Thursday, February 28, 2008

How even compensated farmers fail to make much use of the money

Singur land-losers buy motorcycles

When a political and legal battle is being waged over the Tata Motors small car project, here’s a revelation that could come as a shock to both Mr Ratan Tata, chairman of the Tata group, and advocates of the state government’s industrialisation overdrive: some of those whose lands were acquired for the project bought motorcycles with the compensation money.
When Mr Tata first announced his pet project on the day the seventh Left Front ministry was sworn in, he said the small car project was propelled not simply by sheer commercial considerations, but also by a vision; this sounded philanthropic enough. He said every time he saw a small family of three ~ husband, wife and a child ~ riding a motorcycle, he shuddered to think of the peril they expose themselves to. From this the idea dawned on him that such families can be insulated from such high-risk rides on the roads if they get cars which cost slightly more than what they pay for a two-wheeler.
Yet, the first thing that some of the Singur oustees did with the money they got in lieu of their land was to buy what the Tata project has been conceived to protect the people from.
The disclosure was an eye-opener for the state government too, admits Mr Nirupam Sen, industries minister. It shows the poor homework that the state government had done before taking the plunge into the controversial project that triggered a socio-economic and political upheaval not witnessed in recent times.
The state government thought its intervention in effecting an economic turnaround ended with awarding a price for the acquired land, handing over the cheques to the land-losers and undertaking some community development projects. It had no plans to train the displaced persons on how to manage the money for their future security as they have lost their only means of livelihood ~ farmland.
The result is for all to see now. Having got a lumpsum payment, some of the land-losers went on a mad buying spree and decided to fulfil some of their cherished dreams such as owning a motorcycle. In the first flush of excitement to have got wads of notes they had never seen before they thought their investment on motorcycle would bring good returns ~ at least they would have the freedom to savour the taste of air brushing their cheeks and making their hair dishevelled as they speed away, which was something they were denied till they remained bound to their land as tillers.
This is exactly what is reportedly happening in China where without appropriate training and skills in managing their lumpsum payment and without appropriate investment channels, it is common for peasants to end up with no land to farm, no income to support themselves and no job skills to compete in the tight urban job markets. The number of people who live in poverty after land acquisition continues to rise.
According to the General National Land Use Comprehensive Plan, China needs 18.5 million mu (1 mu equals 1/15 hectare) for non-agricultural use to be acquired from 12 million farmers. As the legal framework allows the state to acquire land in public interest, the Chinese government has taken to acquiring land from farmers at a low price.
An analysis by Ms Tara Lonnberg, a Washington-based World Bank consultant, reveals that massive displacement of farmers has caused great concern and is likely to result in enormous socio-economic problems for China for years to come.
The Bengal Marxists have, however, begun to learn from the mistakes they have made. Their policy backfired for several reasons. After wielding power for three decades it got into their head that their party machinery, muscle men and vested interests, that have become inextricably linked to it, could be relied on to force the people, especially in the rural areas, to accept whatever it wants it to without even a faint murmur of protest.
They forgot they had taken several decades to mobilise the rural population for effecting land reforms. During these years party men and leaders fanned out to the remotest of villages and won them over. Now, power and pelf have made the comrades too lazy, while the leaders can’t set examples of austere living for a cause that Marxists once epitomised. Hence, they believed diktats from Alimuddin Street would be enough to implement their policies.
The lesson has been driven home and the Marxists are now engaging a cross-section of the people in a debate and seeking their suggestions on the corrections that can be made to their industrialisation policy.
Mr Sen is now amenable to the idea of offering prospective land price to farmers for future projects. He is also planning whether the income of the displaced persons can be restored by giving them stalls in the new industrial areas to come up on their land. They can either sell wares from these stalls or let them out and earn a fixed monthly income.
But is industrialisation the panacea for problems arising out of low returns from agricultural land where 62 per cent of the population is engaged contributing only 25 per cent of the gross domestic product?
According to an expert, the pressure on land can be reduced by imparting vocational training to the rural population. China has made remarkable achievements in this regard. It has set up thousands of ITIs training the people in over 2,500 trades.
This can’t possibly be a model for the Bengal Marxists, since it requires hard work and an altogether different work culture.

(The author is a Special Representative of The Statesman, Kolkata)