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Land Acquisition in West Bengal

in West Bengal DEB KUMAR BOSE period of litigation stalling the progress of Amit Bhaduri (February 17, 2007) has expressed his deep concern about the dangerous pattern of government

Land Acquisitionin West Bengal

DEB KUMAR BOSE

A
mit Bhaduri (February 17, 2007) has expressed his deep concern about the dangerous pattern of government’s move for land acquisition for the industries of Tata at Singur in West Bengal and at Dadri in Uttar Pradesh for Ambanis. Such land acquisition by the state, according to Bhaduri, is a kind of “developmental terrorism”. What is missed out is the pioneering effort by the Left government in West Bengal to help owners of lands and bargadars through the direct offer of the price of the land at much above the rate prevailing in the area. The government actually went further than what was ordained in the Land Acquisition Act of 1894. The Act provided for declaration of final price of any land after hearing objections following the notification for acquisition. It was left to the owner of the land to move the court against the rate determined by the government if it was not satisfactory to him. In Singur, the Left Front government introduced for the first time a mechanism of consultation with farmers after they had submitted in writing their consent to sell the land following notification for acquisition. This was done in order to avoid a prolonged period of litigation stalling the progress of a project.

Role of Land Agents

A departure was made by the government to act as an intermediary of a business enterprise to acquire a large area of land for industry. This was unprecedented, since the 1894 Act has so far been used to acquire land for public sector activities only. It has been suggested by a number of critics that the government should leave it to the industrialists to purchase land for themselves. This has been the usual practice in the country. In Singur, the same practice has been in vogue for sale of land by private owners. Even in the very same ‘mouzas’ in Singur, where the government moved for acquisition of land, a number of small industries, cold storages, hotels, petrol pumps, enterprises for building bodies for bus and lorry had been established on fertile lands earlier. A township by the Singur market developed during this period occupying some of the most fertile land. Nobody raised any objection to this development then. It is not usual for the entrepreneurs to purchase land directly from the farmers. There is always an intermediary class of agents who deal

Economic and Political Weekly April 28, 2007

with transfers of land in the rural as well as urban areas. The land agents gain from purchase of land at a low cost from the farmer and sell it to the buyer at a higher cost. The price received by the farmers for these lands at the time was around Rs 60,000 per bigha as gathered from local inhabitants. According to them, about 2,000 bighas of land on the two sides of the Durgapur Expressway presently lush green with paddy fields have already been acquired by the agents or entrepreneurs. The process is still continuing. But the price of land has been rising by leaps and bounds after the Tata project was launched.

Had the Tatas decided to purchase land through local agents there would have been no objection or any movement against land acquisition. The immediate victim of the government move has, of course, been the class of land agents in the rural area. It was a sense of panic among the land agents throughout the state that added fuel to the fire for the agitation led by Trinamool Congress. It was necessary to hide this basic fact from the public sight under the cover of the issue of loss of agricultural land for industries. It is hardly known to the outsiders that of the five mouzas in the Tata project, a number of panchayats are led by members of Trinamool Congress. The president of Singur block committee of Trinamool Congress, who had also been the ‘pradhan’ of one of the mouzas concerned, welcomed the move for the Tata project. The state leadership of Trinamool Congress disowned the block committee. The overwhelming majority of landowners who submitted their consent letters to the government comprised a large number of local Trinamool members.

Beyond the 1894 Act

The government went beyond the bounds of 1894 Act for acquisition of land by not only paying full compensation for the cost of the land to the farmers, but also a bonus of 10 per cent for agreeing to sell the land as an incentive. More importantly, recorded bargadars, who were the tillers of the land, were paid 25 per cent of the gross cost of acquisition. Under the Act, they were entitled to six times the value of the crop grown on the field, which was much less compared to the amount offered by the government. As for the unrecorded bargadars, whose number was not few, they were treated in the same way as recorded bargadars if their bona fide could be established through verification. The government also offered to enlist members of family of the land losers who were willing to get an employment. It may be mentioned that the boundary of the plots for the Tata project was redrawn to keep all the house settlements outside the project area.

One positive achievement of the government procedure of land acquisition has been to raise the price of the land to Rs 8.5 lakh per acre of single crop land and Rs 12 lakh for double-cropped land. There has been representation from the farmers outside the project area to the government to purchase their land as well.

Strategy

The strategy for land acquisition for industries in West Bengal has been aimed at relieving the poor farmers and bargadars from the current practice of so-called democratic process of land acquisition by the capitalist entrepreneurs through the land agents. The intervention of the government in the market for land transfer generated a panic among the land agents throughout the state. The state had earlier announced the plan for the establishment of industries in different districts of West Bengal. The vehemence of the reaction among the land agents, who constituted a considerable section of population in the state, was not anticipated. It was mostly through this section of the population that an agitation against the government spread quickly throughout the state. It cannot be claimed that the move of the state government scheme was foolproof. It is unfortunate that the significance of the bold move of the Left government to protect the interest of the small farmers and bargadars against the land sharks did not elicit support of the intellectuals who were conversant with the land problems of the country.

Decentralised development suggested by Bhaduri in later part of the paper has been in practice in West Bengal for over three decades. But industrialisation of West Bengal was deliberately suppressed through an introduction of administered prices of coal and steel and the policy of licensing of the industries during the plan period. After the introduction of market system, at the behest of the World Bank in 1991, there has been a sea-change in the prices of steel, coal and natural resources in favour of the eastern region. There is now a natural tendency for the private enterprises to look for an establishment of industries in the region using these resources as they have the most cost advantage. To suggest that West Bengal should not take an advantage of the new conditions can be hardly justified from economic considerations, let alone political ones.

As for the point that the state should have no role in transactions in land where the private enterprise is concerned, it can be admitted that the state should not intervene in the market for land everywhere. But whenever a large number of farmers in a contiguous area are affected in the process of industrialisation, it is reasonable for the state to intervene with a definite policy to protect the interest of the farmers and the bargadars against the land agents seeking to pay a minimum amount to the farmers. Can we call this developmental terrorism on behalf of the corporations? A private entrepreneur would also be under no obligation to compensate for the loss of livelihood of bargadars and other farm labourers. Neither is it advisable, as suggested some time, that it should be left to the discretion of the private enterprise to decide on the sites for location of large industry for themselves. But the large industries are attracted to the sites where infrastructure is well developed. This requires planning for the same by the state much in advance. The position of West Bengal is peculiar in this respect. While both the state and the private sector have been establishing industries on the west bank of the river Hughly, the state has been lavishing undivided care and attention to develop all modern facilities for living and infrastructure in the Kolkata Metropolitan region on the east bank of the river over the years. Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that first preference of all entrepreneurs would be to concentrate around the highways on the west bank in close proximity of the Kolkata region.

The union government has recently cleared sites for 83 special economic zones in the different states. Five thousand acres of land in each of these zones will be earmarked by the centre for private enterprise, indigenous as well as foreign, in the purchase of lands from the landowners and eviction of the farm labour on their own terms. The Land Acquisition Act of 1894 has been suspended from operation within the zones. The state cannot intervene any longer in the matter of transactions and eviction relating to transfer of land within the zones. It may be worthwhile to take a second look at the model developed by the Left government in this context.

EPW

Email: debkumar2001@hotmail.com

Economic and Political Weekly April 28, 2007

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