Debabrata Bandyopadhyay, director of land records and surveys in two United Front governments in West Bengal during the late 1960s, is widely recognised for his contributions to land-reform policy. He talks with Anindya Bhattacharya about the matter of acquisition of agricultural lands.
Anindya Bhattacharya: The National Agricultural Commission recently submitted a report to the New Delhi government in which it cautions against the SEZ policy and the wanton acquisition of fertile lands. Yet the West Bengal government has been acquiring acre after acre of fertile land in the name of setting up industries. What is the importance of agriculture in a country like India?
Debabrata Bandyopadhyay: In October 2006, I met M S Swaminathan soon after he submitted that report to the union government. In his report, he discourages industrialisation and urbanisation from taking place on agricultural lands. He also adds that if productive lands are bought up or occupied and the farmers lose their jobs, this will not only put the farmers themselves in peril, but could also lead to significant food scarcity. This issue clearly needs further study before far-reaching decisions can be made. A country can never prosper by encroaching on farmland, by rendering farmers jobless or shelter-less, or by increasing food scarcity. For the development of a country, there should be no collateral damage: it is not acceptable to harm many people for the benefit of a few. If that is done forcibly, there will be a conflict, either non-violent or violent.
Bhattacharya: In this context, the Tatas’ rigidity about the vehicle factory in Singur is striking. Why are they so unyielding about setting up their factory there? And why is the West Bengal government also insisting on that location?
Bandyopadhyay: This can only be answered by the Tatas and the state government. The land that is to be acquired by the government contains two irrigation canals, about 50 deep tube wells, and yields four to five large crops every year. A farmer’s net income from these multiple crops from one bigha of land [about 1330 square metres] is around 30,000 rupees. The marginal and small-scale farmers who posses one acre of land have an annual net income ranging from 80,000 to 100,000 rupees. These farmers are not rich, but can at least be considered moderately affluent. If this land were to be taken away, many suggest that 11,000 people would suddenly be jobless. How many of these would then get jobs in Tata Motors? Both the state government and the Tatas are silent on the answer to this question. If we assume that 300 to 400 would be employed, they will be technocrats, graduate engineers and technicians, including outsiders. Is this coherent social cost-benefit analysis? In Bengal, where the unemployment problem is already so severe, it is financially and morally unethical to make someone unemployed without making any additional provision for employment.
Bhattacharya: Some say that the problems arising out of land acquisition will be resolved through adequate compensation. Bandyopadhyay: To a farmer, land is his livelihood. The government can compensate for the loss of property, but the Land Acquisition Act does not utter a word about compensation for unemployment. It is worth noting that even the World Bank has been opposing forcible acquisition that results in loss of land, increased unemployment, migration, shortage of foods and the like. Instead, the World Bank recommends that those in market economics should buy land on the open market. The Tatas are the old capitalists of India, but instead of the open market they want to acquire lands cheaply through the government. According to media reports, the government is offering compensation at a rate of six lakh rupees per acre. If it is assumed that the notional price of land today is 18 lakh per acre, then each land owner is personally offering a subsidy of 10 lakh rupees per acre to the Tatas. Is this a policy of denying socialism or denying market economy?
Translated from Bengali by Srutirupa Chattopadhyay.