Thursday, June 7, 2007

Malini Bhattacharya on Nandigram

Page 1 Economic and Political Weekly May 26, 2007 1895
Nandigram and the Question of Development

While ill-founded rumours of many kinds contributed to thebuild-up of tension in Nandigram, there is no question that the people of the area had genuine fears of what industrialisation and the associated displacement held out for them if a special economic zone was established in the area. These concerns have taken a new dimension in the context of the countrywide agrarian crisis which has had an impact on West Bengal as well. As a member of the National Commission for Women, I have beenmeeting a number of people of theNandigram area, particularly women, whohave been affected by the violent happen-ings there in the last four months. Theseevents have received much media atten-tion, particularly the tragic climax whichcame on March 14 when, following at-tempts by police forces to enter the area,the totally unwarranted death of 14 peoplefrom the locality, including two women,took place. I have met both women whowere in hospitals as victims of this action,as well as others who had been forced toleave their villages as a result of violenceunleashed in the area since January by theso-called Bhumi Ucched Pratirodh Com-mittee (BUPC).The fact of violent displacement of largenumbers of people in the name of deve-lopment is not unknown in India and hashappened in other states like Orissa,Maharashtra, Gujarat or Madhya Pradesh;in this case, actual displacement has nottaken place, but violent incidents havefollowed a mere proposal to set up arelatively small special economic zone(SEZ) in West Bengal. What is unprec-edented and unwarranted is that the violenceand the subsequent loss of lives due to police action has taken place in a state wherea Left Front (LF) government has been inpower for the last 30 years. The left partiesled by the CPI(M) have been the onlyorganised political force in the country totake a strong and consistent stand againstneo-liberal policies promoting indiscrimi-nate opportunistic handing over of na-tional resources to transnational capital.The left parties have also perceivedSEZs as an outcome of the same neo-liberal policies long before their political opponents in West Bengal raised a hue andcry over Nandigram. The CPI(M)’s statedstand on this has been that in the presentsituation, mere opposition to SEZs would not prevent them from coming up and it was imperative to prevail upon the centralgovernment to introduce regulations onland use in SEZs so that industry hasprecedence over real estate business andlabour rights are preserved. Nandigram has been a testing ground for working outto what extent a state government, con-strained by many limitations, may cullsome advantages for development andgeneration of livelihood, from the basi-cally adverse national situation created byneoliberal policies.The reverses ofNandigram have shown how complex thewhole question is.A mere circular, subsequently with-drawn, enumerating areas which might

Page 2 Economic and Political Weekly May 26, 2007 1896

have to be acquired for the SEZ in Nandi-gram, created a conflagration leading toan enforced withdrawal of all administra-tion from the area. The situation was pre-cipitated by the ill-advised police actionon March 14, 2007, at Sonachura andBhangabera.The use of arms by thoseresisting police entry cannot be ruled out.But there can be no doubt that instead ofresolving the impasse the police actionaggravated the situation; the governmenthas subsequently admitted that mistakeswere made. It is particularly regrettablethat the major victims of violence rightfrom the month of January, whether theysuffered in the hands of the BUPC or onMarch 14 from police action, are ordinarypoor people who are still living in anatmosphere of fear and uncertainty. In spiteof the unequivocal declaration by the stategovernment that there would be no landacquisition without people’s consent andsubsequently that the proposal for SEZ inNandigram was being withdrawn, theadministration is still being prevented fromentering Nandigram and violence withinand around that area is still continuing.Class Terror?Many people have seen this as a spon-taneous peasant uprising from the groundlevel. When, however, one looks at thecoercion and violence unleashed upon asection of the poor peasants, agriculturalworkers and petty producers in the area bythe BUPC since January 6, 2007, and thecontinuing enforced displacement of thissection from their homes, one is unable toendorse this view. If this had been aspontaneous peasant uprising, suchterrorisation would have been unnecessary.One woman of Kalicharanpur with verylittle land, whose husband suffers fromulcerative colitis and is therefore hardly ableto work, had been allegedly gang-rapedby three persons one of whom sherecognised as a member of BUPC; oneman who has a small business producingand selling gur, agreed to go along withBUPC, but when they started extractinglevies he was unable to pay, he decidedto escape from the area to avoid them; buthe was caught and although he managedto save his own life, all his equipment formaking gur was confiscated so that he isnow entirely without a livelihood. Anotherwoman was ousted from her home forhaving dared to give evidence to the StateWomen’s Commission regarding the brutalmurder of 17-year old Sumita Mondol,in which some members of BUPC wereallegedly involved. Such incidents are dailyoccurrences in the area today. So if thisis “class terror” arising from a spontaneousmovement from the grassroots, why arehundreds of people from the poorer classesat the receiving end of it? Why did theBUPC find it necessary on March 14 touse force on a number of women andchildren to place them in the line of policefiring and to erect barriers of bamboo andrope behind them to prevent them fromretreating when the police charged? Wehave been told by many women who wereobviously taking part in the resistance thatthey had been in the forefront on that daybecause they had been told that the policewould not fire on them; others again haveinformed us that they were forced toparticipate, some of them at gunpoint, inthe resistance. Such evidence indicates amost unscrupulous manipulation of thedoubts and fears of the masses for gainingopportunistic political control.At the same time, however, it cannot bedenied that this manipulation becamepossible not only through directterrorisation of people with a differentpolitical inclination, but by working uponsome basic fears, which had been theregenerally in the minds of the rural poorin the area. Nandigram differs significantlyfrom Singur, with which its name is veryoften uttered in the same breath, insofaras the former is a less fertile area, wherethe soil is saline and agriculture is possibleonly for three months in the year; unlikeSingur, it is not located on the nationalhighway and speculation in land has notbeen so rampant as it had been in Singurfor quite some time even before the Tataproject came up. Above all, the proposalin Nandigram was to set up a SEZ, whereasin Singur, the acquisition of land was forsetting up a car factory; and while in Singur,the transactions involved some agricul-tural land alone (single, double ormulticrop), in Nandigram, acquisition ofhomestead land was also a possibility, thusevoking the fear not only of dispossession,but also of dislocation. Such dislocationwould affect not only people earning theirlivelihood directly from agriculture, butalso other people living in the area forgenerations and those providing variousservices to them. It would certainly affectthe previously mentioned gur producer,irrespective of whether or not he possessedany land or he earned his livelihood partlyas an agricultural worker. These are veryreal fears which have to be addressed before any kind of land acquisition is proposed.These specific fears of dislocation arealso contextualised by more general fearsfrom which the peasantry is suffering allover the country today. These are very real fears prompted by what economists havedescribed as the worst agrarian crisis in thecountry since colonial times. This is notone brought on by natural causes, but isthe direct result of neoliberal policies andthe pressures of imperialist penetrationinto the agricultural sector of third worldcountries manifested through the impera-tives of institutions like the WTO, whichhave opened up our agrarian economy“to the volatility of global markets and tounfair trade” (Utsa Patnaik, ‘Deflationand Déjà Vu’, in Agrarian Studies (eds),V K Ramchandran and MadhuraSwaminathan, Tulika, 2002, p 119). It hasbeen pointed out that acute immiserisationin the agrarian sector has been the directresult of “income-deflationary and trade-liberalising” policies dictated by globalagencies such as the one mentioned above.In West Bengal, the beneficial effects ofland reforms on agricultural productionhave, to some extent, counteracted theeffects of this countrywide crisis so thatin the Tenth Plan period, when the growthrate of agriculture in the rest of India camedown to 2 per cent, in West Bengal, it wasstill over 3.5 per cent. But West Bengalhas had other problems such as the extreme density of population, as a result of whichthere has been considerable fragmentationof land with about 65 per cent of the totalpopulation depending for their livelihooddirectly or indirectly on agriculture. Thestagnation in employment opportunities inthe urban sector has compounded thelivelihood difficulties and the imperativefor setting up not only small and mediumindustries, but also larger ones, has to befollowed by a state government which,under the existing circumstances, has toexplore all available options for employ-ment generation. Generation of employ-ment on a scale that the agricultural sectortoday is unable to sustain, has been per-ceived by the Left Front government as themajor objective of industrialisation.Dearth of EmploymentA number of women, from families ofthe labouring poor in Nandigram who hadbeen ousted from their villages by theviolence unleashed by BUPC, told me thatthere was a dearth of livelihood opportu-nities in the area; some of them were even--------------------------------------------------------------------------------Page 3 Economic and Political Weekly May 26, 2007 1897
sending their young children to Delhi as domestic labour and were forced to marry off their daughters at a very young age.They felt that if there was industrialisationin the area, this might give them moreopportunities for employment, althoughthey were not specific about the kind ofemployment the poorer and untrainedsections of the local population might havefrom the setting up of a chemical hub. Still,they said very clearly that the soil beingsaline and groundwater level being verylow, traditional agriculture could not yieldsufficient livelihood in the area. They alsosaid that they had been assured that therewould be sufficient compensation for anyland acquired, even for a tree or a pondsituated on this land. This was not deniedeven by the men and women injured in thepolice action whom I met in the hospitalswhere they were being treated. But thelatter said that they had no intention ofparting with agricultural or homesteadland whatever the compensation may be,and that they had disbelieved even thedeclaration made by the chief ministerbefore March 14 that no land would beacquired without their consent. When askedwhy they had persisted in resistance whenthe chief minister had already declared thatthe chemical hub would not be set up inNandigram, one young man blurted out:“But he is still talking of industrialisation!”Thus for them the term “industrialisation”itself had come to be synonymous withdispossession and displacement and theyhad been swayed by the campaign and byreports in some newspapers that the assur-ances were eyewash and land acquisitionwould start as soon as the administrationentered the area.I have felt very strongly that this cam-paign would not have had such a stronginfluence on a section of the local peopleif the impact of the countrywide agrariancrisis had not been felt by the rural popu-lation in West Bengal as well. While thereis no denying that a false campaign hasbeen running rampant and that particularlyafter March 14, concocted and grosslyexaggerated accounts of police atrocitiesare being circulated deliberately toembellish the actual atrocious incident ofthe loss of 14 lives, it must also be admittedthat the fear and uncertainty of the agrarianpopulation cannot be wished away. It hasbeen nurtured and developed into a para-noia in Nandigram among some sectionsof the people, but doubts as to whether ahuge industry involving massive dis-location would solve the problems of the countryside could be more widespread. Ithas also seemed to me that a doubt has beencreated in the minds of many small pro-ducers in the agrarian sector, whether thissector will be accorded the same priorityas industry. Since neo-liberal policies ofthe central government have made agricul-ture a loss-making proposition for farmers,there is no doubt that that part of theagricultural population which has receivededucation and is upwardly mobile wouldshift out of this sector as soon as it findsalternative opportunities, but even thenagriculture and the thousands of smallproducers associated with it will remain.They need to be assured that the problemsthat beset the agrarian sector will not beneglected, but will remain a major concernof the state government.Trauma of WomenThe women I met in the hospitals werein a traumatised state and this traumawas being constantly fed with rumours ofatrocities spread by those who were com-ing to visit them, but it was clear from theirstatements that, rumour or not, the fear oflosing their homesteads and/or agriculturalland, had made them confront the policeon March 14. Some of the people we metin the camps told us that, at the local level,the CPI(M) had already started a campaignthat radical steps towards industrialisationwere on the way, that this would requireland and that whoever gave his land wouldbe assured of ample compensation. Thuseven before any official agreement wassigned, the message communicated to thepeople was that land acquisition on amassive scale was unavoidable, and itwould start within a short time. Instead offilling them with hope for a better life, ithad had the effect of aggravating the fearsof a very large number of people. I have notfound in my experience that people in therural areas in West Bengal are backward-looking and averse to change. The agrariancrisis holding the entire countryside inthrall is something felt by the peasantry intheir bones, and in ordinary circumstances,few sections of the rural poor in WestBengal would deny the need for a trajectoryof change that would lessen rural poverty,mitigate land-alienation and enhanceemployment opportunities. They alsowould not deny the need for industry toreduce the pressure on land or that it mightbe necessary to acquire land for the pur-pose. But it is most important that theyshould be able to understand and participatein changes that would be affecting theirlivelihood and their daily living.What about those people who had notwished to resist the administration andwho had even hoped to improve theirstandard of living through alternativeemployment should there be industrialdevelopment in the area? Most of thempossessed little or no agricultural landanyway, but the fact that they expectedalternative livelihood from industrialdevelopment does not necessarily meanthat they are prepared to be displaced fromareas in which many of them have beenliving for many years. What they said ratherindicated that they were not thinking interms of possible displacement in order toaccommodate industrialisation. What thewomen in the refugee camps said was:“Our men might get some jobs when theworks come up”, indicating that they hopedto continue living in the same area. Thequestion remains whether, even if the siegeis lifted and they are able to return home, thepossible displacement for future benefitsthat big industry may eventually bringwould be acceptable to them or whetherindustrialisation through an SEZ wouldallay the uncertainty they feel about theirlivelihoods.Land acquisition is necessary for industria-lisation, particularly in a land-constrainedstate like West Bengal. Since much of theland is already being utilised for agriculture,it is impractical to think that acquisitionof agricultural land can always be avoided.For the left parties the crucial issue wouldbe to what extent and by what means thedecline in agriculture could be stalled andhow soon industrialisation would be ableto create permanent alternative means oflivelihood. The whole question of the extentto which the setting up of big industriescan compensate for the loss of livelihoodcaused by dispossession and dislocationand go on to provide a positive growth injobs under the present circumstances, is adebated one. The question applies particu-larly to the poorer sections of job-seekerswho do not possess the needed skills. Iffear and uncertainty in the agrarian sectorcontinue to grow, then the basis fordevelopment that has been created inWest Bengal in the last three decadeswould be undermined. It is not just aquestion of how much compensation isbeing paid to those who are losing land;because compensation presupposes thatthe problems of those receiving it would beresolved at one go. But the question oflivelihood is a much more complex one--------------------------------------------------------------------------------Page 4 Economic and Political Weekly May 26, 2007 1898
which cannot be calculated simply interms of ready cash.Alternative livelihood does not growautomatically out of compensation money;it has to evolve in coordination with localproduction relations. A SEZ in the areawould mean not just a radical change in thelocal economy, but extensive demographicand ecological changes as well. Spaces forgrazing domestic animals, trees yieldingproducts that could be used and sold andwater bodies used for domestic purposeswould no longer be available to the com-munity, particularly to the poorer sections.Their absence to people who had been usedto them would not be merely a matter ofnostalgic regret, but would signify material,economic and social deprivation. Compen-sation in terms of an acceptable alternativelivelihood and not just in terms of moneyis therefore important. Large industries docreate some employment opportunities forunskilled labour when infrastructural de-velopment is going on, but in themselvesthey are very rarely labour-intensive. Theremay be a greater possibility of downstreamgeneration of employment opportunitiesin terms of production of goods andservices, but that may take several yearsor decades to materialise. It would requirecareful planning and consistent efforts atimplementation on the part of the stategovernment to guarantee that the settingup of massive new economic, demographicand ecological systems in an area does nothappen without addressing the question ofdispossession and displacement that maybe necessitated by it. Even if the settingup of new industries is able to offset someof the job-loss caused by the closing downof other industries and by the decline inagricultural growth, it can hardly solve theproblem of actually existing unemploy-ment and underemployment. There alsohave to be plans for encouraging smallproducers with financial support and byfinding markets for them. Otherwise onecannot allay the very real fears of the ruralproducers that they will be bypassed bydevelopment.There is another aspect to this question.Since the setting up of industries will hardlybe able to relieve the pressure on land toany significant extent, the problem of thedecline plaguing agriculture becomes moreacute. As I have said earlier, this declineis the direct result of the neoliberal policiesbeing promoted at the national level fromthe early 1990s under the pressure of globalagencies representing new strategies ofimperialism. It is not possible for any stategovernment to reverse the trend. In thedeveloped capitalist world, a much smallernumber of people is dependent on agricul-ture for their livelihood, but state protec-tion for large-scale capitalist productionenables such countries to be self-sufficientin food. In our country today, the trajectoryof capitalist development in agriculture,dominated by global market forces, is notlikely to be similar; there is much morelikelihood of such development leading tocaptive markets in agriculture for globalcapital, The growing pressure to introducecontract-farming and to allow FDI in retailtrade are manifestations of this tendency.But the problem for a state which hasdeveloped so far on the strength of itsflourishing agriculture is that this vitalityhas to be maintained. At least it has to seethat immiserisation is not precipitated andsuccour to the farmer is provided by ensur-ing minimum support prices for agricul-tural products, enhancing availability of--------------------------------------------------------------------------------Page 5 Economic and Political Weekly May 26, 2007 1899

essential commodities, diversifying agri-culture while maintaining food securityand initiating employment generationprogrammes in the countryside. Onecannot move forward in industry whileleaving agriculture behind. The rural pro-ducers have to be assured that agricultureis as much of an economic and socialpriority, so far as the state is concerned,as industry.Some “apolitical” people have beensaying that the crisis in Nandigram hasbeen caused by the undesirable politici-sation of developmental issues which,according to them, should be kept abovepolitics, and they take peculiar pleasure incalling for a plague on both their housesand suggesting that the CPI(M) is nowbeing paid back in its own coin for startingthe undesirable game. But developmenthas always been a political issue, demar-cating the contradiction between the power-ful and the disempowered. Most of thefamiliar models of development today haveembedded in them the political tendencyof reinforcing or even aggravating theinequities which produce this contradic-tion. It seems to me that, in Nandigram,the politics of the poor and the dis-empowered in the agrarian sector has tobe put back in place with due priority to thequestion of development. It will necessitatenot just even-handed administrative action,but clear political will. It is the responsi-bility of the left parties who are in powerin the state to make this possible.

Email: idsk1@vsnl.netEPW