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Displacement and Political Parties

by Walter Fernandes, 3 November 2008

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After a long struggle the Tatas have decided to pull out of Singur. Now is the time to look at the situation objectively because what has happened at Singur is not specific to West Bengal. It has been happening in the past and will happen in the future all over India. The first issue is the role of political parties. Ms Mamata Banerjee is held responsible for what many consider a setback to the industrialisation of the state. In reality, her party hijacker for its political gain, a major issue affecting the people, the poor in particular. The cause then got caught up in the political battle. The CPM led alliance had neglected industries in West Bengal for three decades. Suddenly it woke up to the situation and decided to industrialise the state with a vengeance. It has promised 232,167 acres to different private industries in the near future and more to other projects. Only 997 acres of it were allotted to the Tata factory.

That happened to be in Mamata Banerjee’s vote bank area and she opposed this takeover but did not oppose the remaining 231,200 acres elsewhere. The basic issue of forced displacement without people’s consent was lost in this battle for political gain. If she had become the chief minister she would probably have done the same but on land on which CPM supporters lived. The media too presented the struggle only as a political battle and allegations were even made that the competitors of the Tatas were supporting Banerjee. One cannot exclude that possibility but I shall deal only with the issues affecting the people.

For the time being I shall ignore the ethical issue of depriving people of their livelihood without their consent and the impoverishment that land takeover without rehabilitation or very low compensation causes. I shall only ask whether a car factory needs 997 acres or is it part of real estate speculation? Past experience points towards the latter. For example, in 1952 West Bengal allotted 750 acres to the Birla owned Hindustan Motors. The company has used only 300 acres of it and in 2006 asked the state government to allow it to build a residential colony on the remaining 450 acres. The agriculturists from whom that land was alienated were impoverished in the name of a public purpose. That land is now being used for real estate speculation and for private profit.

It also shows that a car factory including its township needs not more than 300 to 400 acres. So these 450 acres could easily have been allotted to the Tatas. That plot is next to a highway and the Hindustan Motors has a railhead that could be extended to the Tata factory. Instead more than double that area was allotted to the Tatas far from there. Was excess land allotted to them for real estate speculation? The Tatas are not an exception. Excess land takeover in the name of national development has been the norm all over India for five decades. Among dozens of examples I have come across is the Hirakud dam in the Sambalpur district of Orissa. The whole town of Burla has been built on excess land acquired for it.
The Nano factory is one of many examples of this approach continuing today. The most glaring examples are the Special Economic Zones (SEZ) 366 of which have been sanctioned till now. Each of them can have up to 12,500 acres and the Centre justifies them in the name of job creation and industrialisation. In reality the Special Economic Zones Act stipulates that only half of the area has to be put to productive use. Its section 5(2) allows the rest to be used for hotels, malls and residential colonies on the rest of the land. As a result many SEZs built on agricultural land acquired from poor farmers are in the hands of companies that only have experience in real estate and none in industrial production. The CPM has been opposing the SEZs in other states but is promoting them where it is in power. That is the other side of Mamata Banerjee who is using Singur for political gain.
Then comes the type of land. The Commerce Minister Mr Kamal Nath has declared that fertile agricultural land will not be used for the SEZs. In practice most SEZs, for example three in Goa and one near Mangalore in Karnataka, are on fertile agricultural land on which three crops are grown. Also the land at Singur belongs to this category. In Assam, more than half of the 14 lakh acres used for development projects 1947-2000 were fertile land. Because of its very successful record in land reforms West Bengal has the highest food grains production of 5.6 percent in India. It seems to be sacrificing its food security and land reforms in the name of industrialisation that may not replace the livelihood lost.

Compensation is the next issue. It is paid according to the "market value" of the land acquired, defined as the average of three years of registered price. It is a public secret that not more than 40 percent of the price is registered. By following this norm the state pays a very low compensation to the land losers. Moreover, according to the 19th century colonial land laws that continue to be in force today, only individually owned land is compensated. Much of the land acquired is community owned on which tribal or other groups had lived for centuries before the colonial land declared them encroachers on their own habitat. In Assam, for example, only 3.9 lakh acres out of the 14 lakh acres used for development projects 1947-2000 were private land for which compensation was paid. 15 lakh persons were displaced from the remaining 10 lakh acres with no compensation. Moreover, most projects are in the "backward" areas where the market price is extremely low.

In West Bengal the major issue is the bargadari (sharecropper) system. According to its law, the registered bargadar gets 25 percent of the compensation paid for the land acquired. However, many bargadars, including 250 of those cultivating some of the 997 acres at Singur, are not registered. They will get no compensation, nor will the 1,000 landless agricultural labourers working on that land. That gives you the picture of impoverishment it would have caused.

Impoverishment is the lot of the land losers. The projects built on their land do not replace the jobs lost. Most jobs they create are highly skilled one while the land losers only have agricultural skills. As a result, more than 50 percent of the cultivators are rendered jobless and most of the rest experience downward occupational mobility from cultivators to unskilled daily wage earners. However, political parties use their struggles only for political gain. To the industrialist their land is only a source of profit. Both ignore the voice of the people whom they impoverish.

Dr Walter Fernandes is Director, North Eastern Social Research Centre, Guwahati.