Saturday, February 9, 2008

(Not) OK TaTa!

"Will I be allowed to harvest the paddy that is still growing in my field or will the police attack me again?"

- Bharati Das, who was brutally assaulted by the West Bengal Police in her own home last week because she resisted the forced acquisition of her land by the state for purposes of industrialization, speaking to the press in New Delhi, December 7, 2006, left hand bandaged and tears in her eyes.

The iron law of opportunistic pedestrians and motorists applies universally to political parties and their leaders in "the world's largest democracy". As pedestrians (read: party in opposition) they are quick to feel the assault on their rights by cars (read: party in power) clipping past. But when riding in their own fast cars (occupying high offices themselves), the challenges put to them by the opposition strike them as "obstacles to development". The latest instance of this wonderful democratic practice comes from the state of West Bengal which has been governed by the Communists (CPI-M) since 1977.

Over the years since the beginning of economic reforms in India in 1991, few groups have been as critical of land-grab by governments and corporations in India as the CPI-M. But now they too seem to have joined the party of globalizing dreamers of this upstart superpower, all but blind to their naked hypocrisy. The most recent example of their misplaced zeal for human rights has been the ban on Rickshaws in Kolkata without arranging for the re-employment of the people who have lost their livelihoods. The story of Singur is the other.

The siege of Singur: corporate dictatorship in the countryside

The Singur area is composed of several villages, adding up to a total population of about 20,000 people in the Hooghly district of West Bengal, less than an hour away from the metropolis of Kolkata. Three-quarters of the people are literate (an achievement the Communists can feel proud about in the Indian setting). 1000 acres of prime agricultural land are being acquired by the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation and sold cheaply to the Tatas (of rear-of-the-trucks "OK TATA" fame), one of the oldest business houses in India and a leading global player in the Indian corporate landscape. They are planning to use the acquired land to set up a plant to manufacture a "people's car", which is expected to bring in export earnings too. The $220 million project is claimed to generate over 10,000 jobs - directly and through secondary effects - in the future. However, according to the industries minister Nirupam Sen, the villagers themselves do not have the training and expertise needed to find employment in the project. Tatas were given the contract when they threatened to go to some other Indian province with their capital.

Not surprisingly, Sen is called jamir dalal (land broker) by the villagers ever since he set about trying to convince them that it is economically more lucrative for them to sell their land to the state than to continue to cultivate it when agriculture is becoming increasingly less "cost-effective" (the set of national and Western policies that have led us to this point not being an item of discussion for obvious reasons).

The Communist government's decision to acquire the land for the Tatas had already been taken by this past summer. The process of convincing the local population and negotiating compensation for them has followed as a fait accompli thereafter, increasingly the norm in India's conveniently feudal democracy. Among the government's seemingly attractive terms to the villagers is a land rate which is supposedly 30% above the "market price" (though it's unclear how fair a measure that is of a poor family's long-term asset like land). Voluntary sales of land have been offered an additional premium of 10%.

Yet, villagers have been wise enough to refuse to sell their land in most cases, contrary to the claims of the state government. Thousands of them have demonstrated on a number of occasions since June to register their protest. On one occasion 1000 women spearheaded a rally at the Block Development Officer's office. The Durgapur Expressway was blocked one day by farmers wielding sickles. In May last, a convoy of Tata Officials was blocked by women, men and children from the local villages. The police had to whisk them away. When they returned it was under heavy armed escort.

For the past several months normal village life has been disrupted. A local farmer was killed in a police assault on a protest demonstration in September. Armed policemen and security forces continue to patrol the villages in the area, restricting the free movement of people near their own homes. Children are unable to play outside, women don't feel safe bathing in the ponds, nobody steps out after dark.

A local resistance front, Krishi Jomi Bachao (Save agricultural land campaign) has been set up to challenge the assault by the Corporate-Communist state. The most important local festival Durga Puja was not observed this year. On one occasion no household in the village cooked for one day to register their protest. In September, local women farmers, brandishing brooms and sticks lay on the earth to prevent the police from entering the area. State absurdity can be judged from the fact that a 2-year-old girl was charged with rioting.

More recently, after a public hearing on the whole issue many activists and protesters, including people like Medha Patkar, have been on indefinite hunger fast while being under detention by the state government. Two girls, aged 11 and 13, have also been put behind bars by local police authorities. According to a Bengali human rights activist, every week there are reports of molestation, rape and murder from the local prison at Chandranagar.

The Tatas prefer to piggy-back on the rural poor

The Tatas were shown land at five different sites in the province by the West Bengal government. Several of these were wastelands where agriculture is not being practiced. Not coincidentally, they picked prime agricultural land near Kolkata as their first choice. Why?

As everyone knows, modern industry requires reliable infrastructure, not something which is India's strong point, thanks to the betrayal by the state of one of its key duties in the midst of the mania for privatization since the 1990s. The best rural infrastructure (roads, water availability, electricity), again not surprisingly, is to be found precisely near fertile land because it has seen public investment in the past in an effort to boost agricultural output.

Predictably enough, even the business houses with the best reputation in India (such as Tatas) prefer the cheap-and-quick option of piggy-backing on the infrastructure that already exists (and has been assiduously developed over the decades since India's independence) for purposes of agriculture to making complementary investments of their own, which is what choosing wastelands as industrial sites would entail.

In other words, Indian farmers are being cheated by the industrial and political elites once again: far from redeeming their election promises of increasing the volume of public investment in rural infrastructure, the left-wing allies of the ruling coalition in New Delhi actually find it within decency to subsidize industrial development and export-growth in India by transferring public capital meant for the agricultural poor at a price of Rs.0 to the industrial elite. That it is a Marxist government which is performing this act of public charity for the corporate sector adds insult to injury and leaves the Indian public in some confusion about their radical credentials and political reliability. Perhaps their Venezuelan friend Hugo Chavez should be apprised of such shifty loyalties.

Why don't economists talk about public goods these days?

Even the most rabid market fundamentalists in the Economics profession admit that there are at least three situations when markets can fail terribly. First, when monopoly power undercuts the force of competition and thus allows high profits and fails to lower prices for the consumers. Second, when there exist what are called "externalities", whereby parties outside an economic transaction have to bear some costs of the deal that are not included in the price of the product. (People living near a polluting factory can suffer ailments without receiving any compensation from the manufacturer.) Finally, markets fail to provide adequately what are called "public goods", such as roads, bridges, energy, public parks, public health and water supply because the scale of investments involved is usually too high for private investors and once provided, many such goods can be used by others without their having paid any part of the cost of provision. Thus, no one barring the government has any incentive to provide such services.

As mentioned, even dyed-in-the-wool laissez faire economists concede that government intervention is imperative to rescue us from such market failure. However, if one scans the Indian economic landscape at the moment we notice immediately that such instances of market failure, far from being the exceptions, are actually the norm. Many industries are controlled oligopolistically by a few companies (mobile phones for one). Environmental externalities, whereby the company at fault pollutes with impunity, abound. And the failure to provide public goods - infrastructure - is seen even by conservative economists as a key bottleneck to industrial growth and development.

And yet, the mania for privatization continues unabated and where possible, as in Singur, the state happily transfers infrastructure from the hands of the rural powerless to the urban powerful. Few eyebrows are raised among the ranks of the Economists.

Corporate social responsibility?

Groups like the Tatas pride themselves on "corporate social responsibility". Little does the public realize how large a lie this is. Even at the beginning of the day (as Singur demonstrates), let alone at the end, the Tatas are a profit-seeking concern and behave exactly like Reliance or any other irresponsible company whose clout overrides all public and social considerations should they stand in the way of profits and growth.

According to Jamshed Irani, one of the directors of Tata Sons, it has always been a concern of the group to "give back to the people what you have earned from them." Significantly perhaps, they do not say that they will give back to the people what they have forcibly acquired from them at throwaway prices through their access to high places in government.

Portents of the future

The other day this writer was present at an Amnesty International book release ceremony in New Delhi where the well-known economist Amit Bhaduri described the increasingly brazen and widespread practice of the grabbing of land and resources from the poor by Indian corporations and their representatives in the Indian state as "developmental terrorism". This is no hyperbole. It is merely the most obvious form that India's feudal globalization is taking. Between the theft of land from the Narmada tribals since the 1980s and the shooting down of a dozen people in the process of Tata's acquisition of forests from the Kalinganagar tribals in Orissa in January 2006, there is a cluttered landscape of public crimes for which every single government of post-reform India, including the last, BJP-led one and the one controlled by the ruling coalition today, have to be brought to justice. Singur is only the latest chapter in this on-going saga of open deceit and corporate graft and greed abetted by a pliant state.

For the past few months Singur has turned into a battleground. The lines of confrontation have been drawn. On one side is the Corporate-Communist state: the Rapid Action Force has been readied, the West Bengal police is already present (over 6000 policemen). Plain-clothed police informers have been scouring the area for militants. Even the CPI-M rural cadres have been mobilized for the now-inevitable confrontation.

They face a determined resistance of thousands of village women, men and children, supported by human rights activists, writers and members of the political opposition in Bengal. Writers like Mahashweta Devi have exposed the "white lies" of the government.

The West Bengal government is going in for a series of projects to expand industrial investment in the state. An anachronistic Land Acquisition Act from the colonial era (1894) is being deployed here as elsewhere in India to take possession of land at distress prices. In Bengal the state has already acquired more than 40000 acres of prime agricultural land and tens of thousands of acres of other land to enable domestic and international corporate investment. Some of the key initiatives involve two SEZs near Haldia, a nuclear plant in East Midnapore, within 10 kilometres of human habitation, and the introduction of foreign direct investment in real estate through the aegis of an Indonesian company, Salim. All this is music to the ears of global finance: according to Goldmann Sachs and Merrill Lynch India is the last major real estate market in Asia, expected to expand from $12 billion today to $90 billion in 2015.

The fraud being inflicted by the West Bengal government on its people in the name of development can be appreciated from the fact that India is being sold to global financiers and investors as a real estate market with a sharply rising curve, even as the industries minister is brazenly advising farmers that agriculture is no longer profitable in the Bengal countryside and land has lost its value. Once again, the irony of a communist government effectively speaking the language of imperial capital should not be lost. Every million dollars of profit for Tata or Salim or Warburg Pincus should be read as a thousand poor Indians deprived of their sole means of livelihood.

In the light of all this, it should surprise no one if the influence of trigger-happy Naxalites rises steadily in rural India and the stricken women, men and children of Singur take up arms against the government of the province and the country. Newsweek reported earlier this year that 20% of India's 593 districts are being effectively run by the local administration of Naxalites. The Indian state is conspicuously absent from these spots. If this proportion rises dramatically in the years to come, we already know the reason why it will happen. Manmohan's government cannot feign innocence of the explanatory facts as they transpire before the public eye. Large numbers of people evicted from the countryside, and also unable to find work in the city because of "jobless growth" in manufacturing and unskilled services are increasingly likely to express their frustration and trauma through armed resistance. Because the state and its organs of justice have gone deaf.

As for Singur itself, this poem is recited in the area and says it all:

"Aj mukhomukhi dariechhe duto dal
Ar majhamajhi nei to kichhui hoy
Tatar dalal ar noy to
Ek laruku manush hobi tui."

"Face to face stand two groups
There's nothing in between
Either Tata's tout or
A fighting human you will be."

Aseem Shrivastava is an independent writer. He can be reached at