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Sumit Mitra, Hindustan Times
September 28, 2010
The UPA government seems under pressure to abandon the State’s right to acquire land under the ‘eminent domain’ principle, a time-honoured right that has enabled the western world, Japan, and now China, to flaunt their wide highways, abundant railway tracks, ports, airports, and sprawling industrial projects. The East India Company applied the same inherent power of the state to build roads in Calcutta and, from 1850, to lay down the railway networks in Bengal and Bombay provinces. In 1894, it evolved into the Land Acquisition Act, which the government now seeks to dilute. A ministerial-level exercise is on to carry it out. UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi is seemingly impressed by the so-called ‘Haryana model’ that promises to land-losers, in addition to a handsome compensation, ‘annuities’ to be paid for 33 years.

Egalitarian promises generally follow the scent of votes. In this case, the correspondence between resisting land acquisition, and being electorally rewarded, was shown by Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress in West Bengal. It is generally believed that her spectacular success in the 2009 Lok Sabha election, in which she, in partnership with the Congress, could drive her ‘Professor Moriarty’, the CPI(M), to the very top of the Reichenbach fall (Holmes returned after The Final Problem, not to worry). If Banerjee had not launched movements in Singur and Nandigram, it is argued, the CPI(M)-led Left Front wouldn’t have fared so much worse than 2004, when Trinamool kept just one seat, that of its leader. The assumption that a linkage exists between Singur/Nandigram and 2009 poll outcome has left the foreheads of many a poll strategist furrowed. It appears from media reports that a section of the Left Front, too, is subscribing to this view. Apparently, Prakash Karat, general secretary of the CPI(M), has told something similar to leftist historian Eric Hobsbawm, or so it seems from one of the latter’s interviews to the New Left Review magazine earlier this year.

There are two reasons why the argument is fallacious. In the 2006 assembly elections in West Bengal, the Left Front bagged 233 of the total of 294 seats. But it was against a disunited opposition. In 2009, the Trinamool, by having on its side the Congress, the party of first choice of the state’s 27 per cent Muslims, and the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI), a fringe party that is entrenched among the Scheduled Castes in the coastal district of South 24 Parganas. The Left Front won in only 99 assembly segments. However, a cursory calculation will show that, with a similar alliance in the 2006 assembly election, the Left could barely win 150 seats, a precarious majority.

The CPI(M) had the ground slipping from under its feet for quite some time. Mamata’s land movements from 2006 no doubt made the Left’s slope steeper as its visual effect, transmitted across the state through satellite television, encouraged people in many places to challenge the CPI(M)’s thuggish apparatchiki who specialised in stealing and snatching votes. Nandigram also emboldened the poor people of the neighbouring ‘Jangal mahal’ — the lawless districts of Purulia, Bankura and West Midnapore — to enlist the support of Maoist rebels in challenging the CPI(M)’s armed brigade, whom the locals call ‘harmad’, probably derived from the Spanish ‘armada’. These conditions may not prevail in other states where shedding tears for land-losers may not fetch proportionate electoral dividends.

That brings us to the other paradox: whose land is lost in a state-sponsored acquisition? It is a known fact that the titles for land in a parcel for acquisition are held by a few, the largest number of claimants for compensation being sharecroppers and others who have just tilled the land. Collectively, they are agricultural workers. As the economy gets modernised, it is but expected that the share of agricultural workers to total workers would fall. There can be other reasons too leading to shrinking of agricultural workers — like a drop in their real wages. It seems to be the more likely reason for a dramatic drop in this figure in the case of West Bengal, from 54.25 per cent in 1991 to 44.15 per cent in 2001. If this trend has persisted, it will not be an overstatement that only a third of the state’s workforce have something to do with agriculture.

In other words, not too many should be grumpy if land is acquired by the state for ‘public use’ after paying compensation in accordance with the rules to every stakeholder. Yes it created such ruckus at Singur/Nandigram for the state-specific issues. It released the people’s pent-up anger at the CPI(M) for its decades-long governance failure, its low cultural values and overbearing attitude towards one and all. What added to their fury was increasing job losses in agriculture. With so many things acting together, it is but natural that the people would ask for the incumbent’s blood. Singur or Nandigram was a pretext.

Political authorities at the Centre, however, want to play it safe; they are advising the government to rewrite the law by following the ‘Haryana model.’ But agriculture is arguably more serious business in Haryana, where cultivators, who are legal stakeholders, outnumber agricultural labourers, whose stake in land is notional, in a ratio of 5:2. In West Bengal, it is in the reverse direction, with about three labourers for two cultivators. If projects for public use are made to pay annuities for 33 years to an army of day labourers, they will go bust before they open.

Good politics is not always good economics. Nor is it sensible to chase votes at any cost. Banerjee undoubtedly has on hand an exceptional problem — that of making the swing door of democracy revolve again. But the Congress has no reason to play the firefighter, at least not when it is the wrong fire.

Sumit Mitra is a Kolkata-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal