Saturday, February 9, 2008

Singur Revisited

The Struggle for Land Goes on

The recently unveiled Nano has been described by its manufacturer, Tata Motors, as the vehicle that will enable the common man to realize his dreams of owning a car. At its price tag of one lakh (100,000) rupees or $2500, the Nano is easily the cheapest car in the Indian as well as the global market. The car has been extolled by its votaries as an engineering marvel with an all but miraculous fusion of low price and high quality. The Nano has a fuel efficiency matching that of the Prius and meets Euro-3 emission standards. Basking in the rave reviews and media adulation that accompanied the much awaited launch of the so-called people’s car, the chairman of the Tata Group Ratan Tata announced that the car is being dedicated to rural India. Presumably the unintended irony of this dedication was lost on the enthusiastic audience that attended the roll-out of the Nano at the 2008 Auto Expo in New Delhi. But the irony would have resonated well with the small group of activists who were present at the Nano fest. The white t-shirts that they wore carried slogans that called attention to the fate of the peasants who had suffered loss of land and livelihood as a direct consequence of the acquisition of agricultural land on behalf of Tata Motors by the Communist government of West Bengal. The Nano is scheduled to go into production at the car factory that has been under construction for about a year and is now nearing completion on the acquired land in Singur a district that lies about forty miles from the state capital Kolkata.. Even as the highly choreographed launch was taking place in Delhi, protesters in Singur burned a replica of the car that spelled their doom, the Nano that had been built—or so the claim went—for their express benefit.

Although land acquisition for the Singur factory was completed in December 2006, an intense, sometimes contentious, debate continues to take place on the ethics of the industrialization drive launched by West Bengal's ruling Left Front and the government's courtship of private capital at the cost of sacrificing the interests of the rural poor for whom farming forms the sole means of sustenance. The Singur narrative would have faded into oblivion months ago if it had followed the ordinary life cycle of news stories. The issue has remained at the forefront of political discourse thanks to the convergence of a number of factors--the strength and persistence of the peasant resistance, the efforts of human and demcratic rights activists and the soul searching that the Singur controversy has sparked within the ranks of Left sympathizers, intellectuals and academics. Prior to the events in Singur—and their fallout in Nandigram--many of these individuals would have never conceived the day would come when they would need to step forward to criticize the actions and policies of the government of West Bengal, the world's longest ruling elected Communist government, whose hitherto unblemished moral status rested on the implementation of distributive justice via the land reforms of the seventies and eighties and the empowerment of rural communities through a decentralized system of local governance.

The scrutiny that has been brought to bear on land acquisition at Singur has resulted in the unraveling of the official version of the matter. The Ministry concerned, the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation, insisted that the majority of landowners had submitted letters consenting to the sale of their land. A number of absentee owners who were not dependent on agricultural income were in fact perfectly happy to give up their land and receive compensation. But acquiescing participants formed only a small component of the project affected and did not represent the agrarian workers who fell between the cracks of the compensation process and could expect to be rendered destitute by the government’s expropriation of agricultural land. Even among those who were eligible for compensation, there were many who were unwilling to part with their land. The state police and Communist party workers resorted to coercive tactics to intimidate people into vacating the land that had been requisitioned for the automobile factory. The testimony of journalists and fact finding teams has established beyond doubt that the methods used included violence. Consequently talk of the West Bengal government's Stalinism has become commonplace among some critics of land acquisition at Singur.

The SEZ (Special Economic Zone) projects that are currently on the anvil throughout India involve the transfererence of thousands of acres of land to industrial interests. Although the Tata Motors small car factory is not an SEZ (Special Economic Zone) undertaking, the attention that it has garnered has played no small role in bringing about a nation wide debate on the adverse social, economic and political impact on a democratic polity of a newly minted landed class akin to the landowners of feudal times. Despite its friendliness to corporate interests, the mainstream media has been unable to conceal the fraying threads in the Tatas' mantle of social responsibility. At the unveiling of the Nano, Ratan Tata said he was determined to adhere to the price that he announced at the start of his undertaking although the cost of raw materials had gone up over the course of the four years of research and development that followed the conception of the one lakh car. His subsequent declaration “A promise is a promise” was cheered by the audience and reproduced in numerous media reports. The Times of India spoke of a resurrection of the corporate ethic, The extraordinarily profitable terms obtained by Tata Motors in return for establishing its auto factory in West Bengal was apparently unknown to those who were struck with breathless admiration at the Chairman's rectitude. These terms included nominal rent for much of the 90-year lease period of the Singur land as well as other subsidies like the handing over of the VAT revenues generated by the sale of cars in the first ten years as a loan at the interest rate of 1%, The specifics of the agreement were disclosed after an initial refusal on the government's part was countered by a demand for transparency. Skeptical analysts have also noticed that the land expropriated for the automobile factory--almost 1000 acres of prime, multi-cropped agricultural land--exceeds the legitimate requirements of the Tata plant which has an installed capacity of 100,000 cars per year. In comparison, the Maruti Udyog car plant with a production capacity of 350,000 cars a year is situated on a total land area of 300 acres.(1)

The peasant movement in Singur has been recorded in moving detail in the documentary Abad Bhumi or Right to Land in which the agrarian workers' struggle is presented in conjunction with the inauspicious outcome of earlier industrialization efforts in West Bengal.(2) In retrospect the most poignant images from Abad Bhumi can be said to be those of the demonstrations in which the villagers of Singur poured forth on the streets in their thousands chanting in unison slogans of defiance: “The fight for land goes on. You cannot make us give in.” During the land acquisition phase (May-December 2006) much was said about the job opportunities that would be created by the car factory's arrival. This in turn led to the build up of the comforting conviction in some sections of the public that alternative employment in the manufacturing sector would become available for those who were displaced by the car project. That the agrarian workers were under no illusions on that score has been abundantly brought out in Abad Bhumi. This skepticism is supported by the facts on the ground as well as the scholarly literature on development induced displacement which has shown that most farmers become daily wage earners, undergo the loss of 50% or more of their income and slip below the poverty line on losing their land.(3)

The strikingly fertile plains of West Bengal, the chosen site for the Tata car factory, are known to arouse feelings of rapture in the beholder. “Nothing in the media has prepared you for the beauty or prosperity of the place” wrote a journalist after visiting Singur to cover the story of the struggle for land.(4) In many observers, the instinctive outrage evoked by the spoliation of productive, agricultural land for industrial purposes has contributed in no small part to the potency of the saga of Singur. Although the Left Front's political opponents as well as some smaller constituents have called from time to time for the relocation of the car factory, there is little likelihood that the state government will make a voluntary decision to reverse the land acquisition and restore the land to its original owners. This is especially the case in the wake of the triumphant debut made by the Nano. Meanwhile, unvanquished by a recent Kolkata High Court decision to dismiss eleven public interest petitions challenging the land acquisition by the state government, the “Singur Krishi Jami Raksha” or Save the Singur Farm land movement has resolved to continue its struggle.(5) In the next phase of the struggle, they will take the matter before the Supreme Court.




3. Walter Fernandes, “Singur and the Displacement Scenario”, Economic and Political Weekly (January 20, 2007)


5. “Protest Rally in Singur against High Court Verdict”, January 22, 2008