(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
January 21, 2007
Singur, Nandigram And Industrialisation Of West Bengal
SINGUR and Nandigram have been dominating the media for the last few weeks. An unprecedented focus has remained riveted to the development discourse in West Bengal. But to us, the fine print was also equally apparent. Discrediting the efforts of the Left Front government in order to undermine the principled struggle of the Left, particularly the CPI(M), in opposing the anti-people economic policies of the central government – particularly its current SEZ policy – was the signature tune of this propaganda blitz. Therefore, unravelling the many myths that this blitz has tried to perpetrate and establish the truth in its proper perspective has become imperative.
THE QUESTION OF INDUSTRIALISATION
At the time of independence, West Bengal was one of the more industrially developed states of the country. The great degree of natural resources and the variety of agro-climatic environment had led to development of number of traditional industries like jute, tea and textile. Being the capital of British India, Calcutta was a major hub with the port playing host to a lot of international and domestic trade. Engineering industry also, particularly in the capital goods sector, was one of the major features of industrially developed Bengal. The presence and access to a large amount of coal deposits was a major factor for development of industry in the state.
However, after independence, the situation started going downhill dramatically, due to certain unfair policy approaches adopted by the central government. Foremost of these was the freight equalisation policy for coal which completely undermined the locational advantage of Bengal. Except for the steel industry in Durgapur, there has been no significant public investment in the period since independence. Coupled with this, the Congress misrule in the state kept the agriculture of the state in backwardness. Riding on the struggle against all these, the Left forces wrested the political leadership.
When the Left Front assumed office in 1977 the economy was in tatters. The strategy for development of industry had to face major difficulties with some of the traditional industries facing central neglect and lack of investment for modernisation. New industries in the private sector were also not forthcoming due to the use of general licensing powers for setting up industry more as a political instrument against the Left-led state. A number of sick private sector units which had been nationalised were allowed to languish through virtual withdrawal of State support. While small and cottage industries thrived due to the major intervention to improve the lot of agriculture, heavy industry and infrastructure undoubtedly faced severe constraints.
Therefore, if one reads contemporary history and political discourse it will be found that those who have now taken up cudgels against the Left Front government’s sincere attempt at reindustrialising the state, during most part of the last three decades, were mounting an offensive against the state government for its failure to improve the industrial situation.
AGRICULTURE: THE MAINSTAY
The major efforts in agriculture were spearheaded by taking forward the land reforms which started during the brief interludes in 1967 and 1969 under UF governments. The resulting empowerment was consolidated through the introduction of the new panchayat system in 1978, wherein the poor and marginal farmers empowered through ownership of land came to occupy the leadership of the local self-governments.
Land is a scarce resource in West Bengal. West Bengal along with Punjab has borne the brunt of partition. Large-scale influx continued till 1971 from across the border. The result is the population density of the state has risen to 906 per square kilometre. This is almost three times the national average of 323 per square kilometre. Accounting for only 2.7 per cent of the total cultivable land in the country, West Bengal produces 9 per cent of the agricultural produce. Agrarian reform-driven and panchayat led infrastructure-based agriculture has expanded the extent of irrigated land from about 28 per cent in 1997 to about 69 per cent now. The net outcome is that the proportion of agricultural land in the state has grown to 62 per cent of the total land. As a result, now only 1 per cent is fallow land as against the national average of 17 per cent. Production and productivity in agriculture has gone up significantly. The expansion of irrigation has been largely small and minor irrigation-driven without any major central support.
Therefore, in spite of all the challenges, West Bengal’s achievements in agriculture has been stunning. And, it is the Left that has led this battle from the front. And, it is this which has been reflected in election after election. The fact that with the background of land reforms, 78 per cent of the agricultural land in the state is owned by small and marginal farmers is a testimony to the extent of economic empowerment of the rural poor. Though West Bengal accounts for less than 3 per cent of the total land in the country, the total land which has been redistributed accounts for 22 per cent of the amount in the national total. Right now, when this bizarre debate is going on regarding conversion of agricultural land for industry and the land reform programme in the country has come to a standstill, 30,000 acres of land is going to be redistributed this year as a testimony to the Left Front government’s commitment to land reforms and rural poor.
MORE ON INDUSTRIALISATION
While the success of the state in agriculture is undisputed, still agriculture cannot remain insulated from the overall national agrarian crisis. True, unlike Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, a single farmer in West Bengal has not committed suicide; but even then clear signs of slowing down of agriculture cannot be overlooked. It is true that while the agricultural growth during the Tenth Plan period has been a paltry 1.9 per cent in the country as against 4 per cent in the state, still the decrease in the contribution of agriculture to the state GDP and the proportion of population dependent on agriculture is similar to that of the country as a whole. The decline of agriculture in the country is the direct outcome of the neo-liberal policies pursued by succeeding governments at the centre.
The state government’s effort, therefore, is to strengthen agriculture with its limited resources. Improvement in technology, extension of irrigation and expansion of credit and easier access to market is the major premise of this effort. The state government in redeeming its electoral commitment has appointed the first state agricultural commission led by leading agricultural scientists and other concerned experts. The mandate of this commission is to design a comprehensive plan for providing a further push to the agriculture of the state using scientific and technological knowledge.
But while this effort will be on, there is no way that without improving the industrial activity, the overall economic progress can be ensured. It is in this context that the industrial policy of the state has been framed.
The major features of this policy include –– expansion of small and medium scale industries through the development of cluster-based infrastructure, the unrelenting efforts at opening and rejuvenating closed and sick industries both in the private and the public sector, addressing the problems of traditional industries like tea and jute which face a big challenge because of the current market conditions and policies over which the state government has little control and, most importantly, facilitating new industries with particular emphasis on Greenfield manufacturing units.
In the din over Singur and Nandigram, the overall industrial strategy and other aspects of this question have been drowned. It will be useful to acquaint the readers with the movement on some of these aspects.
On the small and medium scale sectors, the government is targeting construction of about 100 such clusters based on specific skills and products. Of these, 41 such have been cleared by the central government in the last six months and this will go up to 50 by the end of the financial year. This is purely in the public sector where common infrastructure will be used to enhance the viability of this sector.
There has been a thorough exercise in addressing the challenges facing the tea industry. In terms of reopening of closed units, certain very crucial breakthroughs have been achieved. The Dunlop and Bengal Chemicals, which were almost iconic with the industrial past of the state, have been reopened and fresh investments are being made, one in the private sector and the other in the public sector. The two decade-long struggle for modernisation of IISCO under SAIL has also achieved a great success with merger of IISCO into SAIL and Rs 10,000 crore investment for modernisation of the Burnpur unit. Together with this, new investments have started flowing in manufacturing and heavy industries. There are three major steel plants which are coming to fruition – by Jindals in Shalboni, Balaji group in Purulia and the Bhushan Steel in Durgapur-Asansol industrial area. These are employment intensive units with great prospects in downstream.
It is in this background that we have to view the Singur project of the Tatas.
SINGUR: AN UNNECESSARY CONTROVERSY
Much has been sought to be made out over the conversion of agricultural land in Singur for the Tata project. Given the strong inclination of the Left Front for development in agriculture, it is but quite natural that ideally the government would have been happier had Tatas not chosen Singur. In fact, the government had shown the Tatas four other alternative sites. But that Tatas chose this site on considerations of better access to Kolkata and the associated infrastructure is something on which the state government cannot pursue beyond a point. Here, one must note the special tax dispensation which the central government had allowed for Uttaranchal and Himachal Pradesh. Though it was stated earlier that this special dispensation will be terminated in 2007, it has been further extended to 2010. Under this regime, any new industrial investment will qualify for huge tax waivers which, in the case of the Tata project, amounts to almost Rs 16,000 over each car which is to be priced at Rs 1 lakh. In the market-driven economy today, there are all options available to an investor in terms of locating their project. Inspite of the fact that the Tatas had almost finalised the location of their project in Uttaranchal, that they have decided to now locate their project in Singur is actually a testimony to the state government’s persuasiveness.
The critique that agricultural land should not be used for industry is also misplaced. In the 10 months of transactions over Singur land in the run-up to the present controversy, 557 transactions took place which involved about 100 acres of land. In most of these transactions, land bought was not for the purpose of agriculture. In fact, in Singur, as elsewhere in the country for lands adjoining highways and expressways, there is strong evidence of major activity of speculators. It is not correct to assume that the 997 acres which was acquired for the Tata project would have otherwise remained under cultivation. The point is whether the state government will intervene and facilitate a project where manufacturing industry will come up providing jobs to thousands or land will be allowed to be converted by market forces without major value addition and the major benefit accruing to land speculators?
Given the overall economic situation in the state and the compulsions of further economic progress, the Left Front had decided before the assembly elections that a vigorous push towards the commissioning of new industries particularly in the manufacturing sector is an imperative need. This was particularly more so given the grim situation of employment. That the requirement for adopting such a course may necessitate use of some agricultural land (given the fact that fallow land is just 1 per cent) was anticipated before the 2006 assembly elections. Therefore, the present propaganda that even some Left parties are also opposed to the use of agricultural land for industry per se is also misplaced. In fact, the election manifesto of the Left Front clearly stated: “With agricultural land being required for building infrastructure and for industrialisation, appropriate compensation, rehabilitation if facing loss of home, and arrangement for agricultural work for those who lose land and are kisans will be considered with adequate importance.”
In spite of recognising that some agricultural land may have to be used for new Greenfield industrial projects, that the state government was keenly interested in using less agriculturally productive land also becomes apparent from the redrawing of the map for the land which has been finally acquired for the project. The initial map consisted of 1056 acres with an average crop intensity of 190 per cent. In the process of consultation, this was reconfigured to bring the total land down to 997 acres with the corresponding reduction in the cropping intensity to 150 per cent. Notably, the average cropping intensity of the state as a whole is 172 per cent. This is a clear pointer to the state government’s approach on the question of agricultural production. As a result of these exercises, the boundary of the project site is not straight but zigzag and the state government had convinced the Tatas for accepting this modification.
The other question was whether land was being forcefully acquired. The 1894 Land Acquisition Act is a piece of antiquated legislation. It does not provide a strong component of proper rehabilitation for the oustees from the land which will be acquired. The CPI(M) has been in the forefront of the struggle to demand an amendment to the Act and sufficiently reinforce and provide statutory safeguards for rehabilitation. The West Bengal government has also been making the same demand. The Act does not provide for any consent from the land owners. However, the West Bengal government decided to have an additional specially prescribed consent form to ensure that there is greater consultation and participation of those land owners whose land was being acquired. Apart from the nine rounds of meeting which the government had at the level of Singur block, Hooghly district and at the state level, this voluntary consent also ensured widest possible consultations. The figures of the consenting number of farmers as well as drawal of compensation cheques had been controverted by critiques. Much was being sought to be made out of the slight time lag in releasing the details of these figures by the state government. But the release of the latest figures on January 12 (with updated figures till December 31, 2006) in the government website (www.wbgov.com) should put all that to rest (see excerpts in accompanying box).
Another major argument has been that the government should not have intervened in the land acquisition for a private corporate project. Not only does this argument resemble the broad neo-liberal reasoning that the State should not generally involve itself in such matters, this also would be promotive of the open activities of the land speculators that we have pointed out. Not only that, the specifics of the ownership pattern of West Bengal is drastically different from the rest of the country. In Haryana, about 2000 acres of land have been acquired from around 600 land owners whereas the 997 acres were owned by nearly 12,000 plot owners. The fact that 78 per cent of the land is owned by small and marginal farmers is substantiated by the specific figures of Singur which points out to the very small holdings. This also throws up another very important economic facet. Given the small size of the land holding, farmers were finding it difficult to depend on agriculture on a sustained basis. And, that was evident in the sale of their land even before the Tata project acquisition took place. And, that is why further evidence gets manifested in the huge number of consenting land owners who have sold out. The importance of the government’s intervention in land acquisition is also evident in the amount of cash compensation that the land owners are getting which is almost three times than the going market rate. Further, unlike anywhere else in the country, the sharecroppers are getting 25 per cent of the compensation amount that the land owners are getting. The government’s involvement has also ensured some concrete rehabilitation plan for non-owners and non-unrecorded sharecroppers. Such a rehabilitation package with emphasis on alternative livelihood security is unheard of in the rest of the country.
To wrap up the question of Singur, those who pointedly kept raising the question of ‘violence’ when asked to give details about the violence on December 1 and 2, had nothing to offer. They could not give a single name of a person who had been injured and hospitalised. Much of the campaign by the media on violence has been sound and fury signifying nothing! No single shot was fired. And, no single hospitalisation of the protestors took place. And, it is despite such lie campaigns that people overwhelmingly rejected these forces once again in the assembly elections of 2006. Driven by despair, they are now trying to reverse the mandate of the people. And, that precisely is a rejection of democracy. Those who believe in democracy will definitely understand this sooner than later.
(To be continued)
Saturday, April 21, 2007