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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 15, March 28, 2009

On People‘s Movement at Singur and Mainstream

Thursday 2 April 2009, by D. Bandyopadhyay


This has reference to Mr D.P. Sen‘s piece entitled “Mainstream and Nano Car Project of the Tatas at Singur” published in Mainstream (March 14, 2009). I am not surprised to go through this fairly provocative comment of Mr Sen. Without meaning any disrespect to anybody, one can state a general proposition regarding the neo-elites of Bengal. The real elites of Kolkata society where the landed-gentry—the zamindars, pattanidars and other big tenure holders having widespread interests in land and related matters. The neo-elites arose out of a class of English educated Bengalis who acted as “Munshis” and “Mutsuddis” of the foreign trading houses, who after accumulating capital moved up the social ladder. The problem of the neo-elites had been that throughout the history they carried on the baggage of the mercantile era looking upon the corporate house where they worked, and their White bosses with awe and reverence. Therefore, it is quite natural for a neo-elite of the present era to ascribe a sort of divine immunity to the big corporate houses and, particularly, the Tatas.

Many people do not know that the Tatas had their primary accumulation of capital through contraband trade in opium in China. They were one of the biggest beneficiaries of the two opium wars which the East India Company fought in China to legalise opium smoking in their country against their established law and social practice. From this accumulation they moved on to textile trade, made huge piles of money during the American civil war and started the first industrial venture called Empire Mills in Nagpur. Therefore, it would be futile to expect a high degree of ethical and moral standard, and social responsibility from the scion of that family.

I start from the last point of Mr Sen‘s rejoinder. Mr Sen observed: “The editorial has implicitly questioned the policy of diverting fertile agricultural land for industrial purpose.” He has almost accused Mr Sumit Chakravartty for suggesting that agricultural land should not be used for industrial purposes. Obviously, Mr Sen is not aware of Government of India’s policy in regard to this issue. Paragraph 1.4 of the National Rehabilitation and Resettlement Policy 2007 states: “Projects may be set up on wasteland, degraded land or un-irrigated land. Acquisition of agri-cultural land for non-agricultural use in the project may be kept to the minimum; multi-crop land may be avoided to the extent possible for such purposes, and acquisition of irrigated land if unavoidable may be kept to the minimum.” So, what Mr Chakravartty had suggested implicitly has been made explicit by the Government of India. Since the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 is a Central Act, this national policy of the Central Government is applicable in every case of acquisition of land under that Central Act. In the case of Singur, the Government of West Bengal not only did not follow the Central policy, they went totally contrary to it. That was highly repre-hensible.

The Government of West Bengal committed a fraud on law by acquiring the land in the name of the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation to be handed over to the Tatas. Section 3(f) of the Land Acquisition Act defines the expression ‘public purpose’. It has given eight items under this sub-clause. But the caveat under this sub-clause is very important. It says: “...but does not include acquisition of land for companies.” Therefore, acquiring the land for a private company called Tata Motors in the name of the WBIDC was a fraudulent act on the part of the State Government.

Mr Sen’s vituperative comments on the people’s action in Singur shows his inadequate knowledge of the ground realities. There was a ground-swell of protest from the affected small farmers, sharecroppers, agricultural workers and other workers directly related to agricultural operations when the government notified acqui-sition of 1000 acres of land in Singur. The movement might have taken a very ugly shape had not Ms Mamata Banerjee provided her leadership and guided it into a non-violent mode. For that, both the government and the neo-elites of Kolkata should have been grateful to her. Instead they blame her for leading a peaceful people‘s movement.

The land in question is one of the most fertile areas in the Indo-Gangetic plains. Comparable lands with the same level of fertility are available in the ‘Doabs’ of Tigris-Euphrates in Iraq and the delta area of the Nile in Egypt. So under the Government of India‘s policy the West Bengal Government had no business in acquiring this plot of land with such a high degree of fertility. This point was highlighted in the editorial by Mr Chakravartty. But Mr Sen kept mum on the issue.

The question may arise: from where would the government have given land to the Tatas? The answer is simple. The Hindustan Motor Company of Birlas was given an area of 750 acres by Dr B.C. Roy, the then Chief Minister of West Bengal, in the district of Hooghly right on the G.T. Road and on the main Eastern Railway line. In the last 50 years, the company could not use more than 300 acres for setting up its manufacturing units and other ancillary satellite industries. They had an area of 450 acres totally unutilised for more than half-a-century. The Government of West Bengal could have offered that area of 450 acres of the Tatas to set up their factory. The Tatas would have got some external economies because of agglomeration of similar factories in the same area. Instead of doing that, the Government of West Bengal allowed the Birlas to develop 450 acreas as a real estate township which had nothing to do to with the purpose for which the area was acquired 50 years ago. Secondly, there are large areas lying unutilised in the Durgapur Industrial Complex or in Kharagpur where the Tatas have a number of factories. Some suitable land could have been offered to the Tatas there.

It is not a fact that the Tatas were shown four or five locations and they chose Singur. The Tatas in their affidavit before the Supreme Court regarding appeal cases on Singur from the Calcutta High Court clearly stated that they had no hand in selecting the Singur land. They were shown this land by the government and they found it suitable because it had long frontage abutting the Durgapur Expressway and easy availability of canal and underground water. Since it is an affidavit, I would take this statement to be correct rather than confusing statements on their having been shown different lands by different State Ministers.

The land acquired by the government for the Tatas has three DVC canals passing through the area. The government sunk four deep tubewells in that area. Following the increased agricultural prosperity, private parties sunk 33 to 44 mini deep tubewells at their own cost. Thus, the whole area today stands fully irrigated. It produces six crops throughout the year and a calculation has shown that a marginal farmer owning land upto one acre can earn a gross income of Rs 1.6 to 1.7 lakh per annum with the net income of Rs 80,000 to 90,000 per annum. Under no techno-economic parameters acquisition of such a fertile land producing six crops a year giving livelihood sustenance to 10,000 to 12,000 agricultural families could be justified. It was done on the ground of political revenge on the part of the CPI-M because this particular constituency defeated the CPM candidate twice in two successive local Assembly elections. It was a case of sheer political vendetta. It had no economic, ethical or legal grounds.

I would not hold Mr Sen personally responsible for his angry rejoinder to the Mainstream’s editorial of September 13, 2008. It was a typical Munshi‘s reaction to protect his overlord from any criticism by an outsider. Hence, Mr Sen deserves to be pardoned for his rather offensive write-up against the Mainstream editorial which only depicted the ground realities.

D. Bandyopadhyay

(former Secretary, Salt Lake Government of India; associated GD-89 Sector III with the people‘s movement at Kolkata - 700 106 Singur and Nandigram)

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