Training for any vocation, in any technical work does not guarantee employment.
• To offer such training as a complementary economic development activity is appreciable since there is underemployment and unemployment within the agriculturist families, but not destroying the existing employment in the agricultural sector. In any case the 189 trainees are not a big number.
• What would the families do with cash? The absentee landlords may invest in some trade etc., but will the cultivators be able to purchase alternative land of the same quality, of what magnitude, where and when?
The experience of cash swindled away leaving families impoverished has occurred in all the past projects; hence we demand land based rehabilitation in the Narmada dam too (where it is policy and hence 10500 families have got it… not without problems, though thousands remain deprived).
We demand in West Bengal a state level Rehabilitation Act for the minimum displacement that may occur for projects that would be justified and conceded to, by the affected people. We have already drafted a National Policy on Development Planning and the Advisory Council to UPA chaired by Sonia Gandhi, has already approved the National Draft. Let the LF take it up as our supporters and get enactment with one more consultation and finalisation, the earliest possible.
• We will certainly like to check on the trainee's list and the training offered, which is not fully possible in the present circumstances and atmosphere of intimidation.
• Our brief investigation and the status report itself show that many of the training programmes are yet to begin while occupation of their land has started. Whatever little programme has commenced, some of the trainees are from the project affected families and others are not. So why should the families face displacement to get such training which is a need of women and youths all over?
• It is also no guarantee of employment. The application forms filled by the trainee youths, state clearly that training does not mean the guarantee of a job! One knows from experience of industrialisation all over that the oustees don't get absorbed, they do not get a share in the benefits. The reasons, politico-economic, cannot be ignored.
• The report claims development works to have been undertaken in the affected area. Are these a part of rehabilitation? Installing bore wells, excavations of silted water channels, building roads etc. are regular development activity and why should it wait for some big industry to acquire the area? The industrious population is to be deprived, agriculture with further potential for agro industry and harnessing water in this Damodar Valley Command area is to be lost….towards what end
• Even the cash compensation affected seems to be high to an outsider – Rs 6 to 9 lakh per acre as basic price and 9 to 13 lakh per acre paid price with solatium etc. We are told the actual market price for these two quality lands is actually almost double. Also, the land adjacent to the Durgapur Expressway is too expensive. In today's world especially the urban, when land is gold its value is ever escalating. This is land near the metropolis and hence the Tatas want it too. Why should the resident farmers part away with the same?
• The questions of course go beyond the rates and the market. First, should the displacement be imposed on people living with agriculture for generations? Second, what is our experience with rehabilitation? Narmada and such tens and hundreds of projects are known but so are those in West Bengal. Damodar Valley Corporation affected too, and is yet to be rehabilitated. The research by Walter Fernandez of the Indian Social Institute, now at the North Eastern Social Research Centre, Guwahati, brings out that in West Bengal as other states, at least 70 lakh persons got affected due to the projects since 1947 till 2000, and only 9% of them are actually rehabilitated. This is too low a percentage compounded to that for other states (AP- 28%, Orissa- 33%, Goa - 34% & Kerala - 13%).
• There is no doubt, therefore that farmer- cultivators, registered bargadars to labourers in Singur are not for displacement, nor for rehabilitation. The report only mentions their numbers but not any opinion survey or referendum has been conducted. The numbers given by the official and the non-official also differ. The registered bargadars cannot be 237 and one must note that the `operation barga' the popular land reform exercise was to be completed, not only registering all bargadars but as a second phase, granting them land rights too. This has not happened yet. That the land records are not updated, was accepted by Mr Nirupam Sen, Minister for Industries himself, who admitted that updating work is being done simultaneously.
• The experience of the Tata project-affected people else where also is and should be known to the people of Singur. The Tata's Indica project, comparable to Singur was established as an extension to its initial car-truck and other production enterprise, in Pimpri, Pune. Tatas were given 188 acres of land possessed by Pimpri Housing and Area Development Corporation that was supposed to be used for housing of labourers in the industrial belt. While 13000 per acre was the price paid to the oustees, Tata paid about 20 lakh/acre (now by the High Court order, it has to pay 60 acres for the loss in the deal suffered by the corporation) , even though the same land cost about 80 lakhs per acre today. The Corporation also has had to accept that by mistake, it had allotted 15 acres more land to Tatas, which Tatas have to pay back.

But the most relevant fact to be noted is: employing some persons beyond 6 months on a temporary basis, no one from about only 125 families who lost their land for the project is employed in the factory which is highly mechanised and have altogether only 300 employees. Telco has anyway slashed about 10,000 and more jobs during last 4 years and Tata steels downsized its workplace by 30,000 during one decade, as per estimate. It is obvious, therefore, that thousands of farmer-labourers of Singur have neither a guarantee nor a reserved place.

Moreover, what the Government of West Bengal report does not bring out truthfully is the issue of the human rights violation. To say in the covering letter that none is hospitalised is not at all true. There are at least 4 persons who were hospitalised at Imambara Hospital, Chuchura, they were known to be in critical condition and one recently granted bail for an activist. The continuous presence of hundreds of (people say, thousands) policemen camping since end of November, hundreds of CPM cadre members marching around in the villages, intimidating people and so much of pain, anguish, struggle as also politicising is going on but no plain and fair dialogue. Why? Why is there no transparency, no accountability? Why is there no peaceful response to peaceful struggle, acknowledging democratic rights? One hopes this report and our rejoinder wanted at least to be a basis for the same. But the matter of grave concern is not merely
numbers but also the ideological and development issues raised, beyond Singur, as well as at the places where much larger attacks on the farming populations are, planned.

Whether in Medinapur and other places in West Bengal of Orissa, in Maharashtra or Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, the fight has begun. The transfer of agriculture land affecting food security, destroying the living communities, widening the disparity between agriculture and corporate industry is also much more unacceptable when it is undemocratic and forcible. Development cannot be furthered at the butt of the gun. It can be demonic growth, not development. The industrial growth or even the statutory welfare, nothing can be without justice at its core. The Left knows better. The Left Front must take up a more honest position, deeper investigation and an ideologically consistent approach to development throughout the country. We look forward to a response protecting human rights, guaranteeing life and livelihood.

The day it happens, will surely be celebrated as the Human Rights Day.

Medha Patkar Email: medha@narmada. org