Sunday, June 24, 2007


The acquisition of land and eviction of the peasantry amounts to a death warrant for five lakh agricultural households in nine West Bengal districts.


Notwithstanding the Right to Information Act, the Government of West Bengal has been consistently refusing to come out with their current plan of “industrialisation”. Investigative journalists have been able to piece together facts from various sources to indicate that the government is bent upon acquiring 1,40,000 acres of agricultural land in nine districts of Bengal which include Hooghly (6247 acres), East Midnapur (37,297 acres), West Midnapur (26,134 acres), Darjeeling (Siliguri ~ 25,200 acres), North 24-Parganas (5743 acres), South 24-Parganas (13,318) acres), Howrah (26,500 acres), Nadia (365 acres), Jalpaiguri (161 acres). (Courtesy: Bibekananda Ray: Thus Capital: The Statesman, Dec. 17 & 18, 2006).
Never in the history of industrialisation of Bengal had such vast areas of agricultural land been ever taken at a time by the government for the purpose of setting up units by the private parties for private gain. The parties involved, as far as the information goes, are the Tata Group and their associates, the Salim Group and their associates, Videocon, DLF, Reliance Groups of both the brothers, the Chatterji Group, the Birla Group and their associates, Reshmi Cements and the Jindal Group and their associates. So far only these names have been identified by the journalists.
The question that arises is one of social cost benefit calculus. How much will the society gain by these capital intensive investments compared to the highly diffused distributive system of income under the current agrarian economic system? We are being told time and again that high value industrial products should take precedence over the low value agricultural productive system. Looking from the macro-economic point of view it may appear to be highly attractive. But what about the loss of income and productive wealth of a large section of the rural population?
Another point which is being touted loudly by the Chief Minister and his cohort of party and government functionaries is that there is no non-arable land available in West Bengal for such large-scale industrialisation. The Chief Minister is on record having said that only one per cent of the land in West Bengal is not cultivable and thereafter he posed a question whether the new industries would be located in the sky or on the ground.
The Chief Minister does have many prerogatives but he does not have any right to prevaricate facts. The total amount of uncultivable land in West Bengal, according to the statistics given by the Bureau of Applied Economics and Statistics of West Bengal, is a little over 18 per cent. In absolute terms it is over 1.5 million hectares which means merely 3.7 million acres. In the joint Midnapur district the total such land available is about 2.52 lakh hectares . In Purulia the figure is around 92,000 hectres. In Bankura and Birbhum districts the figures are 1.2 lakh and 98,000 hectares, respectively.
With so much of uncultivable land available in the backward districts of West Bengal which are geographically not very far from Kolkata, how could the Chief Minister so brazenly make an incorrect statement that no uncultivable land was available for the purpose of industrialisation?
One aspect of this large-scale acquisition of agricultural land would be serious loss of foodgrain production. The average cereal output in West Bengal is a little over one tonne per acre. Thus in 1.4 lakh acres of land to be acquired the loss of production of foodgrain would be to the tune of 1.5 lakh tonnes.
The government would argue that it would not in any way affect the food security of the state. One can concede this point while taking a macro view of the situation. But the government should know that existence of foodstock does not and cannot prevent hunger and starvation death.
The family food security, which is the cardinal issue in the whole concept of food security, depends upon a family’s ability to buy food with their own income. With loss of livelihood of five lakh families and loss of land as well as shelter they would not have adequate income after a while to access food however much they might be available in the fair price shops or in the cereal mandis.
Did not Amartya Sen point out that in the great Bengal famine of 1943 it was not the absence of stock of food but inability of the households to access such food through their own income (entitlements) that 3 to 4 million men, women and children died mostly on the pavements of what was then Calcutta city due to hunger and starvation?
The print media reports indicate that the government has a much larger plan of acquiring more land than 1.4 lakh acres and these would all be agricultural lands. Since they are not thinking of going to the backward districts where uncultivable lands are available, no one knows how many more families would be involved in such eviction. If this phenomena continues, the state will gradually move towards the same situation as was witnessed during the Great Bengal Famine in 1943.
Eviction of peasantry on such a large scale will doubtless have a very deleterious effect on the social order. We have our own Naxalite problem arising out of landlessness and food insecurity. The world has witnessed the Zapatatista movement in Mexico and similar such movements in a lesser degree in various Latin American countries. The whole of Europe suffered from Jacqueries throughout the Middle Ages till the French Revolution which did not bring peace to any of the Kings and Emperors of different countries of that continent.
If in their blind rush to appease and to seduce private investors in West Bengal the CPI-M government would like to promote peasant uprisings, it would be their choice. They should not forget that with the mounting hunger and starvation what their policy would ultimately lead to. They will not remain very safe and secure within the sheltered premises of the Writers’ Buildings in Kolkata.

The author was secretary to government of India, ministries of finance (revenue) and rural development and executive director, Asian Development Bank, Manila.