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Fencing over Singur

ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL WEEKLY Fencing over Singur The strident opposition to the CPI(M)-led Left Front (LF) government

Fencing over Singur The strident opposition to the CPI(M)-led Left Front (LF) government’s acquisition of 997.11 acres of land for the Tata Motors’ “one lakh” car project in Singur in Hughli district comes in many shades and colours. Apart from the Krishi Jami Raksha Samiti (KJRS) that has been leading the agitation in Singur itself, at one end of the political spectrum is the Trinamool Congress, led by Mamata Banerjee, with the Bharatiya Janata Party tagging along. The Congress, cautious to safeguard its secular credentials, has not joined them, but seems delighted that the CPI(M) is getting a dose of its own bitter medicine, one that it has administered to other state governments in the context of SEZ projects. At the other end of the spectrum are the Socialist Unity Centre of India, the Maoists and the CPI(ML) (Liberation). The latter organised the agricultural labourers in Singur, who on December 2 were the main victims of police highhandedness when 50-60 persons, Liberation activists and agricultural labourers were badly beaten by the police. The Singur agitation has also brought together some civil society organisations under the banner of the Samhati Udyog, which includes the Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights and the Medha Patkar-led National Alliance of People’s Movements. But, in effect, what all this democratic expression has left in the public mind is a barrage of claims and counterclaims, which need to be closely examined. One thing is, however, clear. With the Singur agitation, the question of conversion of agricultural land into real estate for industry and services – a necessary concomitant of capitalist development – has again come to the fore in West Bengal. Just seven months earlier, the LF had won an unprecedented, seventh consecutive electoral victory in the assembly elections, marginalising its two main opponents, the Trinamool Congress-BJP combine and the Congress. The CPI(M), leading the LF, claimed to have won the people’s mandate for a rapid industrialisation programme. The question of conversion of agricultural land had come up during the election campaign, but mainly in South 24-Parganas, in the context of the project proposed by the Indonesian Salim group. It needs emphasis that the LF lost the Bhangar constituency seat to the Trinamool Congress, which seemed to have sided with the peasants over the impending allocation of land to the Salim group. The LF does not seem to have learnt any lessons from this loss. Without proper planning and preparation, within hours of being sworn into office, the West Bengal chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, announced the setting up of the small car project in Singur. Admittedly, the LF’s most significant achievement to date is giving permanent cultivation rights to West Bengal’s bargadars (sharecroppers) and fulfilling their demand for a two-thirds share of crop output, as demanded by the Tehbhaga movement of the 1940s. But considering the adverse land-person ratio, the fact that a large part of the land in most rural areas of the state is used for agriculture (except in the state’s hilly regions) and the fact that post land reforms, agricultural land is being cultivated by small owners and tenants, the conversion of such lands for use in industry and services was bound to be a sensitive issue. So the LF should have put in place a land-use plan and a resettlement and rehabilitation policy (after extensive consultations with all stakeholders) prior to launching its industrialisation drive. Instead, the chief minister and the industry minister seem to have forged ahead in a highhanded manner on the advice of or with the help of their favourites in the state bureaucracy. Despite claims to the contrary, we do not think that the LF government took account of the ground reality in Singur. Indeed, it is still being claimed that most of the land allotted for the Tata Motors’ project is singlecropped. But this is on the basis of land records not updated since the 1970s, and also not on the basis of any recent physical verification. The state government claims that voluntary consent has been obtained from the owners for over 950 acres of the 997.11 acres

acquired, who have already collected their compensation. But the Trinamool Congress makes a counterclaim that voluntary consent has not been obtained for some 415 acres of the acquired land. A report based on a public hearing on October 27, organised by KJRS and Samhati Udyog, states that “40-50 per cent of the landowners have not given their consent”. The dispute, it appears, is because a number of small owner-cultivators and tenants may not have given their consent and there may be others who may have given their consent but are now vacillating, refusing to accept the payments.

The state government seems to have belatedly realised that compensation is not equivalent to resettlement and rehabilitation, and has recently instituted some training and alternative employment programmes. It is quite surprising that in a state such as West Bengal, where panchayati raj institutions are deemed sufficiently empowered, a gram sabha was not held in Singur to assess and help deal with the likely social impact of the project. While registered bargadars will get one-fourth of the compensation amount due to the jotedars per acre of land acquired, on what basis was this arrived at, especially when the former are entitled to as much as two-thirds of the crop output? Also, while the government is now instituting training and alternative employment for those, including agricultural labourers, who have lost their incomes from agriculture, there does not seem to be a realisation that many in the local non-farm rural economy may also be adversely affected and thus need to be rehabilitated.

Clearly, in sifting through the many claims and counterclaims, there are a number of lessons to be learned from Singur. EPW

Economic and Political Weekly December 23, 2006

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