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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 29

Land Acquisition and Industrialisation in West Bengal : Report of a Workshop

by Arup Kumar Sen

Saturday 7 July 2007

The land acquisition drive of the Left Front Government for promoting industries is at present the most controversial public issue in West Bengal. Recently (on April 20), the Centre for Studies in Social Science, Calcutta, organised a one-day workshop on the topic: Agriculture to Industry: The Problem of Transformation.

In his opening remarks, Sugata Marjit, the present Director of the Centre, made it clear that the “CSSSC has no institutional and official position on the policy of industrialisation as far as the present Left Front Government is concerned”. He also opined that the question of industrialisation should be judged academically, not politically.

Kalyan Sanyal’s deliberation—Industrialisation in West Bengal: Some Inescapable Questions—raised critical questions about the government’s policy of industrialisation. He argued that the rhetoric of industrialisation used in the government campaign has been picked up from undergraduate textbooks of economics. He criticised the government for this casual approach to industrialisation which would displace thousands of people.

Sanyal further stated that agriculture did fairly well in West Bengal upto the mid-1990s in terms of production. After that, the cost of production went up because of withdrawal of subsidies but the prices of agricultural products did not go up. There are indications that for small and marginal farmers land is no longer viable in West Bengal. And a sizeable number of peasants having pattas sold their land in recent years. But, because of land ceiling regulations, small peasants are buying and selling lands among themselves, stated Sanyal.

Sanyal accepted the need for industrialisation in West Bengal, but he expressed his dissatisfac-tion about the government policy. He argued that no calculation has been made by the government about the net employment to be created through its proposed industries. He pointed out that the government talks about the linkage effect of industrialisation, but is silent about the loss of agriculture-related occupations. When asked about the alternative path of industrialisation, Sanyal stated that a sizable number of people have got employment in the non-farm sector in West Bengal in recent times without any government effort. So, one has to know the possibilities of alternative employment. He highlighted the need for a sound compensation policy in case of land acquisition keeping in mind the complexities of land tenure in West Begnal. He cited the case of Singur to show the limits of cash compensation to farmers because loss of land implies loss of source of livelihood and makes life vulnerable.

Surajit C. Mukhopadhyay discussed the interface between politics and economy in his paper—The Politics of Land Acquisition in West Bengal. He stated at the outset that after coming to power in 1977 the Left Front Government took a series of land reform measures within the constitutional framework. The process of land reforms led to politicisation of the peasantry. But, by the mid-1980s, land reforms became stagnant, argued Mukhopadhyay.

Mukhopadhyay revisited the land acquisition question in the context of South Bengal. He argued that South Bengal’s density of population is very high and that led to fragmentation of holdings. Though the fertility of land is high in this part of Bengal, because of rise in input costs peasants just do subsistence farming and do not opt for multiple cropping. Mukhopadhyay claimed that because of the poor state of affairs in agriculture in this region, out-migration to other Indian States in search of livelihood is gaining momentum.

Having interviewed landowners-cum-cultivators in Hooghly, Mukhopadhyay and his team came to the conclusion that 14 per cent of the farmers did not want their next generations, who have education, to pursue farming because cultivation no longer pays. He said that during his teaching career in Burdwan University some years back he also came to know about the dismal conditions of agriculture from students coming from cultivator families.

Though Mukhopadhyay more or less supported the industrialisation venture of the government, he confessed that there is tremendous middle-class pressure on the government and that it has to take care of middle-class aspirations as the representative of a multi-class social formation.

ABHIRUP SARKAR’S paper—Development versus Displacement: Story of Land Acquisitions in West Bengal—was concerned with the associated problems of industrialisation. He argued that the theoretical literature on development economics has largely ignored the problems of land acquisition for industrialisation. He observed in this connection that around one lakh acres of land planned to be acquired by the government for industries represent a small fraction of 14 million acres of cultivated land in West Bengal. So, this will not pose a major problem of food security in the State. He also hinted at the possibility of increasing the average size of landholdings by shifting people to industry on the assumption that the latter will sell their land to the remaining landholders.

Sarkar argued that the government violated property rights during land reforms by confiscating land and transferring land to the landless people. Now, the same government is doing so by transferring land from small farmers to rich investors. In the light of fragmentation of landholding in West Bengal, Sarkar argued that the transaction cost will be very high if the industrialists directly acquire land from the landholders. Ideally speaking, argued Sarkar, the government can ensure fair price for the small farmers who cannot effectively bargain with a powerful buyer.

Sarkar raised the fundamental question as to whether West Bengal being a practising democracy can follow a path of coercion for land acquisition. He categorically stated that the Chinese path of industrialisation is not possible here. In China, land acquisition and industrial growth took place on the basis of secured property rights for investors and loosely defined rights for landowning farmers.

Sarkar argued that in the light of poor conditions of villages in West Bengal and non-profitability of agriculture, there is no alternative to industrialisation. But, he, criticised the government for the failure to develop infrastructure in rural Bengal and emphasised the need for a sound compensation, rehabilitation and resettlement policy. He noted in this context that a cost-benefit analysis of industrialisation is entirely missing in the policy statements of the government. He expressed his reservation about the fact that registered bargadars are getting only 25 per cent of sale proceeds in the land acquisition process whereas they are supposed to get 75 per cent of the produce under the barga system. He concluded by saying that the views of the people, who are losing their land and livelihood, should be given due recognition in the land acquisition policy of the government.

The last session of the workshop was a panel discussion. Alok Mukherjea blamed the West Bengal Government for carrying the land acquisition policy hastily without going through the process of trust-building. Anirban Chattopadhyay pointed the incompetence of the government in properly handling the crisis of agriculture. He suggested that the government had the option of developing cooperatives for the resurrection of agriculture. Gautam Gupta viewed the land acquisition problem to be basically a management problem and criticised the Opposition for politicising the issue for electoral gains. Ratan Khasnobis argued that the cost of transformation initiated by the government is being passed to the weaker sections of the population. Keeping in mind the recent violence connected with land acquisition, Anup Sinha stated categorically that even a single killing is a crime and should be condemned

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