Sunday, June 24, 2007



If the annual rice yield falls by nearly two lakh tonnes, there is bound to be a food shortage even in a normal year
SIX successive Left Front governments, spanning 30 years, have denuded West Bengal’s pre-eminence in industrialisation achieved by Dr B C Roy in 14 years. According to a rough estimate, 65,000 units, including some state and central undertakings too, fell sick or were closed in these three decades owing mainly to labour unrest, aided and abetted by Leftist trade unions. West Bengal which was second in industries among the states till the 1960s, slipped to the eighth and sixth positions in industrialisation and industrial production, respectively.
As chief minister, Jyoti Basu made 21 trips to 26 countries between 1977 and 1993. His successor, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, toured Italy, Japan and some South-east Asian countries; Somnath Chatterjee, heading the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation, also visited a number of countries. All three drew almost blank. Towards the end of Mr Basu’s 23-year tenure, Haldia Petrochemicals and Mitsubishi Chemicals came up in Haldia but the first five years of Mr Bhattachrjee were virtually barren. Mr Chatterjee signed a plethora of MoUs, earning the nickname, ‘MOU Dada’ but nothing happened beyond reaching an ‘understanding’.
The industrial scene did not improve in the first tenure (2001-2006) of Mr Bhattacharjee either. Although 172 new units came up in 2004, with investment of some Rs 2004 crore, an estimated 276 lakh man days in close to 6,000 working units were lost because of industrial disputes, strikes, ‘go- slow’ and gheraos. On the contrary, the two United Front regimes and the successive Left Front governments have adopted a number of policies and programmes to ameliorate the lot of the landed and landless farmers. Suddenly, after returning to power for the seventh time in May this year, the LF government effected a U-turn vis-a-vis its pro-farmer policies. It set about acquiring thousands of acres of arable land in six south Bengal and two north Bengal districts, ignoring the pleas of farmers and sharecroppers as well as protests by opposition parties and social activists.
In Singur, the process of brutal acquisition by the police began on 2 December. Villagers were beaten up and teargassed. The patriarch Jyoti Basu and the Chief Minister frequently iterate the government’s determination to acquire and give the land to the Tatas by 31 December, failing which they may withdraw their offer. Experts have warned that the gains would be less than the almost certain losses. The government is in fact inflicting collateral damage. But the Chief Minister is defiant and determined to have the Tata factories in Singur... ‘at any cost’.
The state government’s wrong policies and programmes in education and health care are well-recorded and have even been admitted by the leaders of the CPI(M) and other constituent parties. Agriculture, happily, was not tampered with and Indira Gandhi’s Green Revolution in the 1970s gave it a tremendous boost with high-yielding seeds, gradual mechanisation, easy bank loans and subsidies to farmers as well as good monsoons, year after year. Agriculture in West Bengal is almost wholly in the private sector; the government subsidises only 5 per cent of the production costs. Although a steady increase in fuel prices has, of late, affected mechanisation, agriculture still remains a golden goose in West Bengal. In 2004-05, the state produced over 152 lakh tonnes of rice, about one-fifth of the country’s production.
Out of West Bengal’s total area of 88752, or 219.13 lakh acres, some 132. 74 lakh acres come under seasonal cultivation. Only 7.76 lakh acres remain fallow for nine months in a year. On the rest, two or more crops are grown every year. There are in the main four types of soil: alluvial (East Midnapur, North 24-Parganas, Howrah, Hooghly, Nadia, Murshidabad and Malda), laterite (West Midnapur, Bankura, Birbhum and Purulia), saline (coastal areas of South 24-Parganas, Howrah and East Midnapur) and acid (most of North Bengal).
The government has received demands for at least 125,000 acres of land from no fewer than 20 Indian and two foreign companies as well as from three Central public undertakings for setting up various industrial units and projects. (See chart I). It has issued notices for acquiring some 44,000 acres, including 997 acres in Singur.
The crop intensity of 18 West Bengal districts ranges from 102 per cent in Purulia to 243 per cent in Nadia. The average production of mainly three varieties of rice ~ aman, aus and boro ~ being 905.3 kg per acre, the total yield in a year from 125,175 acres will be 192,363 tonnes. Adding the yield from land whose sizes are not reported, the total quantity of rice of all varieties, to be lost to industries, will be at least two lakh tonnes. A huge quantity of potato and other vegetables, grown in many areas under acquisition; will also not be available. West Bengal is deficient in wheat, edible oil and pulses; up to one million tonnes of each are imported from other States or countries (like palm oil from Malaysia). West Bengal has borders with Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa, none of which grow surplus rice or vegetables. These commodities flow from West Bengal to these states but seldom vice versa. Drought, floods, cyclone and earthquakes must also be taken into account. So if the annual rice yield falls by nearly two lakh tonnes, there is bound to be a food shortage even in a normal year.
The state’s population will increase, but arable land may get reduced further. The per capita availability of rice, which was 419 grams in 1977, increased to 454 grams in 2006. But with the rice yield decreasing by two lakh tonnes, it will go down further, accentuating hunger, malnutrition and starvation, particularly in tribal regions. The average size of land-holdings, particularly in south Bengal districts, is also decreasing. According to a ‘Status Report’, prepared by the Land Reforms department, West Bengal is becoming a ‘Land Critical State’ and loss of some 1.25 lakh acres to new industries and projects will aggravate this crisis. Already some 41.35 lakh acres, nearly 19 per cent of the total land area, have been occupied by infrastructure, industries and urbanisation. The department has warned that unless appropriate utilisation is made of the land resources, there will soon be a land crunch in West Bengal.
The government has not issued any comprehensive document on acquisitions, despite demands for a White Paper by the opposition. As per Kolkata-based media reports, at least 125,176 acres of arable land in nine districts have been demanded by investors and entrepreneurs and for much of it, acquisition notices have already been served. This excludes demands for some 2034 acres by a dozen Indian companies, namely, (i) by M/s Videocon in Taratala (South 24-Parganas) for manufacture of LCD monitors for computers and in Kalyanbeel in North 24-Parganas for SEZ, (ii) by M/s Patton Group in Uluberia (Howrah) and 60 acres in Falta (South 24-Parganas, (iii) by M/s Dabur near Siliguri for a food-processing plant, (iv) by SPS Group in Mejia (Bankura) and Durgapur (Burdwan) for the manufacture of a transmission tower and transmitter, respectively, (v) by the Indian Jute Mills Association (IJMA) for a Jute Park in Haringhata (Nadia), (vi) by M/s Amrit Group in the Sundarbans (South 24-Parganas) for setting up three non-conventional energy plants, (vii)14 acres by Tek Mahindra for setting up an IT Centre, (viii) 500 acres by M/s Hind Industries, (ix) 130 acres by India Tourism Corporation (ITC) for setting up a new, and extension of its existing, hotel, (x) 50 acres by a German company, M/s Metro Cash & Carry for doing wholesale trade in vegetables, and (xi) by M/s River Bank for setting up an IT Park and township in Batanagar (South 24-Parganas).

Thus capital~II

Robbery Of The Soil In West Bengal
Some companies have demanded land in Patharghata, Baruipur and Sonarpur ~ all in South 24-Parganas. Mukesh Ambani of Reliance has demanded land in a number of districts for setting up a retailers’ chain for marketing farm products. Notice has also been served for the acquisition of 1280 acres at Yafala near Kharagpur for a state government project and for building a thermal power plant in Katwa (Burdwan) in the state sector. The Union Ministry of Petroleum has demanded land adjoining the Haldia oil refinery for expansion and to set up ancillary industries.
The local MLA and MP have applied for the acquisition of a wetland, Mathura Bil in Gayeshpur near Kalyani for setting up an aquatic sports complex by some private companies. The rest of the acquisitions for 123,735 acres are summarised in the chart published yesterday.

More demands

The Centre has imposed a ban on the conversion of farm land for other purposes. The West Bengal government often cites this to stop the use of arable and wetland for prawn culture, brick kilns, and building real estate by promoters. There is also a provision in the West Bengal Land Reforms Act, prohibiting the sale of more than 24 acres to an entrepreneur or investor, which the Left Front government wants to scrap. The government has decided to permit the sale of barga land by the owners or the bargadars to other bargadars by amending a provision in the Land Reforms Act.
The agriculture minister, Abdur Rezzak Molla, says more than 100,000 acres of agricultural land, including 400 acres in Uluberia, 392 acres in Domjur (both in Howrah) and 2670 acres in Baruipur (South 24-Parganas), 26,000 acres in Rajarhat-New Town (North 24-Parganas) and 200 acres in Budge Budge (South 24-Parganas) for arsenic-free water project, are already under government occupation for various purposes. If another 1.5 lakh acres are also taken over, West Bengal’s self-sufficiency in rice will be endangered (see chart). The Marxists are opposing large-scale acquisition of farm land for industrial uses in other states but are doing just the same in West Bengal. The Politburo and the CPI-M’s ideologues are silent on this double standard. The Politburo is opposing the Centre’s approval to several states to create Special Economic Zones, saying they would be ‘islands of prosperity in a sea of misery’ and yet is keeping mum on the Left Front government clearing proposals for six SEZs.
The President and the Prime Minister are harping on the need for a second Green Revolution, to which the Left parties expressed support but cannot answer, how in West Bengal, with some 1.5 lakh acres set for industries, will this revolution be possible.
Over the years, the state’s population will rise by at least 11 lakhs per year but not arable land; on the contrary, it may shrink with more acquisition. The affected farmers will become aliens in their own habitats, like Upen in Tagore’s poem, Dui Bigha Jami, or Shambhu in Bimal Roy’s film, Do Bigha Zameen (1952).
West Bengal is not in an enviable position in agriculture. Production of foodgrains increased dramatically by about 69 per cent from the 1980-1981 to 2000-2001, thanks to high-yielding seeds, successive good monsoons, greater involvement of sharecroppers, mechanised irrigation and easy availability of fertilisers and other inputs. However, the population increase in these two decades has brought it down to 22 per cent and West Bengal to the eighth position among the states. In 30 years since Independence up to 1977, production of foodgrain rose by 214 per cent but in the same period under LF rule, it rose by 179 per cent.
Only about one-third of the farmers’ annual income comes from agriculture and two-thirds from non-agricultural pursuits. More than half of them run into debts, averaging over Rs 5,000 in a year. Their average landholding is less than an acre. Like arable land, the per capita consumption of cereals is decreasing and despite truncated rationing and anti-poverty programmes, hunger and starvation still stalk remote, tribal regions.
It is not easy to further increase the yield of foodgrains unless fallow and unutilised lands are made arable by irrigation. Even if no farmland is acquired for industrial use, a food shortage will loom over West Bengal in 10-20 years.
The Centre will soon take steps to usher in the Second Green Revolution by increasing the yield of foodgrains. Otherwise, India will face a food shortage of 2.8 crore tonnes by 2025. The Centre is also trying to increase rice exports and being the second highest producer of rice, West Bengal could prosper from its contribution. “Robbery of the soil” is bound to affect West Bengal 80 years after it was deplored by Rabindranath Tagore.
West Bengal gives its share of rice to seven major food-based programmes ~ the Public Distribution System, the Midday Meal Scheme in primary schools, the Antyodaya Anna Yojana, Annapurna Scheme, the Integrated Child Development Programme, Sampoorna Gramin Rozgar Yojana and the Food for Work programme. It also has to maintain a buffer stock of foodgrains to meet emergencies like crop failure, floods and drought. Punjab can afford loss of agricultural land, not West Bengal. Some four lakh acres are arid or fallow and 30 per cent of arable land is mono-crop. An average farmer earns one-third of his net yearly income from agriculture; the rest comes from non-agricultural pursuits.
More than half of West Bengal’s farmers are in debt, the average yearly debt per family being Rs 5,237. Most of them have land-holdings less than one acre. Increasing debt compels them to give up land or become landless labour.

Twin evils

Promoters and real estate dealers are another threat to farmland. Having acquired ancestral homestead plots and houses on lucrative terms, they are now eyeing arable land. The twin evils ~ acquisition of farmland for investors and real estate deals ~ are being perpetrated on a massive scale. West Bengal will some day have to import rice in addition to wheat, pulses and edible oil.
The industries minister hints at the possibility of a shortfall in foodgrains and vegetables but hopes that by increasing productivity this can be made up. This is impossible, because for nearly every crop high-yielding seeds are being used. Further, the area under cultivation is decreasing every year. If the present trend of rampant acquisition by governments continues, arable land will disappear as in Singapore which does not produce an ounce of rice but lives entirely on imports.
Nobody, not even the affected farmers and the opposition parties, deny the need of industrial regeneration in West Bengal. What they emphasise is that arable land must be spared, as in China and Britain. Nobody could imagine that a playwright and culturally-inclined Marxist like Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee would, as Chief Minister, be so callous to human values.