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Have We Learnt from Singur?

A Retrospect

I am grateful to the dispossessed peasants of my field area in Kharagpur and the staff of the erstwhile Land Acquisition Department of West Medinipur and the West Bengal Legislative Assembly Library at Kolkata.Abhijit Guha (abhijitguhavuanthro@rediffmail.com) taught anthropology at the Vidyasagar University, West Bengal.

No one seems to be interested in the ground realities of Singur now, after a decade of the tumultuous 2006–07 in West Bengal. This kind of unconcern for the peasantry is not new among the Kolkata-based academicians and intellectuals, who represented West Bengal to India and the world since the colonial period. The Trinamool Congress government’s enthusiasm to generate capital and employment, either through legal means or by the play of market forces, seemed to be mere populist political rhetoric for contesting election battles in West Bengal.

After the Supreme Court judgment of 31 August 2016, which ordered the West Bengal government to return to the farmers in Singur the 400 acres of fertile disputed land acquired by the then Left Front (LF) government for the Tata Motors Company, there is a queer silence in the media on what is really happening on the ground. Are the farmers really cultivating on the land that was virtually transformed into non-agricultural wasteland? What happened to those farmers who were subsisting on the absentee landowners’ land within the 400 acres? What about the recorded and unrecorded sharecroppers who were cultivating two–three crops in a season in the land area supposed to be returned by the order of the apex court?

No one seems to be interested in the ground realities of Singur now, after a decade of the tumultuous 2006–07 in West Bengal. This kind of unconcern for the peasantry is not new among the Kolkata-based academicians and intellectuals who represented West Bengal to India and the world since the colonial period.

Indifference to Land Acquisition

I conducted my doctoral research based on my fieldwork and archival work on land acquisition during 1994–2005 in the erstwhile Midnapore (currently Medinipur) district of West Bengal. At the time, no one, not even those opposed to the then communist-led leftist government in West Bengal were interested in discussing the maladies of the colonial land acquisition law, rehabilitation, and related issues. My first article on the maladies of land acquisition in West Bengal was published in this journal, and it was the lone and probably the first research article revealing the ground realities of industrialisation in a state that was not only predominated by landless agricultural workers, small landowning peasants and sharecroppers, but was committed to land reforms and the panchayati raj system too (Guha 2004).

In my field area, large-scale acquisition of farmland took place with extremely poor rates of compensation. The farmers also resisted land acquisition, and finally a large amount of land acquired for a private industry remained unutilised for several years. But, virtually nobody raised their voice against this acquisition. I compared this incident at a much later period of my research with the happenings of Singur in 2006 (Guha 2007b). In all respects, there were sufficient reasons for Kharagpur to gain national and international recognition like Singur. But, it did not happen. There were many reasons behind the silence of Kolkata-based intellectuals and the opposition parties over the land acquisition by the LF government at Kharagpur in the early 1990s for the Tatas and Birlas (Guha 2007). First, the anti-LF political parties (Socialist Unity Centre of India and Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist) and human rights groups (Association for Protection of Democratic Rights and Nagarik Mancha) were not interested much in the land acquisition issue during that period when LF-driven industrialisation was at a nascent stage, with huge industrial investments promised by private companies in the state.

Second, though the farmlands acquired in Kharagpur provided food security to vegetable growers of one of my study villages, Gokulpur, those were monocrop in nature. I found among those opposed to the acquisition of multicrop farmlands a notion that ran as follows:

Well, monocrop land may be acquired since we need to have industrialisation in the state, but a multi-crop land should never be allowed to be acquired for non-agricultural use. (Guha 2007)

There was hardly anyone in the anti-LF lobby who demanded the upgradation of monocrop land into multicrop ones, which should have been the government policy. I often heard from the advocates of this anti-acquisition lobby: “Why isn’t the government building industries in Purulia, Bankura and Midnapore (West)?” (Guha 2006c) So, as the opinion ran, if industries came up in these backward districts, the poor would have benefited.

Third, despite the spontaneous, but weak, protests and resistance by farmers of Kharagpur during the mid-1990s, no opposition party lent any solid support (as they have done in Singur) to them. The media reported the adverse effects of farmland acquisition and the protests of farmers, but these did not attract the attention of Kolkata-based intellectuals and human rights groups. They were at the time busy with other issues. After all, Kharagpur was not equipped with a great number of anti-LF intellectuals of all shades and colours. The fact that the land acquisition scenario in Kharagpur was far worse than that in Singur was revealed through government records and my field research.

Have We Learnt from Kharagpur?

Let me bring up some of the dismal facts. According to the information revealed through the print media, a total of 997 acres of agricultural land had been acquired within eight months for the Tatas’ small car factory in Singur. The compensation rate, according to government sources, turned out to be a little more than ₹7 lakh per acre (Nath et al 2013).

I now compare Singur with Kharagpur. In 1992, the Tatas set up a pig iron manufacturing plant, named Tata Metaliks, on the monocrop land of six mouzas under Kharagpur I block of the erstwhile Medinipur district. This was despite non-arable land being available in the vicinity, having communication and other facilities. A total of 217.23 acres of land was acquired by the state government and the acquisition was complete within a year through the application of the more coercive West Bengal Land (Requisition and Acquisition) Act, 1948, which became defunct after 31 March 1993. The compensation paid by the district land acquisition department was ₹20,686 per acre for a landowner, while for a recorded bargadar, it was ₹11,211.75 per acre. On 1 June 1992 in the West Bengal assembly, Manas Bhunia of the Congress party wanted to know about the land acquisition for the establishment of the pig iron industry by the Tatas at Kharagpur. The land and land reforms minister, in his reply, informed the assembly about the amount of land given to the company and the rates of compensation. However, no member of the assembly enquired about the rehabilitation of the displaced peasants (West Bengal Assembly Proceedings, Vol 99, 1992).

An unpublished report of the Midnapore land acquisition department dated 27 March 1992 revealed that because of the lack of irrigation facilities and the monocrop nature of the acquired land, the market price was calculated at a low rate. The department, too, did not explore the possibilities of rehabilitation of the affected families in terms of providing permanent jobs and/or land as compensation. The administration seemed to be concerned only with monetary compensation at the market price prevalent in the area. Three years later, people of the same area were served with notices by the district administration for the acquisition of their farmland in 10 mouzas, covering about 525 acres for another pig iron plant, the Century Textiles and Industrial Limited (CTIL) owned by the Birla Group.

The local people, being completely disillusioned and frustrated with the government’s attitude towards rehabilitation and compensation in the Tata Metaliks case, began to protest against this decision of acquisition of land for the Birla Group. This time, the land acquisition department prepared rates of compensation, which ranged between ₹50,000 and ₹1,00,000 per acre, and ₹7,000 per acre for the bargadars. The farmers objected to these rates and mass deputations to the district authorities began. On 10 January 1996, the peasants prevented soil testing by the company and blocked the National Highway (NH 6) for eight hours.

The farmers’ agitation continued for about five months and they also boycotted the parliamentary election in May 1996. All these events were reported in the Statesman and some Bengali dailies. But, no political party came to organise this spontaneous movement of peasants and no social or human rights activists came forward to support these people losing their land in a rural area in West Bengal, just 120 km away from Kolkata and well-connected by trains. One former Naxalite peasant leader, with the help of a few local members belonging to the Indian National Trade Union Congress, led a brief but significant movement against this land acquisition.

The district unit of Association for Protection of Democratic Rights published a leaflet, held a meeting in the locality, and gave a deputation to the district magistrate, and that was all. The land acquisition episode for the CTIL, however, took a horrible turn within a few years. After taking possession of 358.25 acres by April 1997 and fencing off the land, the company decided not to deposit any money for payment of compensation. The company’s managing director, B K Birla, in an interview with the correspondent of the Statesman, said they would not proceed with the project since “the national market of pig iron has become very competitive because of the entry of China and Australia in the field.” The then state land and land reforms minister, Surya Kanta Mishra, on the other hand, told the Roy (1999: 4): “We are not finding any takers for the land.” This huge chunk of fertile agricultural land, which provided subsistence to nearly 3,000 families, remained unutilised till 2003, after which some portion of it was given to a private company. The larger area still remains unutilised (Guha 2007a).

Post-Singur Public Image

The scenario, however, changed after the massive resistance of the farmers against land acquisition in Singur and Nandigram during 2006–08. During this short period a large number of articles, interviews, opinions, debates and news items were published (and it continued) in newspapers and journals on the development-caused forced displacement in West Bengal (Patkar 2006; EPW 2007; Banerjee et al 2007; Bhaduri 2007; Sarkar 2007; Bose 2007; Patnaik 2007; Bhattacharya 2007; Mishra 2007; Telegraph 2007). Websites like Sanhati (http://sanhati.com/) and Counterview (http://www.counterview.net/) were launched. Development-caused forced displacement and resettlement in communist-ruled West Bengal became a national and international agenda for debate and discussion.

Out of this plethora of literature, I have made an attempt to find the major arguments that provided justification of land takeover for industries in West Bengal, which has been a state famous for the implementation of pro-farmer land reform and decentralised rural development policy (Guha 2014).

Land Acquisition Discourse

First set of arguments: During the early 1990s, the ruling LF government leaders argued that since land reform was a successful endeavour in the state, which increased agricultural production and also the purchasing capacity of the peasantry, the state is the ideal ground for the establishment of capital-intensive heavy and medium industries (WBIDC 2000). One may name it the industrialisation-through-land-reform argument.

The second line of argument came from more theoretically-oriented Marxists of the ruling parties, who claimed that industries would be able to absorb the extra labour force, which has been engaged in agriculture in a disguised form and also owing to the introduction of mechanisation in traditional means of cultivation. The proponents of this line of argument also stated that agriculture, owing to land fragmentation caused by inheritance of property rights and hike in input costs, has already become non-viable for many small and marginal farming families. This argument may be termed as employment-through-industrialisation (Mishra 2007).

It may be noted here that the land reform initiated by the LF government resulted in patta holders having small plots. Needless to say, no empirical survey conducted either by the government or by any independent researcher supports both these arguments. On the contrary, the two substantial government reports—one prepared by Nirmal Mukarji and Debabrata Bandyopadhyay in 1993 and the other, the West Bengal Human Development Report, by Jayati Ghosh (GoWB 2004)—showed, with a lot of data collected from government sources, that land reform and sharecropper registration still remained incomplete tasks, and landlessness had been increasing in West Bengal (Mukarji and Bandyopadhyay 1993). The West Bengal Human Development Report did not mention a single line in favour of industrialisation as a development strategy for West Bengal in its long list of recommendations. The report suggested better land reform and formation of active cooperatives, as well as more government responsibilities towards the creation of improved marketing facilities for rural cultivators. The state government ignored the empirical findings of its own reports by experts. In fact, huge investments for capital-intensive industrialisation were encouraged and justified by the afore-mentioned macroeconomic arguments (GoWB 2004). My empirical findings also showed that land reform could be pushed back by land acquisition by dispossessing the patta holders as well as the sharecroppers (Guha 2006a, 2006b).

The third line of argument may be termed as the historical-necessity-of-industrialisation. This argument was advanced by Amartya Sen, but there were a few other less famous followers of this argument. The proponents of this line of argument claim, by citing examples from the pages of the history of Western Europe, that industrialisation is an inevitable stage after agriculture and, accordingly, the farmers of Bengal have to give away their agricultural land for the establishment of industries.

Second set of arguments: At a later stage, when acquisition of huge tracts of fertile agricultural land began to take place, giving rise to peasant resistance in a number of districts in West Bengal that culminated into the Singur and Nandigram crises, another line of macroeconomic argument came into existence. In this argument, it was stated with facts and figures that, since all the land for proposed industrial investment for the coming years was only a very small fraction of the total amount of cultivated and cultivable land, there would be no food crisis in the state if those lands are acquired. This argument justified the land takeover for industrialisation and could be labelled as the no-food-insecurity-by-industrialisation argument.

There is yet another line of argument in favour of the recent industrialisation move of the LF government. Interestingly, this argument is often levelled by the opposition leaders of present-day West Bengal. The followers of this argument advocate industrialisation on uncultivated or monocrop land in the relatively arid districts of the state, namely, Purulia, Bankura and Paschim Medinipur, in order to protect the highly fertile multi-crop lands in Hooghly, Bardhaman or Purba Medinipur. This argument may be termed as industrialisation-on-uncultivated-land.

Third set of arguments: This argument was developed under the disguise of market principles. The proponents of this class of argument stated that the government should not acquire land for industries. In other words, land should be exchanged between the farmer and the industrialist by the principle of “willing-buyer-willing-seller.” A variant of this argument proposed that there should be a “land bank” created by the joint effort of the government and the industrialists from which land would be purchased or leased out to the bodies requiring land on the basis of some market principles. We may term this argument as forced-acquisition-under-disguise, since it did not take into consideration the already existing differential bargaining power of the heterogeneous group of landholders in terms of the quality and size category of arable land in possession of the farmers.

While identifying all the above classes of arguments in favour of industrialisation, one should keep in mind that these arguments did not form watertight compartments. Most often, the supporters of industrialisation utilised a combination of the argument classes to strengthen their positions. For example, the employment-through-industrialisation argument was often combined with historical-necessity-of-industrialisation. Likewise, industrialisation-through-land-reform was sometimes mixed with the employment-through-industrialisation argument.

Basically, all the arguments have missed the micro-level ground realities that anthropologists and sociologists have discovered through their painstaking fieldwork. Moreover, none of the arguments deal with rehabilitation of the displaced farmers or with the violation of constitutional provisions that empower the local self-governments to implement development programmes within their jurisdictions (Guha 2001).

All the arguments were based on some form of fallacy. For example, the first set of arguments did not look into situations of land acquisition that would pauperise the land reform beneficiaries and drastically reduce their purchasing capacity. In fact, this is a self-defeating logic. The second line of argument under the first set also did not take into consideration the fact that in a land-scarce and high population density state like West Bengal, modern capital-intensive and technologically advanced industries might not absorb the so-called extra labour force. The third line of argument was the weakest among the others because the comparison between Western Europe during industrial revolution and present-day West Bengal was nothing but an infantile exercise by one of the best brains in economics.

The second set of arguments totally ignored the fact of household-level food insecurity and lowered purchasing capacity of displaced farmers—which was a common feature of land acquisition cases, whether the acquisition was of monocrop or multicrop farmland—under the present legal arrangement of providing only cash compensation without any sustainable measure of rehabilitation like benefit sharing. The other variant of the third set, though it apparently looks like a pro-peasant argument, is actually anti-poor because it supports acquisition of uncultivated and/or monocrop land as if neither do people depend on those lands nor do the departments of rural development and irrigation have any responsibility to transform those lands into multicrop and cultivable lands.

The third set, though it apparently favoured a non-coercive mode of land takeover, was basically coercive to actual cultivators. The absentee landholders might be “willing” to sell the land even at a lower price at the cost of displacing sharecroppers and unrecorded actual cultivators of their land who might have been “unwilling” towards the sale of the land on which the livelihood of the latter depended. More fundamentally, the proponents of this school of thought have totally ignored the fact that in India a large amount of land is being used by the rural poor customarily as common property resources, for which there is no provision for compensation to the users in the case of acquisition under the existing law.

Whither Trinamool?

The Trinamool Congress (TMC)-led government in West Bengal is yet to develop any comprehensive resettlement and rehabilitation policy for the thousands of families affected by various development projects. The new government had enacted a law on 14 June 2011 in the West Bengal assembly, the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act, 2011. With this law, the government had reacquired about 1,000 acres of farmland from the Tatas, which was given to the company for building a small car manufacturing factory in 2006 by the then LF government. The Trinamool government’s intention was to return 400 acres of farmland to the “unwilling” farmers around whom the agitation against the LF government was organised by their party.

In another lesser-known case of governmental land acquisition for housing in North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal, the farmers began to cultivate their farmlands that were acquired, but remained unutilised. According to a media report, these farmers were assured by the TMC leaders before the 2011 assembly election that their land would be returned to them if the party could come to power. But, now these farmers were turning their backs to the TMC, since the party had not kept its pre-election promise (Statesman 2011).

It may also be worthwhile to narrate here an incident regarding Mamata Banerjee, the present chief minister of West Bengal and the draft Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill, 2007 presented in the Lok Sabha. At the time, Banerjee was the union railway minister. She was opposed to a clause of the bill which empowered private companies to acquire up to 70% land directly from farmers and landowners. The remaining 30% could be acquired by the state government. Banerjee wanted private companies to buy 100% of the land (Guha 2009). It seemed that Banerjee would have allowed the amended bill to be passed if the Lok Sabha agreed to modify the bill so that 100% of the land would be purchased by private companies under the willing-buyer-willing-seller principle (Guha 2009).

The failure of the land acquisition in Singur by the LF government could neither generate a labour force freed from agriculture, nor create enthusiasm and hope for the capitalist investors. The neo-Marxist theory of riding on the shoulders of land reform to achieve a successful capital-intensive industrialisation finally proved to be a self-defeating exercise since the praxis sabotaged both past land reform and future industrialisation (Guha 2017). On the other hand, the TMC government’s enthusiasm to generate capital and employment, either through legal means or by the play of market forces, seemed to be mere populist political rhetoric for contesting election battles in West Bengal. This is the macro-theoretical lesson one can learn after a decade of the Singur episode in the state of West Bengal under liberalisation.

References

Banerjee, Partha Sarathy and Dayabati Roy (2007): “Behind the Present Peasant Unrest in West Bengal,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 42, No 22, pp 2048–50.

Banerjee, S (2007): “Peasant Hares and Capitalist Hounds of Singur,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 41, No 52, pp 5296–98.

Banerjee, Abhijit Vinayak, Pranab Bardhan, Kaushik Basu, Mrinal Datta Chaudhury, Maitreesh Ghatak, Ashok Sanjay Guha, Mukul Majumdar, Dilip Mookherjee and Debraj Ray (2007): “Beyond Nandigram: Industrialisation In West Bengal,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 42, No 17, pp 1487–89.

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EPW (2007): “SOS from Nandigram,” editorial, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 42, No 12, p 991.

Fernandes, Walter (2007): “Singur and the Displacement Scenario,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 42, No 3, pp 203–06.

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— (2004): “Land Acquisition in a West Bengal District,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 39, No 42, pp 4620–23.

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— (2006b): “Dispossession of Peasants by Industrial Projects,” The Economics of and Politics of Resettlement in India, Shobhita Jain and Madhu Bala (eds), New Delhi: Pearson Education.

— (2006c): “Singur on the Charagpur Track,” Statesman, 27 December.

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— (2007a): Land, Law and the Left: The Saga of Disempowerment of the Peasantry in the Era of Globalisation, New Delhi: Concept Publishing Company.

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— (2014): “Generating Public Consciousness around Land Acquisition for Private Industries,” Social Change, Vol 44, No 2, pp 205–28.

— (2017): “An Ethnographer’s Journey through Land Grab for the Capitalists in West Bengal by the Left Front Government,” The Land Question in India: State, Dispossession, and Capitalist Transition, Anthony P D’Costa and Achin Chakraborty (eds), London: Oxford.

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Telegraph (2007): “Interview of Amartya Sen,” 23 July.

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