Posted online: Friday, March 16, 2007Who’s the most elitist: Those who stay in India and want stagnant Bharat to be preserved
That Mamata Banerjee’s figures for those killed/injured in Nandigram violence are almost certainly a theatrical overestimate does absolutely nothing to reduce the dimensions of the tragedy. Eleven — Wednesday’s official figure — people dying in one afternoon’s political violence over an economic project raises questions. But what kind of questions? Not the kinds being asked by those hyperventilating about the first battle of a ‘revolution’ in Nandigram or those busy searching the thesaurus for the next grand epithet to be hurled at Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. Look, first, at the local facts. Nandigram protesters had sought to cut off the area from the rest of Bengal. Their modus operandi didn’t change even after the state’s announcement that land wouldn’t be acquired. Metropolitan anarchists apart, everyone should find this utterly unacceptable. Indeed, the Bengal administration can be faulted for waiting since early January, when this de facto secession was first attempted, to act. Early intervention would have certainly resulted in quicker and far less tragic resolution.
Now consider the fact about incentives. Just like in Singur, there is a difference in response between those who have clear land titles and those who are legally unrecognised long-standing land users. The first set looks at attractive monetary compensation. The second set risks getting nothing. Political actors have fed on the second group’s understandable agitation. There is a case here, and elsewhere in India, for devising compensation for genuine users without clear titles. History has produced uneven rural property rights. In Bengal, for example, most such tillers were settled by the CPM, with the promise that the party will make up for the absence of de jure rights. Good politics demands that land acquisition recognises these informal cases; while good administration, that this doesn’t open the doors to fraud and favouritism. This isn’t easy (something the Centre’s unwisely ambitious one-size-fits-all national rehab policy should recognise). But it has to be done. Another local fact is the CPM itself. The party is being paid back in the coin it has used to summarily settle many political transactions. There’s nothing commendable about Nandigram’s political agitationists. But there has been scarcely anything attractive about the CPM’s political machine either. This machine has taken over institutions and won elections. But it cannot and must not be the sword arm of an industrialisation policy that involves settling complicated property rights issues. Bhattacharjee’s really tough job is that — to shut down the machine while taking executive decisions.
The rest of India has the advantage of not hosting such political machines. And therefore it is crucial to recognise that in some respects Nandigram-like violence is unique to Bengal. But, of course, many outside Bengal are even more keen, post-Nandigram, to give industrialisation, whether via SEZs or otherwise, a bad name. One question for them. Do they want India to grow fast? If India chooses to go back to low growth, the industry-farm land issue will be worked out over many decades. If India chooses to grow fast, we will have to confront the issue and solve the problems. One of them is creating land markets. Government control has destroyed land markets, both in urban and rural India. The colonial Land Acquisition Act is no answer. But no land acquisition is an unforgivably wrong answer. SEZs, whether they export or not, are essential for accelerating India’s development. As greenfield projects they can quickly create urban infrastructure, bypassing byzantine rules. India’s rate of urbanisation actually slowed down in the 1990s, as compared to the 1950s and 1960s, and the rate is lower than many developing countries’. Those living in India but passionately asking for Bharat to be preserved are the most elitist of all. They don’t know or don’t care that 60 per cent of agricultural land is dry and therefore not prosperity-inducing — Nandigram’s land, incidentally, has a salinity problem, a fact that made acquisition attractive for many legal title holders — that a majority of holdings are small and unviable, that unskilled or semi-skilled industrial employment is the only secure prospect for millions in rural India, that if the political cost of investment rises, investors will go away. Bhattacharjee has said how he had to fight other states to get the project for Nandigram. If policymakers panic after Nandigram, India will have to fight other countries. Even Indian capital, in today’s world, needn’t be stuck with investing in India. Does anyone benefit from that, that’s the real question after Nandigram.
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