Singur on the Kharagpur track
by Abhijit Guha
[THE STATESMAN; 27 December 2006]
We learn from the print media that after Singur, huge amounts of agricultural land will be acquired in the Kharagpur area of Midnapore (West). But if we take a longer view of events revolving around land acquisition for private industries, we will find that worse things had happened in Kharagpur during the early 1990s, a few years before the declaration of the New Industrial Policy (NEP) by the Left Front government in 1994. Kolkata-based scientists and intellectuals who are now protesting against the acquisition of fertile agricultural land for Tata Motors at Singur, did not pay any heed to the dispossession of thousands of small and marginal farmers and bargadars (including tribals) for the pig-iron companies of the Tatas and Birlas at Kharagpur. The Opposition parties, too, were silent. No Opposition leader was found to storm the Assembly on the acquisition of farmland for private companies at Kharagpur. The report on the adverse consequences of land acquisition was published in the media, particularly The Statesman, but the intellectuals remained silent.The reasons behind the silence of Kolkata-based intellectuals and the Opposition parties over the land acquisition for the Tatas and Birlas by the Left Front government at Kharagpur in the early 1990s are more than one. First, anti-Left Front political parties (the SUCI and CPI-ML) and human rights groups (APDR and Nagarik Mancha) were not much interested in the land acquisition issue during that period when the Left Front-driven industrialisation was at its nascent stage, with promises of huge industrial investments by private companies in the state.Second, though the farmlands acquired in Kharagpur provided food security to vegetable growers of Gokulpur (it is also the name of a railway station between Kharagpur and Midnapore) and the adjoining villages, they were monocrop (jal soem in the departmental classification) in nature. We still find among those who are opposed to the acquisition of multicrop farmlands a notion which runs like this: “Well, monocrop land may be acquired since we need to have industrialisation in the state, but a multicrop land should never be allowed to be acquired for non-agricultural use.”There is hardly anyone in the anti-Left Front lobby who is demanding the upgradation of monocrop land into multicrop ones, which is the government policy. We often hear from the advocates of this anti-acquisition lobby: “Why isn’t the government building industries in Purulia, Bankura and Midnapore (West)?” As if people in these districts do not depend on agriculture but on something else! So, if industries come up in these backward districts, the poor will benefit. Third, despite the spontaneous but weak protests and resistance by farmers of Kharagpur during the mid-1990s, no Opposition party lent any solid support (as they have done in Singur) to them. The media did report the adverse effects of farmland acquisition and the protests of peasants. But these did not attract the attention of Kolkata-based intellectuals and human rights groups.They were at that time busy with other issues. After all, Kharagpur is not equipped with such a great number of anti-Left Front intellectuals of all shades and colours such as Kolkata. The reason the land acquisition scenario in Kharagpur is far worse than that of Singur is based on government records and field research over six years for my PhD thesis at Vidyasagar University. Let us state some of the dismal facts. Kharagpur and SingurAccording to information revealed through the print media, a total of 997 acres of agricultural land have been acquired for the Tatas’ small car factory at Singur and it took eight months for the West Bengal government to do it by bureaucratic machinery.The compensation rate, according to government sources, turned out to be a little more than Rs 7 lakh per acre (The Statesman, 14 December). Let us compare Singur with Kharagpur. In 1992, a pig-iron manufacturing plant named Tata Metaliks was set up by the Tatas on the monocrop land of six mouzas under Kharagpur I block of the erstwhile Midnapore district, though non-arable land was available in the vicinity, having communication and other facilities. A total of 217.23 acres was acquired by the state government and the acquisition was complete within a year through the application of the more coercive West Bengal Land (Requisition and Acquisition) Act, 1948 which became defunct after 31 March, 1993. The compensation paid by the district land acquisition department was Rs 20,686 an acre for a landowner, while for a recorded bargadar, it was Rs 11,211.75 an acre. On 1 June, 1992 in the West Bengal Assembly, Mr Manas Bhunia of the Congress wanted to know about the land acquisition for the establishment of the pig-iron industry by the Tatas at Kharagpur. The land and land reforms minister in his reply informed about the amount of land given to the company and the rates of compensation. No question was asked about the rehabilitation of the displaced peasants by any member of the Assembly (West Bengal Assembly Proceedings Vol 99; 1992). An unpublished report of the Midnapore land acquisition department dated 27-3-92 revealed that the lack of irrigation facilities and the monocrop nature of the acquired land led to the calculation of its market price at such a low rate. The department, too, did not explore the possibilities of rehabilitation of the affected families in terms of providing permanent jobs and/or land as compensation. The administration seemed to be concerned only with monetary compensation at the market price prevalent in the area.Three years later, people of the same area were served with notices by the district administration for the acquisition of their farmland in 10 mouzas covering about 525 acres for another pig-iron plant named Century Textiles and Industrial Limited (CTIL) owned by the Birlas. The local people, being totally disillusioned and frustrated with the government’s attitude towards rehabilitation and compensation in the Tata Metaliks case, began to protest against this decision of acquisition. This time, the land acquisition department prepared rates of compensation, which ranged between Rs 50,000 and Rs 1,00,000 an acre and Rs 7,000 an acre for the bargadars. The farmers objected to these rates and mass deputations to the district authorities began, and on 10 January, 1996, the peasants prevented soil testing by the company and blocked the National Highway 6 for eight hours. The farmers’ agitation continued for about five months and they also boycotted the parliamentary election in May, 1996. All these events were reported in The Statesman and some Bengali dailies. No political party came to organise this spontaneous movement of peasants, no social or human rights activist came forward to support landlosers of a rural area in West Bengal, just 120 km from Kolkata and well connected by trains. One former Naxalite peasant leader, with the help of a few local Intuc boys, led a brief but significant movement against land acquisition. The district unit of the APDR published a leaflet, held a meeting in the locality and gave a deputation to the district magistrate and that was all.The land acquisition episode for CTIL, however, took a horrible turn within a few years. After taking possession of 358.25 acres by April 1997 and fencing the land, the company decided not to deposit any money for payment of compensation. The company’s managing director, Mr BK Birla, in an interview with the correspondent of The Statesman, said they would not proceed with the project since “the national market of pig-iron has become very competitive because of the entry of China and Australia in the field”.The then state land and land reforms minister, Mr Surya Kanta Mishra, on the other hand told The Statesman: “We are not finding any takers for the land” (The Statesman, 18 November, 1999).This huge chunk of fertile agricultural land, which provided subsistence to nearly 3,000 families, remained unutilised till 2003 after which some portion of it was given to a private company but the larger area still remains unutilised.The Kharagpur scenario of land acquisition for industries is an important lesson both for the Left Front government and its critics. The government should now seriously ponder over what would happen to the 997 acres of agricultural land if the Tatas suddenly backed out from Singur due to the “disturbances” created by Trinamul Congress and other social activists? Will the land be returned to the farmers? That had not happened in Kharagpur.According to the survey conducted by the Kharagpur I Block Development Office, 73 per cent of families of the gram panchayats from which land was acquired for Tata Metaliks and Century Textiles and Industries Limited were living below the poverty line in 1997, that is, one to five years after the acquisition. Will the same story be repeated in Singur?Critics of the Left Front government, particularly social activists and human rights groups, should ask themselves what would be their activity if they lose or win in the Singur battle?Will they look for another issue or should they continue a sustained struggle in changing the Draconian Land Acquisition Act, whether it is employed to acquire multicrop lands near Kolkata or monocrop lands in far off districts inhabited by poorer people?
(The author is Reader, Department of Anthropology, Vidyasagar University, Midnapore)
Meher Engineer on Guha on Singur
Something relevant to the concerns raised in Abhijit Guha’s article happened in Kolkata recently, at the Students Hall meeting on the questions that the Singur Car project raises. The meeting was called by Nagarik Manch, so the Hall was full. Recall that those present listened, silently, to the many speakers, both scheduled and unscheduled. Recall, further, that they even remained silent when one of the speakers berated them - liberally - for allowing a massive, urban, housing project to be built, before their eyes, on fertile land, by a party whose election promises have always included a reference to Land Reforms, and a reference to the party’s “best in India” record on that subject. The speaker was referring to the New Town project at Rajarhat.The people of Kolkata, particularly the intellectuals in it, did not protest then, when they saw fertile land being taken away from those whose livelihoods depended on it. They failed to say “You can’t do that.” What explains that massive indifference to the displacement of so many people?The answer surely lies in the fact that the number of people, based in Kolkata, who have taken any interest at all (since the mid-80’s?) to events occuring in the state’s rural areas can be counted on the fingers of a very small number of hands. Rural West Bengalis were left to the ever changing currents of state policy. That, in a state being run by an avowedly Leninist party, means disaster. Thus we, in Kolkata, now reap what we had then sowed. The indifference and the hostility that emanate from the party in power to its dictates is not a cause for surprise. I know of only one antidote to that kind of social poison: an alert citizenry, that is not content to sleep between elections, but which which keeps constant watch over its representatives to see that the latter perform as per the promises that they made.That was the whole idea of the JP led movement of the late seventies. It was also the idea behind the Gujarat andolan that followed JP’s movement, which tried to introduce the right to recall into Indian democracy. Neither movement succeeded. Both threw up a new generation of leaders, who succumbed, some soon some later, to the old style of Indian leadership.
Monday, February 12, 2007