India: The Politics of Industrialisation, Singur, Nandigram and the left

 A question marked in red

Indian Express, January 09, 2007

by Sumit Sarkar

This is a critique from the Left of the CPM’s
industrialisation policy in Bengal. Is the
violence, cadre brutality and lack of consent
that runs through this strategy the only way to
develop? How do Singur and Nandigram serve the

As a lifelong Leftist, I am deeply shocked by
recent events in the countryside of West Bengal.
On December 31, a group of us went to Singur,
spent the whole day there, visited 4 out of the 5
most affected villages which border the land that
has been taken over. We had conversations with at
least 50-60 villagers. Almost all rushed to us
and told us their complaints.

From this brief but not necessarily
unrepresentative sample, three things became very
clear, because of which the West Bengal
government’s version cannot be accepted. One, the
land, far from being infertile or mono-cropped,
as has been stated repeatedly, is sextremely
fertile and multi-cropped. We saw potatoes and
vegetables already growing after the aman rice
has been harvested, some of them actually planted
behind the now fenced-in area which the peasants
had lost. Two, there is no doubt that the vast
bulk of the villagers we met are opposed to the
take-over of land and most are refusing
compensation. It should also be kept in mind that
at best the consent of the registered landholders
as well as sharecroppers is being taken. But
agricultural production also involves
sharecroppers who are not covered by Operation
Barga since they have come in later, as well as
agricultural labour. Under the
government-announced scheme for compensation,
such people are not being remembered.

Three, we found much evidence of force being
employed, particularly on the nights of September
25 and December 2. We met many people - men and
also a large number of women - who had been
beaten up, their injuries still visible,
including an 80 year old woman.

What the villagers repeatedly alleged was that
along with the police, and it seems more than the
police, party activists, whom the villagers call
’cadres’ - which has sadly become a term of abuse
- did the major part of the beating up. Clearly,
the whole thing had been done without
consultation, with very little transparency, and
in a very undemocratic manner.

As for the official claims of land being
mono-cropped, the Economic and Political Weekly
in an editorial of December 23 has pointed out
that the last land survey of the area was done in
the 1970s which means that the records with the
government are backdated. Surely there must be
much more investigation on the ground and
consultation with panchayats and other local
bodies. No one, not even the government, has
actually claimed that such consultation has taken
place. It was done entirely from the top.

These mistakes, to put it mildly, are being
repeated on a much bigger scale in the Nandigram
region. This has become far more serious because
a much greater area of land is being taken - with
the same lack of transparency, absence of consent
and massive brutality. Once again, one is hearing
reports of CPM cadres engaged in an offensive
against peasants. What is happening at Nandigram
is a near civil war situation.

The West Bengal government seems determined to
follow a particular path of development involving
major concessions both to big capitalists like
the Tatas and multinationals operating in SEZs.
Yet the strange thing is that these, particularly
the latter, are things which Left parties and
groups as well as many others have been
repeatedly and vehemently opposing. No less a
person than the CPM General Secretary in the
course of last week made 2-3 statements attacking
SEZs. The CPM has been at the forefront of the
struggles against such developments in other
parts of the country.

Surely there must be a search, at least, for
paths of development that could balance necessary
industrial development with social concerns and
transparency and democratic values. Is this SEZ
model that implies massive displacement and
distress really the only way? If the West Bengal
government thinks so, then it also has to accept
that the inevitable consequences are going to be
a repetition of Nandigram across the state.

This is the price that will be paid by
government, ordinary people as well as investors
for this model of development.

* The writer is an eminent historian

 Peasant Hares and Capitalist Hounds of Singur

Economic and Political Weekly, December 30, 2006

by Sumanta Banerjee

Singur is a test of sorts: For the Left Front
government that is very ardently pursuing
industrialisation as the only pathway to progress
and also for its opponents, who are speaking up
for the unregistered sharecroppers and landless
labourers, who stand to gain little from the
project. The wide nature of opposition also
offers an opportunity to diverse groups to
explore an alternative path to development.

A hitherto obscure rural cluster called Singur,
some 40 kms away from Kolkata in West Bengal, has
all of a sudden been thrust into the national
limelight, capturing headlines in the mainstream
media and disrupting proceed-ings in the Lok
Sabha. It is symptomatic of both the drastic
changes that are taking place in rural India
forced by the pace of neoliberal reforms, as well
as of the chal-lenges that the Left has to face
while walking the tight rope of resisting and
adjusting to them.

The dispute, as it is well known by now, revolves
around the decision of the Left Front government
to acquire some 997 acres of agricultural land at
Singur for the setting up of a plant by Tata
Motors to manufacture cheap (priced at Rs one
lakh) motor cars. It has led to a triangular
contest of sorts. The state government and its
leading partner, the CPI(M), claim that the
majority of those who own the land have submitted
letters giving consent to the sale of their plots
and, along with their registered sharecroppers
have already collected compensation. The
unregistered sharecroppers and agricultural
labourers, for their part, are being offered
oppor-tunities of training to enable them for
employment in the upcoming Tata Motors factory,
and other ancillary indus-tries that will follow
almost as a matter of course. These claims are
being con-tested from two different angles. It is
essential todistinguish between the two, and
necessary for the Left Front govern-ment to
fine-tune its approach to the critiquethat it is
facing from the flank of its own support base.
One angle is dominated by the scheming
rabble-rouser Mamata Banerjee, whose party
Trinamool Congress was literally wiped out from
West Bengal by the last electoral verdict.
Looking for a chance to bounce back in state
politics, she swooped down on the cause of the
“oustees” of Singur. In a bid for national
support, she invited Rajnath Singh, the leader of
the BJP her ally in NDA, which with its hitherto
marginal presence in West Bengal, has jumped onto
the bandwagon so as to carve out a new space for
itself. The Trinamool-BJP combine, true to its
nature, indulged in histrionics such as
vandalising the West Bengal legislative assembly
and a hunger-strike performance (sustained till
the time of writing) by Mamata Banerjee. Repeated
requests by the state’s chief minister, Buddhadev
Bhattacharya, for a dialogue were stonewalled by
Mamata who seems determined to make a nuisance of
herself simply to redraw attention to her party
and re-establish its populist image among the
Bengali electorate.

Nature of Opposition

The other oppositional angle is shared in common
by a variety of individuals and organisations -
ranging from social activists and human rights
groups to some radical Left outfits like the
CPI(M-L) and Maoists. They set up a panel
consisting among others of the reputed writer
Mahashweta Devi, and the well known activist
Medha Patkar, which held a public hearing at
Gopalnagar, one of the affected villages in
Singur, on October 27, 2006, wherethey recorded
evidence from a large number of villagers who
alleged that they had been pressured to part with
fertile, irrigatedagri-cultural land and to
accept the inadequate compensation offered. They
also com-plained of police repression that had
been unleashed following their protests. The
panel invited the West Bengal chief min-ister and
the ministers for industry, agricul-ture and land
reforms, as well asthe senior officials of their
respective departments. The chairs reserved for
them, however, remained vacant throughout the
hearing. Their absence indicated the Left Front
government’s reluctance to face dis-gruntled
sections belonging to its own constituency and to
listen to civil society groups. But it also
portended a vicious offensive against them marked
by police assaults on protesting villagers and
the arrest of Medha Patkar and others who tried
to mobilise them. This ham-handed reaction
betrayed a desperate need on the part of the
CPI(M) to tackle a deeper crisis generated by
chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya’s new
industrial policy that was summed up in the last
assembly elections by his slogan - "Agriculture
is our base, industry our future". Watching the
developments following from this policy (the
Singur motor car factory is only one in a long
chain of controversial industrial and commercial
enclaves that have been sanctioned by him),
cynical old-timers in his party feel that the
agricultural base is being relegated for the sake
of an uncertain and dubious industrial future.
Other critics are accus-ing the party of having
come to power riding piggyback on the rural poor,
but are now expropriating them to build
industrial enclaves.

Bhattacharya however seems to favour the Fordist
model, stressing the importance of domestic
consumerist demand as the foundation for the
development of industry. In the case of Singur,
he expects that there will be a demand (for a
cheap motor car) from large sections of the
Bengali middle class (both urban professionals
and rural privileged sections) whose economic
status has improved in the last three decades of
Left rule. It is to cater to their consumerist
needs again that he signed a contract with an
Indonesian industrialhouse to set up a huge
commer-cial and entertainment complex on
Kolkata’s outskirts. The political rhetoric that
lies behind the promise of rehabilita-tion and
jobs for those ousted from their lands conceals
the old rationale of capital accumulationby
expropriating land that was earlier cultivated
for a particular type of economic development.

Industry versus Agriculture

The West Bengal CPI(M) is caught in a cleft
stick - however much Buddhadeb Bhattacharya might
try to put up a brave face and live up to his
image of a poster boy who satisfies both his
party’s rural constituency and the industrial
magnates whom he wants to woo for investments in
his state. The dispute over Singur actually harks
back to the more fundamental problem of
reconciling peasant interests with the demands of
industrial growth. Prioritisation of the latter
shaped the policies of both the capitalist states
in 19th century Europe and their socialist
successors in the USSR and China, and the
uncomfortable relationship between agriculture
and industry continues to pose a challenge to
Left-ruled states in Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil
and other parts of South America.

The Singur dispute also needs to be located in
the particular context of the history of land
reforms under the Left regime in West Bengal,
their limited and interim benefits, the growing
erosion in their utilitarian worth, and the
consequential desperate need of the Left Front
government to seek alternative avenues of growth
and employment through industries in the private
sector. Operation Barga the major land reform
legislation of the Left Front government - did
indeed allow sharecroppers to register themselves
and claim their share of harvest. But in some
villages, individual sharecroppers decided not to
register and preferred instead an unwritten
arrangement (termed as “mu-tual” in local
parlance) with landowners that allowed them
extra-privileges like loans at times of need,
etc, in lieu of their giving up the demand for
their share of the harvest. In Singur, quite a
number of the affected oustees belong to this
category of sharecroppers who refused to register
themselves and preferred a “mutual” deal with
their employers. These non-registered
sharecroppers along with the landless labourers
(mainly migrants from neighbouring districts who
used to work on the recently acquired plots as
farm-hands) are the worst sufferers since they
are not legally entitled to any compensa-tion
under the Singur land deal.

Incomplete land reforms and imperfect
infrastructural facilities have led to a
situ-ation of economic and social stagnation in
the West Bengal rural sector. The growth both in
terms of agricultural production and
socio-economic justice for the poor -that was
witnessed in the 1980-90 period, has reached a
plateau by the early years of the present century
without holding out much prospects for further
progress. In the stark terms of rural existence,
income from agriculture alone for many farmers
(bene-ficiaries of land reforms) in certain parts
of West Bengal is no longer commensurate with the
amount that they invest in high-yielding
varieties and irrigation facilities, in the
absence of adequate state subsidy. Further, a
new generation has grown up in the last three
decades - beneficiaries of Left rule (like
sharecroppers, small and middle farmers, even
sections of agricul-tural labour whose wages
have gone up), who have become exposed to the
alluring prospects of urbanisation, and are eager
to further improve their economic status. To come
back to Singur, from available re-ports it
appears that its location (road connectivity with
nearby railway stations and Kolkata) has allowed
some among this new generation of sharecroppers
and small farmers to supplement their meagre
earn-ings from the increasingly unremunerative
agricultural holdings, by working on
neighbouring construction sites, or setting up
small shops, or plying cycle-rickshaws to
transport urban entrepreneurs who are
establishing small industrial manufactur-ing
units around Singur - thanks to the Durgapur
Expressway that runs near it. Singur, it seems,
had already been moving towards
mini-industrialisation and semi-urbanisation even
before Tata Motors arrived on the scene.

The opponents of the Tata Motors scheme
… well-meaning as they are - should also delve
into this other side of the story. How many among
the landholders of Singur sold their plots under
CPI(M) pressure, and how many out of their
perceived need to escape from the stagnant pool
of sagging agricultural production? The West
Bengal state assembly speaker Hasim Abdul Halim,
who was designated as the government emissary to
negotiate with Trinamool leader Mamata Banerjee
was reported to have proposed that those farmers
refusing to part with their land in Singur could
be given cultivable plots in agricultural tracts
in adjoining areas. There has not been any taker
till now from among the dispossessed farmers.
Have they lost interest in farming (given its
limited potentialities)? Are they looking for
greener pastures in urban and industrial
ventures, each seeking personal benefits, thus
moving beyond the tradi-tional collective peasant
solidarity that bound them in the past?

This individualism has been reinforced by the
ethics of neoliberalism that has invaded - among
other sectors - the depths of India’s agrarian
economy. Neoliberal economics stresses the right
of individual owners of property - whether
agricultural land or industrial means of
production -to deal with their property in
whatever way that would suit their self-interest
for their private profit. The individual
accumula-tion of wealth that this encourages, and
the production of selected goods of consump-tion
that it leads to, are confined to a narrow
privileged section of society. But these become
the yardstick for measuring economic growth, as
well as the model for the rest of that society.
This false concept of growth ignores the economic
stakes in land of the larger rural community
(con-sisting of less unscrupulous, or the
con-cerns of less privileged individuals who
cannot join the rat race), as well as their
social priorities (eg, housing, medical
facilities, education), which should be taken
care of by the state. Instead these
respon-sibilities are being increasingly conceded
to profit-seeking private enterprises. The logic
of unfettered neoliberalism dictates that land
should be put to whatever use that can generate
the maximum profit, encour-aging farmers to sell
their lands to deve-lopers and invest the amount
received in compensation in other business
ventures. TINA or Other Alternatives?

In the absence of a functional alternative
egalitarian model of development (that was
represented in a large part of the world -however
flawed - by the socialist experi-ments in the
period preceding the collapse of the USSR), the
neoliberal economic order today claims to be the
sole hegemonic model, giving rise to the term
TINA - “there is no alternative”. Quite
predictably, in developing countries it re-enacts
the 19th century paradigm of industrialisation by
expropriation of agricultural land.
(In-cidentally, to acquire the land in Singur,
the Left Front government has invoked an old
colonial law of that period - Land Acquisition
Act of 1894.) The victims of this paradigm are
the peasants who are increasingly sucked in by
the expanding urban areas. As in the past, when
spurts of industrialisation and urbanisation
produced sheltered islands of the privileged (the
White Town) amid a sea of public squalor and
poverty (the Black Town) in a colonial India, the
same pattern is being reproduced in a
post-colonial India. The present Indian state, in
its efforts to pursue the neoliberal model of
industrialisation, is ending up with the same
result of building small enclaves of private
wealth (atrociously displayed in ostentatious
consumption in five-star hotels and shopping
malls) within a much bigger economy that remains
back-ward and stagnant, where farmers commit
suicide, where dalit and tribal peasants are
forced to migrate to cities to earn a living and
be exploited by the urban commercial predators.

Operating within the parameters of this given
system, the West Bengal Left Front government is
willy-nilly acquiescing in the implementation of
the neoliberal model. The alternative being
proposed by its opponents - fallow land in other
parts of the state for the automobile factory -is
not acceptable to the Tatas, as the surroundings
around Singur provide them with the required
infrastructure that assures them connectivity
with Kolkata. Since the conditions have been set
by the Tatas in the framework of the model of
industrialisation that has been accepted by the
Left Front government, Buddhadev Bhattacharya has
no option but to concede to the demands of the
Tatas, as otherwise he will face the flight of
capital by potential investors. It is an economic
blackmail of sorts which the CPI(M)-led
government needs to resist. Amartya Sen observed
recently, while referring to the West Bengal
government’s industrial policies, it was
necessary to "play the market economy, not kick
it, yet not rely on it" (Indian Express, December
21, 2006). Is the CPI(M) chief minister paying
heed to the last words?

Unlike the period spanning the post-second world
war decades till the collapse of the USSR, there
is no countervailing global socialist system
today to challenge the monopoly of the neoliberal
order and provide protection to today’s few
leftist regimes from the economic offensive
launched by the hegemonist order - like trade
sanctions, capital strikes, and even military
invasion. In such a situation, the leftists in
power - whether in a few states in Latin America
or in three provinces in India - have to device
their own respective strategies and tactics to
protect their workers and peasants from the
global offensive. Encircled by a hostile
economic and military order, leftist regimes in
Latin America are engaged in different types of
experiments in socialist reconstruction that may
have lessons for the Left Front state governments
in India as well as their op-ponents from the
radical fringe of the Left. Both those leftists
who are in power, and those who have opted out
from power sharing and are engaged instead in
armed revolutionary resistance, also need to have
a fresh look at the pattern of a future socialist
society that they want to build. The traditional
model of development marked by accumulation of
capital by indiscriminate expropriation of
natural resources (e g, agricultural land,
forestry, water resources) - which was shared by
both capitalist societies and the USSR and China,
at the cost of the marginalised sections like
poor peasants, tribals and forest-dwellers -
cannot be replicated in any 21st century
programme of socialist transformation. The Left
in India has to listen to the newly emerging
voices of the tribal communities, the demands of
those still living in the darkly hidden forests,
the environmentalist groups which are resist-ing
depredations by industrial houses, the human
rights organisations protesting the state
repression in Singur. Party discipline should not
prevent conscientious members of the CPI(M) from
coming out openly with their misgivings and
joining the debate over the future model of
development. Similarly, the Maoist
revolutionaries in West Bengal or elsewhere also
need to participate in the debate. With due
respect to their ideological honesty and ardent
commitment to a future communist soci-ety, let us
admit, they cannot offer any immediate
revolutionary utopia to the poor farmers in
Singur, who are working out their own devices to
negotiate with the crisis that they are facing.
Mao debunked Stalin’s Economic Problems of
Socialism in the USSR by saying: "
considers things, not people...". His followers
in Indiashould realise that while “things” (their
political concepts) have remained frozen, the
people are changing.


* Circulayed by South Asia Citizens Wire | January 10-12, 2007 | Dispatch No. 2346 - Year 8.