Thursday, May 15, 2008

Zamindars of Globalism

Jeremy Seabrook
The macabre death of an 18-year-old girl on the disputed site at Singur adds an even
more sinister turn to events in West Bengal, where “development” is ceasing to be a
promise, and has become a menace to the people. Development, supposedly an organic
unfolding of economic and social wellbeing, is now, for those whose land and property is
confiscated, a forfeit of rights, liberties, and increasingly, lives.
When the Indian government acquires land from farmers, it does so under the British
Land Acquisition Act of 1894; a significant process, since it illustrates once again
continuity between imperial rule and the leaders of an India whose people are still subject
to many archaic, colonial laws.
This should come as no surprise; for the Indian authorities, at the national and state
levels, are pursuing a colonial, economic policy. The pity is that they have no colonies.
This compels them to place pressure on their own people, particularly poor people, who
have the historic misfortune to own land required for infrastructural or industrial
purposes, for the minerals that lie beneath their feet, or the forests that shelter them.
The case of Singur is one of thousands worldwide, where industrial houses, national and
international corporations and other generators of wealth have been ceded land on which
agriculturists have gone about their peaceable occupation for generations.
It is an irony observed by many, that the West Bengal government, earlier accused of
having driven industry away from Kolkata because of its Leftist militancy, should now be
enticing it back with other people’s property.
The socialist axiom that all property is theft has a cruel resonance in the hinterland of
Kolkata; the more so in the seemingly impossible contradiction of the enforcement of
neo-liberalism with a Stalin-like coercion.
It ought to be clear by now that people will not meekly renounce their heritage simply
because they are obstructing the will of the powerful. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee intones
the mantra “Without industry and commerce there can be no progress”. He has managed
the worst of both worlds, an ugly hybrid: the ruthless authoritarianism of Communism
and the monstrous social injustice of global capitalism.
The dispute between spokespersons for the farmers and government on the readiness of
landowners to accept compensation is a sideshow. Leaving aside that only a proportion of
those with an interest in the 1,000-acre site have received any monetary recompense from
the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation, the very notion of compensatory
payment should also be questioned.
Land represents livelihood in perpetuity. A sum of money in hand - no matter how
apparently substantial - is no substitute for an asset whose capacity for production, if
carefully tended, is of indefinite duration.
Wherever farmers have been “compensated”, the inedible harvest of money, unlike that
of rice or wheat or corn, is soon used up, and the great majority are reduced to the status
of landless workers on other people’s farms.
Add to this that the land acquired by government is invariably at lower than the market
rate, and the sense of injustice is compounded. The people to be expropriated are never
consulted, but are presented with the fait accompli. Mr Bhattacharjee says: “The Tatas
will get their land”. The deal is done; the land transferred, its owners a minor irritant in
these imperial transactions.
The shift from agricultural to industrial society does indeed represent an irreversible
transformation. For one thing, it turns people into dependents of the market, and does
away with all future possibility of self-provisioning in food. Newly urbanised and
industrialised populations soon learn that they are at the mercy, not of the seasons and the
rhythms of the agricultural year, but of the savage discipline of what the market will bear.
This establishes a different form of poverty from that which depends upon the vagaries of
nature, for the seasons of money are even less unpredictable than the weather.
Of course, macro-economic statistics are deployed to tell a convincing story. Only one
quarter of the GDP of West Bengal comes from agriculture, though this provides
employment to two-thirds of the people. It seems only logical that a large number of
workers on the land should be “shaken out” (in the homely pepper-pot image), and sent to
find their fortune elsewhere.
The Tata plant planned for Singur is supposed to provide 2,500 jobs, with an additional
7,500 in ancillary products and services ~ for the Rs 1,000 crore to be invested, this is
very expensive job-creation indeed, and will make an insignificant impression on the 50
million people still depending on the land.
But this is to be a “people’s car, costing a mere $2,000 per vehicle. Perhaps it should be
called ‘some people’s car’”, because it will remain out of reach of the vast majority of the
people. In a state where almost half of all children are undernourished, it may seem a
bizarre priority of socialism to provide cars before food. Let them eat fumes.
There will, of course, be other consequences of increased car production. The State will
have to provide more roads. More oil will be imported. Congestion and pollution will
entail further health costs. It will be said that cars are what the people want. True, no
doubt. But it is equally true that they emphatically do not want some of the consequences
~ more traffic accidents (more people die annually on India’s roads than the casualties of
a medium-sized war, half as many as have died over 15 years in Kashmir), a decline in
food security, the degradation of the environment and loss of fertile land.
But these things the people must have, since they are the inevitable outcome of an
economy based upon the growth in private transport.
It is clear that the true costs of Tata’s flagship project are not entirely contained within the
modest price-tag affixed to the shining metal that will soon doubtlessly be hot off the
assembly line at Singur. The real cost is detached from the cover price, and will be paid
by others who are unable to benefit from the purchase.
India’s “development” is imitative and inappropriate. Every error made by the West is
duly being repeated by an India which seems voluntarily to have suspended all capacity
for independent thought. The China model also serves as secondary inspiration to the
sightless visionaries of West Bengal; dazzled no doubt by Shanghai, and impressed by the
draconian methods of their nominally Communist kinsfolk in Beijing, the inconvenience
of poor Indian farmers must not pose an obstacle to their dystopic subservience to
corporate greed.
In their admiration of the development of China, it is unlikely that the leaders of West
Bengal have visited the tainted countryside, tasted the poisoned water, or sampled
produce from the polluted soil of that happy model of the future, nor yet examined the
birth defects, cancers and pollution sicknesses which disfigure the people.
There is another issue in the passage of land coveted by Tata into its possession. Tata has
always prided itself on its ethical policies and charitable work. When I first came to India
in the early 1980s, I visited some villages in Maharashtra whose fortunes had been
transformed by Tatas’ commitment to the rural poor. It seems that, following the
shootings at Kalinganagar in Orissa last January, and now, the bid for fertile agricultural
land in West Bengal, Tata is adapting to the ethics and morality of globalism.
Welcome to the world of dog eat dog, the competition of cut-throats and the race of the
rats. Progress indeed.
In the hinterland of Kolkata, Singur exemplifies urban-rural linkages, the shadow-land
between urban and rural, in which increasing numbers of the world’s people survive in
livelihoods that are neither fully industrial nor completely rural.
Development as land-grab means the extinction of rural life beneath concrete, glass and
marble. The skyscrapers of development are grandiose funerary monuments in the
graveyard of an agricultural way of living pronounced defunct by the doctors of universal
How sad it is, the atrophied imagination, the desiccated heart and the arid morality of
those who call themselves leaders, but are unable to understand the simple distinction
between money and the true wealth of the world.
(The author lives in Britain. He has written plays for the stage, TV and radio, made TV
documentaries, published more than 30 books and contributed to leading journals around
the world.