Which Bengali boy, weaned on a diet of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali and folktales of a land-reformed, communist-ruled state, is not moved by the beauty and charms of West Bengal’s villages? Alas, this one.
Nearly 36 years of city life must have left me woefully ill-equipped to break into song while travelling along the red earth, dirt road that just about connects villages in the district of East Midnapur to each other and to the world outside. I should have sat up goggle-eyed from my Ambassador seat as we passed shacks and shanties that sporadically exist as shops and homes along the road. I should have marvelled at the snot-nosed children in their bedraggled clothes looking out of hutments. I should have been filled with quiet awe, in the same humbling manner that city slickers passing through rural India are humbly filled with awe, each time I saw men and women hunched over at work on their paddy plots brimming with water. But hurtling towards Nandigram at some 10 km an hour, I was asking myself only one question: so the people here are fighting against their land being acquired for industrial development so that they can hold on to this?
I would have expected the politicised mob of Nandigram, a blighted area lying next to a corner of the Haldi river, to argue that farm land was the only thing that allowed farmers here not to sink into poverty. Taking this land away would turn the overwhelmingly large percentage of Nandigram’s population, dependant on agriculture, into rural beggars. But instead, I hear a different argument. “Don’t think that farmers here don’t make a good living out of their land. They may look poor, living in shanties and wearing lungis. But they make good money out of agriculture. Some even grow and export sunflower crops.” All this is told to me, behind a tea-shop, by a local Youth Trinamool Congress leader. I have no idea whether he is saying all this with a straight face, as he’d insisted that we move away from the posse of policemen sipping tea and munching on fries at the lit-up tea-shop.
That’s the problem with rural India in general and rural Bengal in particular. One can never quite tell where the propaganda starts and the genuine ‘economic index’ ends. If there are those who bemoan India’s urban landscape becoming a faceless, mall-infested, consumer-driven Gomorrah, villages like Nandigram — and the scores of smaller villages one encounters on the way to this cadre-infested battleground — are Sodoms of underdevelopment. This isn’t an easy opinion to air, especially for an English language media city slicker. Villages are, after all, still where India’s overwhelming population lives, the proverbial repositories of ‘Real India’. To associate this sprawling landscape with what Karl Marx once termed as the ‘idiocy of rural life’ is bordering on the ‘elite delusional’.
Not too long ago, the argument posed today by jack-in-the-box entities like the Trinamool Congress and the CPI(ML) — “There’s no need for help, thank you very much. We are doing fine, so get out of here” — was coming from the other side. Not too far from Nandigram in East Midnapur lies Amlasol in West Midnapur. In June 2004, five tribals in the village died of starvation. At that time, the West Bengal government reacted in a manner that governments have been trained to react for decades: through denial. The local Block Development Officer Subhashish Baij stated with as straight a face as the Trinamool worker in Nandigram, “Nobody here can die of starvation. They can earn Rs 100 a day just by cutting wood from the forests.”
Today, the same Left Front government has decided that it is time to update Operation Barga. But denial has a nasty way of being everybody’s handmaiden. So while Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee may be ready with plans to develop — through industrialisation — the rural landscape of his state, Opposition parties are clear that there is no need for any change.
It is in Nandigram’s areas of darkness — behind tea-shops, a lane away from a mobile phone servicing centre, opposite a Foreign Liquor (Off) Store, a distance away from the hub-hub of a perfectly raucous Thursday fish’n’vegetable market, not too far from a banner proclaiming the ongoing ‘Bangshidhari Tripathi Football Tournament’ — that I get a fair idea of how this place, an otherwise non-descript, underdeveloped village has become a barricaded war zone terrorised by cadres on both sides of the land acquisition fence. It is also in these zones, outside the areas carrying many of the markers of ‘semi-urbanness’, that those living in the villages face the bitter and banal realities of 21st century rural life.
Villages are, despite the sameness that exists at the bottom of the hierarchy of rural underdevelopment, different from each other. Singur in Hugli district, another flashpoint in the agriculture versus industrialisation drama being played out, for instance, is not a Nandigram. Subrata Das, a sharecropper in Kasher Bheri village in Singur tells me as he tills his land a few metres away from the fenced-in land acquired by the government for the Tata Motors project, “It’s not about us selling or not selling our land. It’s about the government not offering us the right price for it.”
Nandigram, like Amlasol, is half a universe away from places like Singur, with its cold storages and humming water pumps. In Nandigram, what is being passed off as ‘fisheries’ are people casting nets in the river; what is being announced as a thriving agricultural economy is a decrepit area where the vacuum has been filled by a raging, lumpen, Luddite ideology. To be fair, the heart of Nandigram has all the paraphernalia of a small town. But the pucca houses, the shops and the semi-urban surroundings cater to Nandigram’s elite — landowners, tradesmen and shopkeepers. But outside the town centre lie the villages from where the sharecroppers and their families travel up and down, taking hours to walk or cycle along dirt roads and conduct their lives. These are areas where development has only been a rumour. The irony of a packet of biscuits costing a rupee more in roadside shacks in these ‘interiors’ than in the ‘town centre’ cannot be lost. People who afford the least have to pay more because of the complete lack of proper roads and infrastructure.
Concerned souls like Mamata Banerjee and Medha Patkar, raging against the government’s industrialisation plans, don’t seem to have much to say about the dysfunction that exists in Nandigram and hundreds of other bucolic surroundings across India. For them, industrialisation will spell the death of a way of living, little realising that the very way of living that they eulogise and wish to protect is a sorry life. It is the West Bengal government’s lack of adeptness and transparency that has made ‘development’ as much of a dirty word among those easily influenced in petri dishes like Nandigram as ‘sterilisation’ was during the Emergency.
Nandigram and other such places need industrialisation not for the sake of the state, the country and its economy but for the betterment of those who live there. It isn’t a romantic notion that sits well with the notion of ‘happiness and dignity shining through poverty’. But it’s the truth that should suit those who will continue to live in these blighted spots much after the rest have upped and left.