Doing away with peasantry

The Trinamool Congress's objections to the setting up of the Tata Motors plant at Singur is not against reforms, writes Derek O'Brien.

india Updated: Dec 26, 2006 23:58 IST

One of the attributes of the Left Front government in West Bengal has been its remarkable, almost creditable, ability to project its so-called achievements outside the state. Its opponents are traduced, vilified and demonised, painted as naïve or anti-development or anti-progressive — whatever those terms may mean to Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.

In the past few weeks, a similar propaganda campaign has unfolded. It has painted the CPI(M)-led government as the champion of economic resurgence and the Trinamool Congress as a Luddite. The nub of controversy is, of course, the 997 acres of fertile farmland in Singur, 45 km from Kolkata, which the government has requisitioned for the proposed Tata Motors plant.

It is necessary to set the record straight. To understand why Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress — a party that represents about 30 per cent of the popular vote in West Bengal — has, since June 2006, consistently and determinedly opposed the modalities of finding land for the Tata project, it is important to debunk old Communist myths.

In various forums, including at a presentation made by the Trinamool Congress before the Bengal Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Banerjee has made it clear she is not opposed to economic reforms, to industrialisation or, indeed, to the Tata project. She has only sought reforms with a ‘human face’. Rebuffed by a cussed Chief Minister, she has been forced to resort to a hunger strike.

There are many issues Bhattacharjee and his government have to clarify. First, in a state where 1.8 million acres of non-agricultural land is available, why is there a pressing need to allocate a prime agricultural tract for an industrial unit? The government is taking the easy route. It is not bothering to develop the infrastructure support that the 1.8 million acres will need, but is simply grabbing multi-crop farmland right on the national highway.

"Property is theft," the French philosopher Proudhon famously remarked. This is being ratified in Buddha-babu’s Bengal. Forty per cent of the Singur land has been requisitioned by coercion. Affidavits from the landowners are available. The area is teeming with outsiders, policemen brought in by the government and hundreds of private security guards hired by the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation. Instances of police violence on villagers have been documented by the media. The ‘outsider’ guards are prime suspects in the molestation and murder of a young woman who, as it happened, was among the Trinamool protestors.

Even if one accepts the argument that agriculture must inevitably give way to industry, is this the way to 'persuade' and ‘convince’ people? Only the CPI(M) knows the answer.

Second, Singur is a symptom of the tension between West Bengal’s farmers and their government. The cause is larger. It is rooted in the state’s agricultural crisis. A quarter century ago, the Left Front’s ‘land reforms’ made landowners of sharecroppers. This class became the new landlords. It will make money when the state acquires farmland for industry; the rest will not. In Singur, 60 per cent of the farmers are sharecroppers or landless labourers. They are not seeing
dollar signs in their eyes.

Recently, mango growers in Malda have dumped excess fruit, tomato farmers in Cooch Behar have thrown their produce on the highway, protesting against low prices; potato farmers in Hooghly have committed suicide, and a failed sunflower cash crop experiment has driven Nadia farmers to despair.

These are only samples of stories that have gone unreported by the national media that believe farmer suicides happen only in Vidarbha. What has been the Left Front’s response? Studied inaction. In the past 10 years, the government has turned over half a million acres of farmland to industry.

Reined in by ideological faddists, it has gone slow on introducing biotechnology and such interventions to energise agriculture. Its record of fostering agro-based industry or food processing has been very patchy, and usually limited to CPI(M) bastions such as Arambagh. No wonder the farmer is feeling cheated.

Third, if agriculture is so penurious and precarious, why is such a large proportion of West Bengal’s workforce still dependent on it? The answer is simple: the government has killed off the options. It is ironic that the Left is talking of reviving industry after having first destroyed it.

In the Sixties, manufacturing units in West Bengal contributed 21 per cent of the national income; in 2005 it was 4 per cent. Forty-seven per cent of India’s sick small-scale units are in West Bengal. It has more educated unemployed people than any other state. In the past 20 years, the number of big industrial investments worth over Rs 100 crore has averaged one per year. Just where are the jobs?

Bengal was an early industrialiser in the 20th century and could have pioneered the post-industrial economy. A state that should have been a service sector/ITES natural was held back by the Left’s bad policies. On coming to power, the CPI(M) abolished the teaching of English in primary schools. This rendered two generations of Bengalis unfit for BPO jobs. This also explains why, as her father’s farm is occupied by the government, the Singur farmer’s daughter cannot aspire to work at the impressive Wipro facility barely an hour away in Kolkata. Her government has not allowed her to.

Certainly, West Bengal needs the Tata Motors project. Yet, the cars don’t need to made, and company executives don’t need to be housed, precisely on the 997 acres of fertile land. At least some of it can be spared, perhaps swapped for less valuable land across the highway?

More important, rather than abide by crony capitalism (some years ago, it gave away 227 acres of wetlands in eastern Kolkata for a so-called ‘World Trade Centre’), the Left Front has to respond to the Trinamool demand for LAMP: a Land Acquisition and Management Plan. Once and for all, the government has to set norms and parameters for land takeover and use-change. Let there be no more ad hocism. And no more Singurs.

Derek O’Brien is member, Trinamool Congress Working Committee.

First Published: Dec 26, 2006 23:49 IST