About us Subscription | Guest Book | Contact us


News & Views on the Revolutionary Left

Salvaging Singur, Slowly but surely

The protests forced the Buddha government to look beyond the feedback from local comrades. It realised that things weren’t as simple as they were made out to be — it wasn’t just a case of desperate politicians trying to whip up a storm in a teacup Singur: It is the day after Basant Panchami which is celebrated as Saraswati Puja in West Bengal.

Tarun Sangha, a youth club of Bajebelia, a village hugging the southern fringes of the land fenced off for Tata’s small-car project, has organised a puja with a difference. Apart from the devi’s idol that has been taken away for immersion in the morning, there is a photo exhibition in an adjacent enclosure — an exhibition on government ‘atrocities’ in Singur.

It does not take too long to go through the exhibits: grainy newspaper photos, photographs of Gandhi and Lenin, some excerpts of their speeches and a few fiery slogans like ‘We will give blood, but not our land’ in Bengali. Outside there’s a placard in English: ‘‘Oh, Goddess of Learning, Buddha and Tata have snatched everything. Please illuminate us with all your blessings to fight back.’’ If a TV camera were to pan on this exhibition and then on to the faces of slogan-shouting boys attracted by television, the images reaching your drawing-rooms would be one of fierce opposition to the Singur project. But that would be misleading.

For, when you go there minus the pull of TV cameras, the picture looks more sedate and nuanced. The angry boys are missing. Barring a lone dog stretched out in the sun next to the flowerpot adorning the middle of the exhibition, there’s no one else. In the background, you hear an over-used tape recorder warbling Dhoom 2 numbers.

You look up to see the green spread of a young potato crop, beyond that the factory fence, and on the blue winter sky a trail of white left by a streaking jet. It’s an uncanny juxtaposition of the rural with the modern, but not exactly a violent one. At the heart of the happenings in Singur, which has come to be the symbol of a countrywide passionate debate on land acquisition for industry, are three questions. Who are the people being dislocated by it?

Who among the locals are opposed to the project? And who are in its favour? To take the last question first, three categories of people readily agreed to give their land for the project. One, the absentee landlords, who owned land in Singur but lived in cities like Kolkata; two, the share-croppers (bargadars) whose names are registered in government records; and three, cultivators who stood to lose only a part of their land.

For the absentee landlords, their Singur property was giving scant returns — perhaps a sack of rice or potato a year if the bargadar felt like giving anything at all. A sum of Rs 20-30 lakh or more, depending on the size of their land, that the acquisition would give them was a windfall, a tempting opportunity to be encashed. Not surprisingly, they were the first to queue up to give their consent. Registered bargadars followed soon after.

For them, too, a compensation of Rs 2-3 lakh was an unexpected gain. While they worked on the land and earned a livelihood from it, they did not own it. They had the security of a designated tract of land to work on. That would go now, but they would suddenly possess a sum of money that they had never thought they would. And, they still had their labour to sell.

Overall, it was a win-win proposition for them. The third category to give their consent were landowners who risked losing only a part of their land, as only a portion of their holding fell within the notified factory area of 997.11 acres. Most of them reasoned that as they could retain a part of their land, they did not risk losing their agrarian way of life.

Yet, they could make some good money, on which they could earn interest or use it on a daughter’s marriage, repair of their homestead or on their children’s education. All in all, it looked an attractive opportunity. That left those who are opposed to the project. They, too, can be divided into three broad categories. First, the non-registered bargadars, who over the years have been unable to get their names recorded by the state land reforms department.

So far their bargadar rights were not threatened; but they never imagined something like the Singur car project would pop up and threaten their livelihoods. This is exactly what happened when an impersonal bureaucracy, on the orders of the Left Front government, fresh from a thumping election victory that probably bred arrogance, reached Singur with its compensation package on the basis of government records on landowners and bargadars.

The package itself was not bad: for landowners, Rs 9 lakh an acre for mono-crop land, Rs 13.5 lakh an acre for multi-crop land, and for bargadars 25% of the land value, which would be at least Rs 2.25 lakh an acre. About 15-20% of the factory area is multi-crop land, the rest mono crop. Clearly, the problem was not with compensation, it was with the way it was being doled out, leaving out many people who have been equally dependent on the land and eked out their living from it.

These were the large number of unrecorded bargadars. And a small number of primarily daily-wage labourers: bullock-cart drivers or rickshaw pullers, small-time plumbers and mechanics who serviced the farmers as well as landless labourers who helped them during sowing or harvesting. They were left high and dry.

A few small landowners whose entire holding fell in the notified factory area also felt similarly dispossessed, even though they were eligible for compensation. For this category of cultivator-landowners, a way of life seemed to be coming to an end. While the acquisition took away from them the resource that gave them a living they were familiar with, they did not have the skills to take to alternate employment like trade or service.

The money coming their way also looked little to give them the lifelong security that land did. It is their children who articulated the fear of total dislocation of life with slogans like ‘We will give blood, but not our land’ at the Tarun Sangha Saraswati Puja. It was ostensibly to uphold the cause of these three categories of people that Mamata Banerjee, Rajnath Singh, P R Dasmunsi, SUCI and a few Jadavpur University-bred Naxalities moved in.

While the debate centred on Mamata & Co’s political motivation, on whether industrialisation could ever happen in India with such ‘short-sighted, anti-industry’ groups, there was no getting away from the fact that a large number of people were getting a raw deal in Singur. The greatness of democracy lies in the fact that it forces governments to look at the real reason behind protests.

The Singur protests did precisely that by forcing Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and the Left Front government to look beyond the feedback from the local comrades. They soon realised that things were not as simple as they were being made out to be; it was not just a case of desperate politicians trying to whip up a storm in a teacup.

A wiser CPM soon handed the job of salvaging Singur to a different lot of local leaders. At the same time, the state government took a step that has gone a long way in taking the sting out of the protest — it directed its land reforms department to identify and register all non-recorded bargadars. They were promised the same compensation as the recorded bargadars: at least Rs 2.25 lakh an acre.

There was also the promise of jobs. Last week, 700 locals were inducted as guards for the Singur factory by the state industrial development corporation (WBIDC). Another 2,792 names have been registered as daily-wage labourers for civil work at the factory. A couple of rudimentary workshops have been set up at the Bajebelia high school to train women in sewing (they will stitch uniforms for the workers) and men in elementary machine work. The upshot of all this has been a huge mood change.

Non-recorded bargadars, easily the largest single category of disgruntled locals, have been not only neutralised, but have been given a vested interest in the project. From utter despondency, they are now beginning to see a future: one with the security of a corpus of money and, in addition, maybe a reasonable job.

It was hardly surprising, therefore, that when the Trinamul Congress held a protest rally in Singur on Wednesday, hardly any villagers joined it. This is because numerically, the two remaining aggrieved sections — landowners whose entire holding falls in the factory area and the assorted labourers — are small. The fact that the state government has, as of this week, received the consent for the acquisition of 960 acres out of a total of 997 acres indicates the way the wind is blowing in Singur.

This does not, however, take away from the fact that these two categories are getting a raw deal. It only shows they are in a hopeless minority. Often the test of a humane government lies in the way it deals with its minority interest groups. And to that extent, the state government should perhaps address the panic of these two categories, even if it is not legally required to. There is, in fact, talk in Singur of the government giving its ‘vested land’ — or the land owned by it — to landowners who will lose their entire landholding. There is no talk yet of how to rehabilitate the assorted labourers.

On the whole though, the hump seems to have been crossed in Singur, thanks to a (belated) sensible approach and painstaking fieldwork. The Singur story, in many ways, represents a microcosm of the complexities involved in land acquisition and the resultant dislocation of people.

In this context, the expected denouement of Singur, and the lessons learnt from it, could go beyond the possibility of West Bengal’s industrial rebirth — which the Tata project will probably usher in — and provide vital inputs for building a model for land acquisition elsewhere in the country. After all, over 600 special economic zones, billed to trigger a surge in industrialisation in the country, are currently held up over the issue of land acquisition.


Labels: , ,

posted by Bimal 5.2.07,


Post a Comment

<< Home

Posts(atom) Home