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The land beneath their feet

The more the issue of land holding changes in Bengal, the more it remains the same, writes Pratik Kanjilal.

india Updated: Sep 11, 2009 21:23 IST

The Bengalis are famously mad about football, but the craziness recently seen at the Vedic Village resort near Kolkata is unprecedented. It began when the henchmen of a land shark lost a soccer match and attacked their opponents, local villagers whom they had earlier short-changed when they cornered their land for the resort. The villagers retaliated by setting Vedic Village on fire and the police grabbed the shark, Gaffar Mollah, who is now singing like a canary. He is laying bare a shameful nexus between politics, the administration, business and land mafias. We all know that it exists everywhere, but it is rarely paraded naked like this.

As the debacles at Singur, Nandigram, and Lalgarh unfolded, it seemed that the Left Front regards West Bengal as its private property. But now, as the names of powerful people involved in the Vedic Village scam come tumbling out, it is clear that the nexus of greed cuts across party lines — Mollah apparently derived his clout from a Trinamool Congress MLA.

Mamata Banerjee is defending her man as she prepares to turn a Singur-Nandigram trick again. Meanwhile, the government has had to cancel plans for an IT hub in the area, disappointing giants like TCS, Infosys and Wipro. It could have simply written to the companies involved, but it publicly announced its failure and invited responses. Its transparency has favourably impressed the public, but it may be too late to arrest the slide in the Left’s fortunes.

Where does the state go from here? Everyone is involved, so nothing will change even if Mamata Banerjee unseats the Left Front in the 2011 polls. People are looking forward to the fall of the red giant after three decades in office, but it’s with mixed feelings — glee tempered by the fear of internecine violence. And the very real anxiety that if Mamata Banerjee takes over, the communists who have their tentacles everywhere will turn saboteurs and paralyse the administration.

Governments are mighty leery of land reform. It arbitrarily changes ownership patterns, and therefore voting patterns. It creates vote banks of grateful new landowners, freshly liberated from feudal allegiances. But it raises the hackles of the landed class and dismantles the reliable vote banks they provide. Governments which venture into these treacherous waters deserve to be decorated for courage beyond the call of duty.

The Left Front in West Bengal is widely applauded for Operation Barga, perhaps the most successful reform movement in India, which has turned lakhs of sharecroppers into landed farmers. And it’s incredibly ironic that the Left seems to be doomed to lose the Assembly elections in 2011 because of a failure to manage the greed that land unfailingly inspires in the human heart.

Other states should look closely at West Bengal. The politics of land ownership is becoming increasingly important. Repeated fragmentation of holdings and pressure from land-hungry industry and infrastructure projects are marginalising farmers. In the absence of local options, they are forced to become migrant labour. The future belongs to parties which commit to educate villagers and generate local employment outside agriculture. In West Bengal, the Left Front has failed to do both. On the contrary, it has behaved like a real estate mafia, and it is now paying for it.

Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine