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Failure of the Left

Failure of the Left went about taking land in both Singur and Nandigram. Satya Sivaraman Lack of Public Debate In recent times there has been no greater rupture within the Indian left movement than that precipitated by peasant struggles in Singur and Nandigram against forced acquisition of land for industrial purposes. The spectacle of West Bengal

BOOK REVIEWEconomic & Political Weekly EPW november 22, 200849Failure of the LeftSatya SivaramanIn recent times there has been no greater rupture within the Indian left move-ment than that precipitated by peasant struggles in Singur and Nandigram against forced acquisition of land for industrial purposes. The spectacle of West Bengal’s Left Front regime, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – CPI(M) – sending police and party cadre to gun down poor peasants fighting to protect their land not only earned it the wrath of ordinary Indian citizens every-where but also left large sections among its own supporters deeply divided. That all this was done on behalf of domestic and foreign capital, using colonial era laws and the strong arm of police and party cadre only made matters worse and the damage done to the overall image of the left in the country will probably take decades to repair. Nandigram and Beyond, a new book edited by Gautam Ray, puts together a col-lection of essays that examine these two historic movements in Singur and Nandi-gram and critique the arguments used by the West Bengal government to justify its land acquisition and industrial policies. In Singur, Tata Motors proposes to pro-duce the “Nano” – India’s cheapest car – while in Nandigram – the original plan was to set up a massive chemical industrial hub, to be built by the Indonesian Salim group, in a special economic zone (SEZ). As de-fenders of the Left Front’s neoliberal economic policies make it out to be in West Bengal the potential of agriculture for rais-ing the incomes of the population has been exhausted and industrialisation – with the help of domestic and foreign capital – is the only way forward to create new jobs. The battle has thus been conjured up as one between a brave and forward-looking regime, willing to shed its ideological prejudices and embrace foreign capital for the sake of development, and those who want to see the rural population in per-petual poverty. “Luddites and Narodniks” is what the official spokesmen of the Left Front, bent on using official Marxist jargon, have often called opponents ofthe Singur and Nandigram projects. While there may have been a few deep ecologists actively involved in the opposi-tion to these projects, by no means can it be said that its dominant sections were opposed to industrialisation per se. What they were asking were more questions like who is this development going to benefit and who will pay the costs and why was a left government using colonial era land acquisition laws to oust poor peasants from their land on behalf of private industry and claiming this was for “public purposes”? As Arindam Sen, in a chapter of Nandi-gram and Beyond, points out, none other than Prabhat Patnaik, CPI(M) ideologue and a highly reputed economist has chal-lenged the claim that theSEZ route or giv-ing private industry all the sops it asked for plus more was necessarily the best way of generating new employment. Writing in theEconomic & Political Weekly in May 2007 Patnaik observed that “…in India, between 1991 and now, the number of persons employed in organised manu-facturing has remained constant in absolute terms, notwithstanding a nearly 8 per cent annual growth rate in manu-facturing output.”When the “industry versus agriculture” argument faltered the West Bengal gov-ernment alleged that the opponents of the Singur and Nandigram projects were crude, political opportunists who had no interest in the welfare or future of the people. There was probably some truth to this, as political parties like the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress indeed have capitalised on the anger of farmers at the loss (or potential loss) of their land. But then Sourav Ganguly is not the only one in West Bengal capable of hitting sixes when thrown full tosses. And what the Left Front government lobbed to its weak and disorganised opposition was precisely that by the manner in which it went about taking land in both Singur and Nandigram. Lack of Public DebateAs Sumit and Tanika Sarkar, the well-known historians, point out in the opening essay ofNandigram and Beyond, the Left Front government, after its resounding victory in the May 2006 polls, chose not to initiate any public debate at all on massive transfers of agricultural land to private industries envisaged under its new eco-nomic policy. That the Left Front, best known for redistribution of land to farmers in the early phase of its three-decade-old reign, was now going to take a significant portion back from them was after all a major change in policy. The plan to acquire an estimated 130,000 acres of land all over the state for various projects was sought to be pushed through without preparing any land use maps or updates of land surveys of the 1970s or providing the media with proper brief-ings or even an official body of profes-sional economists to advise them on how to implement this new policy. Most of the questions put to the government under the Right to Information Act remained unanswered and even the junior partners of the CPI(M) in the Left Front were kept in the dark. The West Bengal government also did not choose to explain why, if it was so con-cerned about generating employment, it had not taken any steps to revive the hundreds of small- and medium-scale sick industries in the state. Or if that was not possible why the thousands of acres of land locked up in these industries was not being diverted to set up new projects and instead productive agricultural land was being sought for this purpose. Complete Lack of TrustLooking back at the way the concerns of the peasantry in both Singur and Nandigram were handled by the government it is clear there was not just lack of consultation and excessive secrecy but even an unwarranted sense of hubris from being in power con-tinuously for too long. Instead of transpar-ency there were attempts to provide half-truths and even incorrect information on the issues of quality of the land being targeted, Nandigram and Beyondedited by Gautam Ray; Gangchil Publications, Kolkata, 2008; pp 224, Rs 395.

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