The West Bengal Chief Minister and the ruling Left Front (LF) government’s former poet-commissar, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, translator of Mayakovsky, is busy with another kind of poetry these days. He is transposing the ‘poetry’ of industrialisation – as it happened on the soil of England – onto the land called Bengal. Dazzled by the dreamworld of capital, Buddhadeb has been quick to shake off the shackles of his earlier convictions and seek aesthetic pleasure in his new role as the ‘Commissar of Industry and Progress’. For quite some time now, Bhattacharya has been trying to convince prospective investors to take the leftists at their word when they say they really are in favour of neo-liberal reforms: “We are realists and we know it’s either reform or perish.” Progress, he understands, entails the death of all that is archaic – revolutionary convictions and agriculture, for instance.
Rapid industrialisation is the only way forward, and Special Economic Zones (SEZs) are the quickest way to industrialise. The idea of SEZs has been directly imported into India – and indeed into West Bengal – from China, and from the neo-liberal’s point of view, such units are the important first step in the direction of the brave new world of capital. Eventually, these enthusiasts intend to extend to the entire country the facilities enjoyed by SEZs – tax holidays, exemption from labour laws, unrestricted import facilities, cheap land taken over from Adivasis and peasants, and the freedom of unrestrained exploitation of natural resources.
China is Bhattacharya’s immediate inspiration and justification; but alas, unlike in China, he has a democracy to deal with. The process of industrialisation that Bhattacharya and his party, the CPI(M), have initiated would be every bit as ruthless and violent as it is in China – but for this fact of democracy, which allows the peasants to manifest their resistance.
Thus it happened that on 1 December 2006, several thousand police and paramilitary troops descended on a small and obscure place, the name of which very few outside the state of West Bengal had heard of: Singur. They came to fence off an area of 997 acres of prime agricultural land in Hooghly District so that it could be handed over to the Tata conglomerate, who would establish on it a plant for the manufacture of cheap cars.
What happened in Singur revealed in a flash to all of rural Bengal the plan for the much advertised industrialisation programme: The peasants would be dispossessed at any cost to clear the way. The police fired teargas and rubber bullets at the protesting villagers. They were beaten up and their paddy harvests set on fire. For the peasants did not give up their land voluntarily.
The anger among the local population has been building up ever since the news of the Tatas’ plans for the factory reached Singur in May 2006, even as the newly-elected Left Front government was taking oath. As mass discontent became apparent, various smaller leftwing organisations, especially Naxalite groups and intellectuals, started becoming involved. The involvement of Medha Patkar, leader of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) and the National Alliance of Peoples’ Movements (NAPM), helped draw attention to the issue, while the active championing of the cause of the peasants and sharecroppers by the Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee brought in the dimension of electoral calculus.
The Bhattacharya government has been claiming that the acquisition process has been transparent and democratic, and that of the 997 acres required for the project, the consent of the owners had already been acquired for 952 acres by December. These owners – so claimed the LF government and the CPI(M) leader Brinda Karat – had not only given their consent, but were enthusiastically queuing up for the attractive cash compensation package. In a show that smacked of manipulation, the CPI(M) even got these villagers to set up an organisation to “support industrialisation”. Revealingly – and a trifle farcically – it was called ‘Pragatisheel Swechchha Jomi Bikreta, Shilpa Sthapan O Shahar Unnayan Committee (Committee of Progressive, Voluntary Land-Sellers, Supporters of Industrialisation and City Development)’. These people were apparently dying to give up their land at prices far below the market rate for the noble cause of industrialisation!
Be the case of the ‘land-seller’ as it may, what about the animal called the sharecropper? What about the people who work the land but do not own it? What about those for whom the CPI(M) had in the early 1980s devised the well-known ‘Operation Barga’, to protect their tenure by means of registration? By the time Singur happened, however, the landless peasant/sharecropper had all but disappeared from CPI(M)’s horizon. When cornered, the party’s leaders said they had ensured that the landless would be given jobs in the factory. Given that all labour laws are null and void within an SEZ, it was left unclear how CPI(M) would ensure that the job guarantee would be affected.
Critics have pointed out that even government statistics show 333,372 hectares of fallow and 119,146 hectares of uncultivable land available in West Bengal, in addition to over 40,000 acres of land locked in mills and factories no longer functioning, which could be used for the purpose of setting up a new factory. Amitdyuti Kumar, vice-president of the Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR), also refers to a memorandum submitted by the CPI(M) MP Santasri Chatterjee, president of the Hooghly District chapter of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, to the local district magistrate, demanding use of such premises for the establishment of new industrial units.
Interestingly, Chatterjee’s memorandum also states that the Birlas were given 744 acres in 1948 in order to set up Hind Motors in the district, but that they only used 252 acres – 500 acres had remained unused for 58 years. Critics argue that automobile factories, including the Tatas’ own, do not need such large parcels of land. They also point out that, even by Tata Motors’ estimates, there is no way the project will generate more than 2000 jobs. Yet the number of people losing livelihoods, including sharecroppers, is likely to be in the region of 15,000.
The government’s claim that the Singur land is good only for single-crop cultivation, or that it is wasteland, has also been shown to be false. Most of the land concerned is fertile multi-crop land, and the government’s claims on the matter seem to be based on land records that have not been updated for decades. Noted leftwing historian Sumit Sarkar recently affirmed, after a visit to Singur, that most of the government’s claims are indeed highly questionable: neither was the process of acquisition democratic and transparent, nor was the claim that the land was single-crop correct.
Singur was still creating a stir when a major eruption occurred in the Nandigram area of East Midnapore District. Here, in early January, the villagers were up in arms, as news reached them of an order by the Haldia Development Authority, under which Nandigram falls, identifying land for acquisition in the preparation of two new SEZs in the area. One of these is to be set up by the Salim Group, an Indonesian multinational corporation that was at the centre of much controversy last year, as Buddhadeb had committed it 5000 acres of land without consultation with other government functionaries. The drastic amendments he proposed to existing laws in order to facilitate these acquisitions, however, were rejected by a unanimous vote of the state assembly.
The two SEZs in the Haldia area will involve much more land than did the Tatas’ venture – somewhat over 14,500 acres to begin with. As the leaked news reached Nandigram, panic set in and preparations were made on a war footing for the possible arrival of police and paramilitary forces, to implement the land acquisition. The rage of the population fell on the local CPI(M) cadres, who had to flee for their lives. An angry crowd also set the local party office on fire and put up roadblocks in the approaches to the village. Sumit Sarkar’s report on Singur laments that the word cadre has become a term of abuse in local parlance. The party’s response to this outburst was to mobilise more ‘cadres’ from neighbouring areas and to launch a pre-meditated counterattack in which at least six people were killed.
In the course of its troubles in Singur and Nandigram, the CPI(M) leadership needed a scapegoat by means of which to discredit the struggle against its policies. They found this in the figure of the ‘outsider’, a representation that encompasses anyone who is not directly affected by the land acquisitions. The outsider could be Medha Patkar, the local Naxalite activist, students or intellectuals from Calcutta, or even local activists of parties such as the Trinamool Congress and the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI). This is a strange argument for the communists to make, given that not one of their unions in any factory could have been set up without the active support of people from ‘outside’. But more to the point, might one be pardoned for asking, Are the Tatas and the Salim group of industries ‘insiders’? Is Buddha Babu, who committed other people’s land to these companies against the will of the owners, an insider?
Though there is an apparent calm for the time being, the West Bengal countryside is simmering, and much will depend on whether Mr Bhattacharya and the CPI(M) are prepared to rethink their strategy of rapid industrialisation. Agriculture in its present form might not be the best option, but if the rationale behind industrialisation is that it will create more jobs, it is clearly misplaced. Does Buddha Babu have any other strategy in mind, and will he act on it before irreversible damage is done?
~ Aditya Nigam is a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). He lives in New Delhi.