Friday, April 6, 2007

EPW editorials

Economic and Political Weekly March 24, 2007 page no. 991-2

SOS from Nandigram

The killing of protesting villagers in Nandigram

by a trigger-happy police on March 14 sounds

an alarm bell that sends a warning not only to

the Left Front regime of West Bengal where the tragedy

occurred, but to all those at the helm of affairs in both the

centre and other states, who irrespective of their party

affiliation, are fond of riding roughshod over public

opposition, for the sake of “economic growth” – the

catchword in today’s official discourse of liberalisation.

The developments in Nandigram should not be treated

as something coming out of the blue. The air was already

heavy with signs of the approaching storm. The sequence

of events exposes both the political myopia of an overconfident

and arrogant ruling party and the inhuman

indifference to public concerns by its administration –

features shared in common by state governments, whether

based in Bhubaneshwar, Jaipur, Hyderabad or

Gandhinagar. When the West Bengal government initially

announced its plan to acquire land at Nandigram

for the setting up of a chemical hub, it immediately

provoked protests from among the affected villagers –

the majority of them incidentally being supporters of the

ruling CPI(M). But the party chose to ignore the signs of

discontent in Nandigram, and also failed to take lessons

from the popular outburst that had already challenged

the ham-handed efforts of its administration to acquire

land in Singur for the Tata car factory a few months

ago. Instead of correcting its past mistakes, the CPI(M)

in Nandigram persisted in ramrodding the drive for

industrialisation, without caring to take into confidence

the affected villagers. The Haldia Development Authority

(under which Nandigram falls and is headed by the local

CPI(M) MP), went ahead by issuing a circular declaring

its unilateral decision to acquire land for the project.

A smug party leadership apparently assumed that since

the villagers had voted for the Left, they would meekly

submit to the orders issued from above.

When the villagers rose in protest, chief minister

Buddhadeb Bhattacharya retracted by admitting in public

that it was a mistake, and had to announce that no land

would be taken away from them without their consent.

Yet, rather than following up the public gesture by

meeting and apologising to the disgruntled villagers and

officially withdrawing the circular, the ruling CPI(M)

seemed to have been driven by a petty vindictive motive

of teaching a lesson to their voters and dissident followers

for having dared to oppose the party’s plan. Reports by

both the media and human rights activists reveal that

in the terror that was unleashed in Nandigram on March

14 – all in the name of restoring “law and order” – the

police were accompanied by CPI(M) armed cadres who

wreaked vengeance on their opponents.

The bloody trail of terror left in Nandigram has

besmirched the image of Bhattacharya, who till recently

was basking in the glory of success in winning the

elections, regaining the confidence of Indian investors,

and earning the admiration of bhadralok Bengali society.

The Nandigram tragedy will also hang as an albatross

around the neck of his party’s central leadership which

has just begun to acquire some respectability and

importance among the Indian political classes, thanks

to the Left’s ability to win enough seats in Parliament

to influence national policies.

Beyond the immediate tragedy of Nandigram, there

lurks the more frightful prospect of increasing confrontation

all over India between state governments, which

are bent on following a particular model of development,

on the one hand, and the vast masses who are to be

dispossessed by that model, on the other. Nandigram

is only one episode among the series of agitations that

have exploded in various parts in the recent past (in

Sangrur in Punjab over acquisition of land for a special

economic zone, Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh against

the construction of a mega hydel project and Panaji in

Goa in opposition to selling of farm and forest land to

corporate houses – to quote a few instances). L K Advani

of the Bharatiya Janata Party who is now crying hoarse

over the killings in Nandigram, chose to remain silent

Economic and Political Weekly March 24, 2007 992

over a similar happening in Kalinganagar in Orissa (where his

party is an ally of the ruling Biju Janata Dal) in January 2006,

when the police shot down 13 villagers as the local tribal

community came out in a demonstration against the appropriation

of their land for an industrial project. EPW

Economic and Political Weekly March 24, 2007 page no. 991


Beyond the Immediate Tragedy

There is a need to go beyond the immediate tragedy of

Nandigram and examine the underlying process that gives

rise to such episodes. In the neoliberal times that we are

living through, governments, whether at the central or a state

level, are essentially for the markets, by the markets and of

the markets. Indeed, the parliamentary political process is

increasingly governed by the logic of the market. But at a

more basic level, the process of capitalist development, which

is now driven largely by private investment, is creating

progress and wealth at one pole, while at the same time

dragging masses of people – poor and middle peasants,

landless rural workers, urban workers weakened by the

decline of effective trade unions, and non-wage earners in the

informal sector – “through blood and dirt, through misery

and degradation” at the other.

Classically, the “peasant question” has been articulated in

terms of class differentiation of the peasantry, ultimately

tending to polarisation into capitalists and proletarians.

However, the process of industrialisation also demands the

mobilisation of agricultural land that leads to displacement

of peasants, leading to their “proletarianisation” or

“marginalisation” in an urban environment, a process that has

accelerated in India since the 1980s. Of course, before the

reforms and the drive towards free trade in agricultural

commodities initiated at the World Trade Organisation, such

effects were mitigated through state support to agriculture in

various forms. But now the “commodification” of food is at

high tide. The “peasant question” of the 21st century, more

than in the past, thus brings to the fore issues of landlessness,

hunger, “informalisation”, homelessness and environmental

destruction. Millions of people have been victims of displacement

and dislocation, and many more will follow, if the

many proposals on the anvil to set up special economic zones

(SEZs) go ahead in the country.

In West Bengal, to the credit of the Left Front (LF) government,

land reform – implementation of the land ceiling

and the redistribution of land, as also “Operation Barga” –

improved the distribution of income and changed the incentive

structure in favour of those who tilled the land, though

subsequently some land transfers may have been reversed via

the market. But over time there has been the inevitable rising

disproportion between the rural population, land resources

and jobs, what with the failure of rural industry to take off.

The CPI(M) has been rightly quite concerned about the

future of the small and middle peasants, given the decline of

landholding areas and the limits of the diffusion of technical

progress, and with the increase in population density also

about the landless. After all, with the land reform, around 80

per cent of the cultivated land is now with small and middle

peasants, whereas elsewhere, where the implementation of

the land ceiling and redistribution was a failure, this proportion

is less than half that figure. And, post-land reforms, the

Chayanovian tendency of demographic differentiation has

also asserted itself. But will industrialisation in the form of

a “mega-chemical hub” and multi-product SEZ over 10,000

acres of land in Nandigram or elsewhere and other such

projects serve to address the question of alternative livelihood

opportunities? An enormous number of people who are

involved in agriculture and allied activities will be expropriated

and displaced as a result, leading to a further increase

in the huge mass of people in the informal sector, living on

the margins of existence.

Should not the CPI(M) then be thinking and acting at least

along social-democratic lines? In agriculture and allied

activities, the LF government, with the active participation

of the Kisan Sabhas, can help form mutual aid teams in which

households can pool resources (tools, implements, draft power,

occasional labour) but still cultivate the land on an individual

basis. When this is successful, they can then move to the

formation of elementary cooperatives in which land as well

as other resources can be pooled, but individual ownership

rights maintained, and where incomes can be based partly

on property ownership and partly on labour time committed

to cooperative production. In industry, the LF government

should be pursuing more vigorously its policy of industrial

clusters based on specific products/skills of small and

medium units with common infrastructure services that

improve the viability of the units. Here too, cooperative forms

of organisation can be given precedence, with the trade

unions as effective stakeholders. Land acquisition, as

required, must of course go through the process of democratic

consent via the gram sabhas, with environmental and social

impact assessments, public hearings, and reasonable

compensation, resettlement and rehabilitation. EPW