Tuesday, November 27, 2007

In the Name of Development


Somnath Mukherjee's article on the question of development (in the context of another landgrab in Singur) that remains undebated in the media was published in The Statesman

The debate over Singur has never centred around the paradigm of development, of which the present situation is an inevitable outcome. The moot question is not whether a plot yields a single crop or multi-crop but whether state power and vital public interest are being mortgaged to the interest of global capital.

Rather than providing counterfactuals about the altered behaviour of a different political front in power, one should discern the structural transformation of the state machinery ~ a transformation designed to serve the whims of global corporate interests. The question is not what is right or wrong but rather who gets to decide what is right or wrong.

What are the mechanisms in our society that take into account people’s participation in developmental decision-making and how effective are they?

What is being witnessed in Singur is a necessary mechanism of the kind of development embraced by us. It is the collectivisation of costs and individualisation of benefits. While close to a 1,000 farmers, bargadars and a large but undetermined number of landless agricultural labourers, along with a subsidising state, are bearing the enormous cost of establishing Tatas’ automobile unit, the distribution of the benefits among them will most certainly be disproportionately low.

Largescale employment generation can barely be seen as a main benefit flowing out of a fully automated car factory, though the claim is to create 10,000 jobs, of which only the unskilled ones would benefit the locals. Once skilled in their traditional occupation of farming, the very same people would be situated, if at all, at the bottom rung of the automobile workforce.

It would perhaps be a fair test of skills, to have a few city-bred computer engineers earn their living by tilling the land. How many of the displaced people would drive the “people’s car” when it rolls out in 2008 or whenever? Yet, the locals would have to disproportionately shoulder any industrial risks associated with the plant.

As and when the Tatas patent a certain automobile-making technology, will there be room for acknowledging the inputs provided by the peasantry and the subsidising state in terms of reasonable financial compensations?

On the one hand, liberalisation advocates the withdrawal of state, on the other, there is increasing intervention by it in subsidising the interest of the powerful. Healthy market mechanisms, paradoxically, do not encourage the Tatas to buy the required land at fair market price.

The state’s intervention in acquiring the land and offering it at a subsidised price, unknown to the public, is perceived to be a reflection of “healthy competition” between the states in attracting investments.

The angst of losing one’s livelihood and the pain of destitution, though, are no different between Uttaranchal and West Bengal. When it comes to the interest of the powerful, even the sacrosanct market forces are ushered into a waiting room, to be unleashed for the commoner with fewer coping mechanisms.

The 1,000 acres of agricultural land being acquired in Singur is only a fraction of the overall plan of acquiring 43,028 acres or more in West Bengal. The Opposition’s lack of a viable alternative and its insincere rejection of the actual anti-people processes amount to nothing more than political gimmickry.

“We want industrialisation but not at the cost of fertile agricultural land” is the popular slogan of the Opposition. In this game of development, one does not get to pick and choose, it is, as it were a “package deal”. Take it, leave it or come up with your own. This mode of development entails largescale displacement, especially in a populous country like ours; ecologically destructive processes, driving many communities to destitution; disempowerment and pauperisation of many, because costs have to be externalised; besides standardisation, that leaves no room for viable and less painful alternatives.
It engenders violence due to the unavoidable rupture of the social and cultural fabric, more so in a richly diverse Indian context.

The heart-wrenching statistics of farmers committing suicides in Maharashtra, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Punjab are testimonies to yet another outcome of the intrepid strides of “development”. Commodifying the inputs to agriculture, and letting loaded market mechanisms dictate prices, renders it unviable, nay impossible, for the small and subsistence farmers to carry on. This is done not to improve their lot but because someone else needs their land.

Once corporatised, agriculture is sustained through huge state subsidies. Consider for example that the USA spent $1.3 billion on income support to its rice farmers, in 1999-2000, while the total production of rice was worth $1.2 billion.

The European Union and Japan are no less kind to their farming lobbies. Where will West Bengal’s development lead to? Perhaps, there is a more benign path charted out, but do we know about it? Can we participate? Rather, can the peasant and the agricultural labourer whose life is going to be affected the most voice their concern?

Singur has also demonstrated that no single political party, not surely the CPI-M in its present inverted commitment and mode of functioning, is capable of representing the true aspirations of the rural masses. Much of the pre-capitalist social and cultural norms are alive in rural Bengal and is the essence of popular resistance in Singur.

Human relationship with the land is not merely economic, which, like much of the production relations are embedded in a socio-cultural framework rather than a contractual one.

Besides losing one’s livelihood, loss of arable land also means a loss of many socio-cultural coping mechanisms leaving people vulnerable to moneylenders and middlemen who act as interfaces between a pre-capitalist and capitalist system. An abrupt immersion in a market system where success depends on how fast one can lose one’s social, cultural and religious mores and transform into a rootless commodity, leaves the displaced countrymen greatly disadvantaged and at the mercy of the interfacing class.

Dipesh Chakraborty (Rethinking Working Class History) has shown in his extensive research on late 19th and early 20th century Bengal jute mills, how Sardars acted as this exploitative interface and virtually controlled every aspect of the lives of the rural migrants labouring in the mills.

Ironically, much of the colonial state is also alive within modern-day governance structures. What else would explain the nonchalant use of an archaic law, dating back to 1894 (Land Acquisition Act)?

The generous use of the power of eminent domain, throughout the country in general and in Singur specifically, signals the comfort of the state with a century-old law, although the context of governance has changed so dramatically. The Union ministry of environment and forests has become a virtual clearing house of corporate projects rather than being the sentinel of the rapidly degrading environment.

The latest notification to the Environment Impact Assessment Act, in September, 2006, vests the states with more power and the people with lesser scope to participate in the decision-making process.

The ministry of rural development opened the draft of the new National Rehabilitation and Resettlement Policy briefly for public scrutiny in October. The formulation and re-formulation of these legislations and policies are rather exclusionary and undemocratic. In the issue of People’s Democracy dated 11 September, 2005, Prakash Karat justified the amendment to the West Bengal Land Ceiling Act by saying that it was meant to acquire 41,000 acres lying locked in closed industrial complexes around Kolkata.
Further, the intention of the amendment was never to acquire multi-crop agricultural land. It is not evident to the public, how the 41,000 acres would be put to use and why the consensus of not acquiring multi-crop land was overridden.

The development model being sold to developing countries is slowly being rejected by many in the developed countries. Smoke-spewing chimneys have come to symbolise pollution rather than prosperity, chemicalised and genetically modified food is being rejected for organic (at double the price), futility of large dams ~ one of the prime symbols of development, is being understood to the point of dismantling them, concern for the environment is writ large on the consciousness of the upcoming generation.
A growing discomfort with the fruits of globalisation is palpable in the disadvantaged sections. Evidently, in this development paradigm, benefits will not distribute themselves and the cost has to be borne by someone other than their beneficiary.

Development has to be rethought and redefined to fit within a democratic and just framework, or else, it runs the risk of becoming a tyrannical, civilising mission.

The author is an electrical engineer in Boston and a volunteer with the Association for India’s Development www.aidindia.org