Thursday, December 18, 2008

Where the situation in Singur stands now

Under Development: Singur

Dibyajyoti Ghosh

The 1-lakh Tata Nano is in trouble. While most people protested against State-sponsored violence in Nandigram – the proposed site for Salim group’s 10,000 acre chemical hub (which is now supposed to come up in Nayachar) – Singur and the Tata Motors plant was already one step ahead in the path of industrial re-development in West Bengal. State-sponsored violence in Singur had been far more effective as no one had died (except for Tapasi Malik, a teenager who was raped and murdered by cadres of the ruling party, the CPI(M) for having taken part in the protest movement against the Nano factory). Farmers who committed suicide because they had been deprived of their livelihood because the government had forcibly taken away their land, did not obviously make it to the tally of deaths caused by the factory.

Singur was never really opposed in the popular media. The largest media house in West Bengal wrote editorials urging the state government to quell any protests in Singur, as the Tata Nano plant, it said, would magically revitalise the state’s economy and bring about development for all. The atrocities in Nandigram (because the people there had learnt lessons from Singur and had dug trenches around their own land so as to prevent potential acquirers from forcibly coming in and evicting them from their lands) were of a greater magnitude to arrest the attention of the masses. A hundred thousand people (according to the leading English daily in Kolkata) came out on the streets on 14th November 2007 to protest against the violence in Nandigram, yet Singur, it seemed, never affected so many people to make any such token gestures.

The absence of large-scale bloodbaths (except for the ones on 25th September and 2nd December 2006) seems to have given a no-objection certificate to the displacement of several thousand people and deprivation of their livelihoods as it was all for the greater good of the state of West Bengal.

Though the protests against the Singur plant were initially started by local residents of Singur, the Singur Krishi Jomi Rokkha Committee (Singur Save Farmland Committee) was soon appropriated by the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and most protests by local residents were under the TMC-led SKJRC banner. The independent voices of the local farmers of Singur were soon swallowed up in the larger, state-wide, TMC fold.

The construction of the factory went on at its own pace till the panchayat elections of 2008 when, buoyed by the victory in Singur and Nandigram, the TMC decided to lay siege outside the factory demanding the return of the 400 acres (of the 997 acres in total) of farmland that had been acquired forcibly from unwilling landowners. Work within the Tata Motors factory was impeded because of the siege immediately outside one portion of the factory. After a discussion between the CPI(M)-led Left Front government and the TMC-led opposition, mediated by the governor of West Bengal, where the opposition’s main demand (among many others) was that the 400 acres be returned and the government’s assurance that about 47 acres would be returned at least and much bargaining over the exact quantum of land, the discussions went into one of its prolonged indecisive moments like several others since the issue broke out in 2006.

Ratan Tata decided to shift the Nano plant out of West Bengal and to Gujarat. This was heralded by most as the death knell for industry (which is naively equated with development) in West Bengal and much hue and cry has been raised over the destructive nature of the TMC’s protest movements. With the TMC proposing to continue its protests if the land that is no longer going to be used to supposedly build the Tata Nano factory is not returned to the original landowners, things still appear to be stuck. The government, who agreed to pay a much larger compensation (though still deemed too little by many including most importantly, some of the farmers who were dependent on the land) after the meetings mediated by the governor, was forced to be less harsh and unjust on the farmers dependent on the land and this coming down from its high arrogant position was again seen by many villagers of Singur as a small symbolic victory for them. The government is now citing the archaic 1894 Land Acquisition Law to point out that it cannot return the land on technical grounds (though some lawyers have pointed out that certain technicalities allow the land to be returned). However, going by the WB chief minister’s way of doing things, such trivialities are hardly an issue since he had said that all wrongs could be set right if the land acquisition notice in Nandigram was torn up and thrown away.

The Singur issue has again reached a crucial juncture as with the exit of the Tatas, issues such as whether to return the land or not, how to ensure that the fertility of the land (which has been covered with cement and been rendered uncultivable) is restored and how much compensation (whether to compensate for all the work lost since 2006 when the land was acquired) are all burning issues which need to be sorted out quickly and fairly so that the local farmers of Singur dependent on the land do not suffer any longer. Larger issues of industrialisation and development need to be talked about as it is this which will decide whether the multi-crop and highly fertile land of Singur needs to be used for industry or whether it ought to be restored to its previous cultivable state.

Public pressure seems to have firmly gone up against the TMC. Though some (such as the leading media house in West Bengal) have been consistently against any opposition to the Singur factory, others accept the unfairness and brutalities of the government in forcibly acquiring fertile land, rendering several thousands jobless and setting up a car factory over there. Yet, some who were opposed to the setting up of the car factory thought that the best compromise in a situation where such a factory had already been started to be made would be to let it happen and the TMC protests and Ratan Tata’s decision to shift the project to Gujarat has left things in the middle of two chasms. Neither have the farmers been adequately compensated as yet and the factory been made to operate giving jobs to a chosen few from across the world. Nor has farming been allowed to exist peacefully so that the local populace could have gone on with their lives as before. They feel that the TMC’s protests were ill-timed and the protests should have acquired this magnitude earlier before the factory construction started or it should not have happened now at all and the factory should have been allowed to continue.

The problem with this argument is that the protests had indeed been quite fierce following the State-sponsored violence on 2nd December 2006. In spite of the TMC’s gestures such as breaking furniture in the state Assembly, several protest marches by non-partisan bodies had been organised at that point of time. But, they did not acquire the magnitude of a 100,000-strong force such as after the CPI(M) recapture of Nandigram. And the TMC’s protest then was albeit of a very different nature, instead of a siege, there were frequent strikes or bandhs in the city and its most histrionic extreme was the fracas in the state Assembly. Thus, the TMC, as the leading opposition, cannot be said to have stepped on the gas too late though it is obviously milking the situation for political mileage.

Till the West Bengal panchayat elections of 2008, the factory came up with very little opposition such as the occasional breaking down of the boundary walls or torching of security watchtowers by disgruntled and exasperated farmers. Meanwhile, a meagre compensation had been allocated for the landowners and though the chief minister had publicly said that landless farm labourers would get 25% of the compensation given to the landowners, no such information was officially communicated to the landless farm labourers by the panchayat or other local government officials. Secrecy was practiced and encouraged, the exact agreement between the government and Tata Motors being the most notable one in the Singur project. The factory was coming up and while the leading English daily of Kolkata was publishing imaginary shopping lists for the festive season where the lists included both the iPod Nano and the Tata Nano, the question of what was to happen to those who had not yet collected their compensation cheques and the landless farm labourers who were not even being told that they were supposed to get any compensation at all, was not being discussed in the mainstream media at all. In alternative media and discussion circles, people were speaking about the futility of giving a one-time large compensation to people who are not accustomed to handling large amounts of money as they tend to burn it up instead of investing it properly. Moreover, the compensation being offered by the government was so meagre that the farmers of Singur were saying that the money would run out in a few years whereas they could make a living (however modest that may be, it was sufficient) off the land for ever.

The TMC siege, propelled the Singur issue to the front page of every newspaper and prime slot on every TV channel in West Bengal. More money was in the offing in the form of compensation that the government was forced to agree upon after the meeting mediated by the governor. The exit of the Tatas have however, complicated the compensation for permanent surrender of the land.

It will be naïve to think that no industry will ever come up in West Bengal again any time soon as industries come up wherever more subsidies are offered. Had the people of Nandigram not defended their land in a martial manner, there would not have been large-scale bloodbaths to outrage the public at large and another industrial unit would have come up in Nandigram. It is because the people of Nandigram defended their land and expressed their opinion in a more violent manner, did there ensue the process which led to most people’s strong opposition to the project, though the chief minister disapprovingly admonishes the people there for having lost the chance to develop themselves and which now the people of Nayachar, he claims, have the golden chance to do. It is this same golden chance which a large section of the media thinks Singur had and which it has lost.

It is also quite convenient to tag people opposing the Tata Nano plant as belonging to the TMC camp. For opinion, in the present political milieu, is usually categorised in neat political binaries. By clubbing together all opinion against the Tata Nano plant at all its stages (inception in 2006 or even after it withdrew in 2008) in the TMC camp, one can conveniently label such opinion as being associated with the TMC’s political actions such as the fracas in the state Assembly in 2006 and term it as anti-State and unproductive or even destructive. Most local farmers in Singur are part of the SKJRC and thus also of the TMC because that is the only channel they have for expressing political opinion but they are not naïve enough to prioritise the TMC’s concern (political mileage for one) over their own. The fact that they still are part of the TMC-led SKJRC gives some validity to the agency of the TMC-led SKJRC as representative of the voices of the local farming population dependent on the land. It is because of the existing political setup in West Bengal now that people rarely have a loud voice outside the binary of the CPI(M) and the TMC. Voices outside this binary do exist but are feeble.

Many feel that the Tatas are the big losers in this battle between the CPI(M) and the TMC. The Tatas are seen as a cleaner group compared to the Ambanis. Maybe it says more about the Ambanis than about anyone else for the Tatas have had a recent history of not paying any heed to the voices of the people which it publicly claims it is trying to improve the lives of. The Dhamra port in Orissa has been strongly opposed for several months by Greenpeace activists who warn of the environmental hazards that it will cause but it is still planned to be built. The Tata Steel SEZs in Kalinganagar and Gopalpur in Orissa have also been fiercely opposed by the local residents but they continue to be constructed despite Ratan Tata’s publicly proclaimed desire to improve lives of local communities.

It is now that larger questions of development and governance, of whether predatory industrialisation through the SEZ model and removing subsidies from agriculture and converting agricultural land to industrial land is sustainable or whether such actions will lead to a food crisis in India, need to be discussed. Questions about whether the country needs more cars and more flyovers to make space for the greater number of cars or a limit on the maximum number of cars in every city need to be put into place; and whether the Land Acquisition Act and its carte blanche to the government to acquire land for ‘public purpose’ (which now the Court has ruled can also mean earning money for the country) needs to be modified so that the landowner can choose to surrender or not surrender the land owned.

There is no point in saying that no plan of development is ever all-encompassing and fair to all sections of the society, and the local residents of Singur must take a compensation amount and leave their homesteads as part of the ‘necessary cost’ of development of the State. These are issues that need to be discussed and a consensus reached among all very fast so that the local farmers of Singur who were dependent on the land are not left to die out. If the land is to be returned and an adequate compensation paid for all the days of lost work and for the healing time that the land will require to regain fertility (as a lot of the local farmers are demanding), then it must be done soon.

Dibyajyoti Ghosh can be contacted at dibyajyotighoshATyahooDOTcoDOTin