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Blood on the soil

The images of the bloodbath at Nandigram are haunting — a young woman’s dead body being rolled off a rickety vegetable cart, her green sari soaked in blood, writes Barkha Dutt.
None | By Barkha Dutt
UPDATED ON MAR 17, 2007 04:49 PM IST

But why should compensation be the only revenue model available to
farmers? Must the government play land-grabber on the deal? Must the farmer always be the unwilling evacuee?

The images of the bloodbath at Nandigram are haunting — a young woman’s dead body being rolled off a rickety vegetable cart, her green sari soaked in blood; an old man’s head draped in bloody bandages, his arm outstretched for help that never came; a policeman mercilessly thrashing an unarmed villager. This looked like a one-sided battle.

But the grim emotional dimension to the West Bengal violence does not necessarily help in answering the questions at the heart of the debate. Is this Brand Buddha’s fall from grace? How much of the trouble is because of the Chief Minister’s own bungling and how much of it is him being offered up at the guillotine by rivals within his own party? And most importantly, which side does the conflict between farms and factories leave you and me on? Does this herald the end of India’s much-hyped SEZ scheme? And more to the point, should it?

Mishandling is too benign an adjective to describe the callous clumsiness with which the state government has treated the opposition to the Indonesian chemical plant in Nandigram. Two months ago, after the first outburst of violence, the Chief Minister conceded that an unauthorised notice by the Haldia Development Authority had fuelled rumours and unrest. The notice had merely asked the local administration to explore options for land acquisition. But as Nandigram erupted and became a war zone, the Chief Minister went on record to say the notice had been mistakenly issued and he had asked the district magistrate to “tear it up”. This was in January. So how does the state government explain that in March, 60 days later, the notification had still not been officially withdrawn? And if it had, as the Chief Minister insisted in the assembly, why did the villagers believe otherwise?

The dry and unapologetic response of the state government after this week’s killings has only made matters worse. The Marxists want us to believe that the violence was fomented by outsiders. But wasn’t it a top- level party meeting that sanctioned sending in thousands of policemen? If it was indeed CPI(M) cadres on the ground that went for the kill, and not the police, isn’t it still the party that has to take the responsibility?

For once, the CPI(M) has to step out of its traditional role as the self-righteous adversary; this time it can’t ask the questions, it has to answer them.

That said, isn’t there something strikingly hypocritical and opportunistic about the protests from the Opposition in West Bengal?

In January, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi perched himself on the back of a bike to take a very visible ride through the affected villages. But how does he explain that among the chief votaries of the SEZ policy have been the Prime Minister and the Commerce Minister? Why are the Reliance SEZ projects sanctioned by the Congress in the states of Haryana, Maharashtra and Punjab (before the party got voted out) any different from West Bengal? L.K. Advani now wants to take a trip to Nandigram, and BJP President Rajnath Singh may well ask for President’s rule in West Bengal. But when the UPA government announced a go-slow on SEZ projects across the country, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi was among those who wrote to the government pleading that this would send the wrong signal to investors. Who can forget last year’s Kalinga Nagar killings in Orissa (an NDA-ruled state) when there was a storm over a Tata steel plant and platoons of policemen pummelled a protest by adivasis, killing 12 tribals in a display of brute force? And as a band of Trinamool Congress workers ransack offices, burn buses, stone cars and force the state government to postpone school exams, are they really helping the villagers of Nandigram and Singur? Or are they looking to revive the flagging career of Mamata Banerjee?

Let’s move beyond the political doublespeak and get to the heart of the matter. Should we be supporting SEZs when they are created by forcibly taking away agricultural land? There are no easy answers, because most of us know precious little about what SEZs stand for and no government has ever bothered to deconstruct them for us.

India was hoping to ape the Chinese model of economic growth when it first proposed such zones in 2001. Today, if China has five such economic enclaves, India boasts of already having eight. And the government has approved in principle another 285 projects.

But what works for Communist China doesn’t necessarily translate that well in democratic India. And we should be proud of that, even if foreign investors and big business houses moan and groan. Dissent may delay the pace of industrialisation, but it keeps us sane and strong as a society.

Even those of us who do not understand the nuances of economics have come to accept that reform cannot be bloodless. We are often impatient with the predictable, do-gooder campaigns against development. We argue passionately against the humbug protests of those who never want the poor to get rich. We want industry, foreign investment, big money and our place on the global stage.

But there’s something sacred about a farmer’s right to his land. And try as we might, we can’t shake off the uncomfortable image of a government wresting away land from a reluctant farmer only to palm it off to some big-bucks millionaire. Yes, industry may eventually have to feed off agricultural land. And the West Bengal government says it has offered the best rehabilitation package of any state to displaced farmers. But why should compensation be the only revenue model available to farmers? Why can’t the farmer sell his land directly to private players at market rates? Must the government play land-grabber on the deal? And isn’t it possible for business houses to create industrial zones that do not erase farmlands and habitation strips? Must the farmer always be the unwilling evacuee?

An internal Congress report has already warned the party of possible electoral losses if it pushes ahead with an unfettered SEZ policy. But this should not get reduced to the usual capitalist moan of how good economics is always bad politics. Someone needs to tell us why this is good for India, in the first place.

Barkha dutt is managing editor, ndtv 24x7

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