Monday, February 12, 2007

Praful Bidwai
[From the South Asia Citizen’s Web; 25 December 2006]

As Ms Mamata Banerjee’s fast against the Singur project in West Bengal moves into its third week, and as the deadline for handing over land to the Tatas approaches, the conflict over the proposed car factory is coming to a head. One can only hope that a just solution is soon reached on acquiring land in Singur village. By the time these lines appear, a compromise may well have been reached. It is of the utmost importance that this be a sustainable and comprehensive settlement which includes the rehabilitation of all those who will be displaced.What happens in Singur will create a benchmark for all future industrial products in West Bengal, including export-oriented special economic zones (SEZs). Singur has become a new paradigm of development, and a test case for the ruling Left Front’s economic policies and its relations with the United Progressive Alliance. It’s not difficult to understand why Singur has become so controversial. At stake are 997 acres of land, and the livelihoods of 12,000 landowners and share-croppers. Given that the village is barely 45 km away from Kolkata, just off the Durgapur Expressway, the landowners know their land is valuable. At least 30 percent (according to one report, 68 percent) of it is multi-cropped. Some want higher compensation for it than the government has offered (basic rate, Rs 6 to 8.9 lakhs).Both the political Right and the Far Left have jumped into the fray by focusing on their discontent. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Left Front’s leading component, claims the landowners had written in their consent to sell 954 of the 997 acres of land. It also says it has rehabilitation and employment plans for the local population. It denies that the police used brute force against peaceful demonstrators. Most controversially, Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee dismisses all protesters as “forces opposed to Bengal’s growth”.However, according to the “status report” on Singur published by the government (see The Times of India, Dec 16), prior consent for land purchase was obtained only for 586 acres - and that too on the day the government started fencing off land. It had no consent for acquiring the rest (411 acres). It clamped Sec 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, banning the assembly of five or more persons, and imposed the Land Acquisition Act, 1894 (LAA)-a colonial law whose application the Left parties rightly oppose in many states! The LAA permits forcible land acquisition for “public purpose”, but the Tata Motors factory fulfils no public purpose, as distinct from purely commercial objectives. It passes comprehension why the government agreed to procure a large contiguous plot on the Tatas’ behalf, rather than ask them to buy it themselves. In respect of SEZs in other states, the Left parties oppose such mediation by governments,. as well as the acquisition of multi-cropped land.There’s a problem about land value too. The government claims it’s paying Singur’s landowners more than the going market rate. But it’s known that less than half the market price is registered in land deeds. Extrapolating from recent purchases (e.g. at Dankuni, about 25 km from Kolkata), land in Singur could be worth about Rs 30 lakhs/acre. Matters are even more complicated because the bulk of Singur’s land belongs to absentee landowners, and is actually cultivated by share-croppers (Bargadars). The cultivators will get just 25 percent of the land value even if they’re registered under the land reform programme known as “Operation Barga”. If they aren’t, as is bound to happen with any large-scale programme, they will get no compensation. Their number is significant-estimated at 250.Even if they’re brought into the net, the compensation payable would still be meagre –only one-quarter of the land value. As for the 1,000 or so landless agricultural workers and other providers of village services like blacksmiths, mechanics and barbers, the less said the better. They will get wiped out without any compensation. This land transaction model will have a profoundly negative effect on West Bengal’s agrarian situation. “Operation Barga” not only registered share-croppers, it also reduced the landlord’s share in the harvest to one-quarter or one-third of the total. At Singur, that ratio will be reversed - a sign of what may be called counter-reform. The Left Front will have turned its back on the biggest and most successful land reform it executed in Bengal in its three decades in power.The West Bengal police used force against peaceful demonstrators, injuring at least four, and slapped serious charges upon them, including attempt to murder. This aggravates the state’s culpability. As does its bypassing of the village panchayat - in violation of Article 74 of the Constitution. One can and should criticise Ms Banerjee for her Right-wing politics, coercive tactics and opportunism. But that doesn’t exonerate the Front. This is doubly tragic. First, the Left should know that the land issue is at the cutting edge of today’s class struggles, which pit the poor against predatory commercial interests. Second, the Left had the responsibility-and a unique opportunity-to create a worthy model of consensual and humane land acquisition and full rehabilitation in Singur. This would have allowed the Left Front to redeem its indifferent record of rehabilitation in West Bengal. A recent study finds that the state has rehabilitated a measly 9 percent of the people displaced by the Damodar Valley project and other World Bank-funded schemes since the 1950s. This is a far lower proportion than Andhra’s 28 percent, Orissa’s 33 and Goa’s 34.Once instituted, the Singur Paradigm will be applied to a much larger area, over 40,000 acres, to be acquired near Kolkata for a host of other industrial projects, including SEZs and industrial parks, of the kind the Left parties oppose elsewhere. The Left Front government has received requests for a total of 125,000 acres from 20 Indian and two foreign companies. Among the latter is the favoured Selim group from Indonesia, known to be a front for the super-corrupt Suharto family which has looted national wealth. Singur’s significance or impact doesn’t end there. Singur is a concentrated expression of the pattern of industrialisation and development that the Left Front has embraced in Bengal. This pattern is led or dominated by private capital, and is weak on social development. The Front government seems desperate to attract private corporate investment, including foreign investment, at any cost, and irrespective of whether it generates employment, skills and other spin-offs, and contributes to public welfare.This means the Front is adopting the neoliberal model in which the corporate investor calls the shots and sets the market rules, leaving elected governments and other publicly accountable institutions helpless in directing investment into the most desirable areas to maximise public welfare. The Left Front vocally – and rightly - opposes neoliberal and corporate-led pro-globalisation policies at the national level.Of all Indian parties, the Left alone has a coherent critique of such policies, which are creating havoc through their vicious dualism, contribution to widening disparities, andcallousness towards the poor. If the Left follows a contradictory approach in the states where it rules, it will attract the charge that it practises double standards. This will damage its credibility, and also weaken its ability to act as a pressure-group on the UPA in favour of progressive policies. This pressure-group role is the central reason why the Left supports the UPA government from the outside. It would be tragic if this function were to get undermined.India’s Left parties, which today enjoy their highest-ever representation in Parliament, and which rule in three states, command a level of credibility and respect far in excess of their membership or direct political influence. At the present juncture, they are better placed than ever before to develop an alternative model of development and industrialisation which is not predatory on people’s livelihoods and does not squeeze the peasantry to fund the creation of factories and services.By persisting with the Singur model, the Left stands to lose in yet another way. Over the past decade or so, a healthy coalition has emerged between the organised Left, and civil society groups, grassroots people’s movements, and the radical intelligentsia Singur has created a serious rift within this coalition. Unless this is healed, it will weaken all its components and reduce their effectiveness. The Left Front must not sit on prestige on Singur, as Mr Bhattacharjee would like it to do. It must radically rethink and revise the Singur land acquisition plan even if that means the Tatas carry out their threat to relocate the project if land is not handed over to them by the year’s end. Far too much is at stake for the owners of a car factory to be allowed to dictate terms to the Left.