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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 39

Moral Victory for Evicted Peasantry


Thursday 18 September 2008, by SC


Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee characterised the accord reached late at night on Sunday (September 7) between the West Bengal State Government on the one hand and the agitators in Singur calling for land-for-land rehabilitation of those peasants evicted by the Tata Motors’ Nano car plant on the fertile soil of the area on the other as a ‘moral victory’ of the movement launched for the protection of Maa, Maati o Manush (that is, the Mother, the Soil and the People). Ever since she began her indefinite dharna in Singur on August 24 that is precisely how she had been describing the struggle of the poor and marginal farmers of the region for their livelihood.

Victory it certainly was. Mamata had been insisting that if the government as a matter of principle agrees to return land from the project area (not from the 600 acres on which the Nano car plant has come up but from the remaining area earmarked for the setting up of ancilliary units) she was prepared for talks with the State Government on the whole issue. But CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and his colleagues in the Ministry intimately connected with the project refused to blink. The agitators under the banner of the Krishi Jami, Jiban, Jibika Raksha Samiti (Committee to Protect Agricultural Land, Life and Livelihood) remained firm on their demand with Mamata arguing that 400 acres from the remaining area (that is, outside that on which the actual plant has been constructed) should be given back to those peasant cultivators who had not voluntarily parted with their land for the Tata car factory. The actual quantum of the area was definitely negotiable but the government had to make its intention clear that it would return such land as a matter of principle (so that the ancilliary units could be relocated nearby). Even when the negotiations began with the West Bengal Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi acting as the facilitator, the State’s Industries and Commerce Minister, Nirupam Sen, declined to respond to the suggestion and only harped on what the Tatas had stated. However, with the pressure building up and the CPM’s partners in the Left Front urging the CM and the Big Brother to adopt an accommodative attitude, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee finally conceded the demand and the agreement reached at Raj Bhavan late on September 7 left no scope for equivocation. What the Governor read out as the document signed by both sides (Industries Minister Nirupam Sen and Leader of the Opposition Partha Chatterjee) was crystal-clear:

The government has taken the decision to respond to the demands of those farmers who have not received compensation by means of land to be provided to the maximum within the project area and the rest in adjacent areas as early as possible. Towards this a committee will be constituted to ascertain the scope and settle the modalities within a period of one week.

There was a last minute hitch, however. It was necessary to specify that till the land to be returned was identified status quo ante would be maintained in the area from where the land was to be returned to the farmers. This is exactly what Mamata underlined. After some prevarication the government agreed to this as well. So the Governor informed that while the committee was on the job, that is, for the one week period it was entrusted to carry out the task assigned to it, the government would urge the vendors not to make any construction for the ancilliary units. He further disclosed that Mamata would be making an announcement on suspending the agitation from the platform of her dharna in Singur, and thereafter declared:

The government and those who have been agitating on behalf of farmers will cooperate with each other for the benefit of industry, agriculture and ancilliary.

The last sentence was vital as it underscored that all sides in the dispute had won and there were no losers. That too signified a resounding success of Mamata’s untiring efforts to mitigate the plight of the evicted peasants and the State Governor’s earnest endeavours to facilitate a compromise to the satisfaction of all.

CM Budhadeb Bhattacharjee had little option but to go along knowing full well his overall isolation in the wake of Mamata’s agitation which, despite an influential section of the media’s desperate attempts to denigrate, had struck a distinctly positive chord among large sections of the public in general. But Industries Minister Nirupam Sen, who clearly emerged as the virtual spokesman of the Tatas during the negotiations (neither he nor his colleague, Health Minister Suryakanta Mishra, even once raised the issue of the farmers’ predicament which ironically was left to Mamata Banerjee to project), was unhappy. As the Tatas retaliated the following day Nirupam once again came out in defence of the industrial house saying that the ancilliary units could not be relocated and that had been agreed upon in the State Government’s deal with the Tatas (the details of which he doggedly refused to show in the initial stages but subsequently put them up on the government’s website even though there are complaints that what has been made public is a truncated version of the actual document).

One needs to understand that Singur falls in an area which is one of the most fertile regions in the world. As Dr Subrata Sinha, the former Deputy Director General of the Geological Survey of India, has pointed out in an article published way back in Business Line on January 29, 2007 (and reproduced in the Mainstream issue of September 6, 2008)

Significantly, copious monsoon rainfall, prolific water resources and an immensely fertile soil mosaic has made the Ganga-Brahmaputra alluvial basin of the Indian subcontinent a prime global food producer. It is also a point to ponder that apart from some coastal zones, there are hardly any such rich food regions on earth. Thus any attempts to commandeer even a fraction of such an invaluable cropping zone would be a venal sin…
The crème de la crème of this prime alluvial basin is the Hooghly river valley, capable of diversified multi-cropping the year round. This is because of rich alleviation during the monsoons, prolific groundwater and a network of stream channels. If cultivated with care, virtually every bit of its land is a veritable gold mine. In fact, massive investment of more than a thousand crores for irrigation, canals (DVC network) and large and small bore-wells were made. Singur is an area which received special attention to yield a harvest basket of foodgrains, vegetables and potatoes. A major industrial unit shall totally destroy this infrastructure not only in Singur but all around with innumerable smaller units mushrooming.

This warning of impending ecological disaster went unheeded and the government gifted the area to the Tatas for the small car project. And that too at a throwaway price as is now evident. Neither environmental considerations nor social concerns played any part in the government’s choice of the land. Now the car factory has already come up. There is no question of return to the original virgin soil. But why compound the problem by allowing the ancilliary units to come up at the same area comprising rich, cultivable land? If one dispassionately examines what Mamata is saying it is as transparent as daylight that she is willing to strike a compromise — thus far and no further. The Tatas could have been made to see reason in the argument, especially when there is ample land on the other side of the Expressway for the ancilliary units to come up since that land is not so fertile and is not under cultivation at present. And then don’t they too, like other industrial houses, frequently speak of corporate social responsibility? But that did not happen, and a government professing to stand by the downtrodden and the weak meekly surrendered without even arguing against the takeover of such precious and productive land.

What has finally emerged is something for which one should unambiguously highlight our collective failure. We have not done whatever was necessary to prevent the Tata plant from coming up on such a soil. Having said that it is now essential that we unite to ensure that no further damage is caused, that the land forcibly taken from the peasant cultivators is returned to them to the extent possible.

At this point one must emphasise something that is ingrained in the attitude and outlook of the CPM: it is true that the Singur peasants’ interests were ignored by the party; but that would not have happened if the peasants in one of their own citadels like, say, Burdwan, were at the receiving end. The Singur peasants had to suffer because the area has a Trinamul Congress legislator, and in the last panchayat elections it is the Trinamul which won from that area. If one delves deep one finds the same ‘we’ and ‘they’ syndrome working here as far as the underlying approach of the principal ruling party in the State is concerned. This rank partisanship has wreaked havoc on a large scale over the past thirty years of LF rule. Unless the Left parties as a whole are able to reverse this trend the future, near or distant, is bound to be bleak for them and this, one is sure, responsible segments among them realise.

At the other end what is Mamata doing? Some of her detractors say she is paying politics. That she would certainly do as she is, after all, a politician but what is noteworthy is that she has brought together diverse sections opposed to the rampant landgrab in the countryside: from the SUC to the PDS and also different mass organisations (including the Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samiti), and she has of late not decided anything without taking them into confidence. That is a distinct change from the past.

However, granted that she is playing politics, whatever the reasons she is bringing into focus that plight of the poor and the marginalised banished from the pages of newspapers. As even a group of citizens totally opposed to both the CPM and Trinamul noted after a visit to and field survey of Singur,

We know (from the farmers’ testimonies) that much of the land acquired has been destroyed for agriculture. It will not be cultivable— perhaps for a long time to come. We strongly felt that the Opposition, by fuelling the farmers’ hopes of getting back their land, was playing what was only a political game. We have heard people … ruing their plight. They lamented the fact that nobody cared for them after the elections were over. But in most cases, they ended their diatribe with an unrestrained praise of the TMC so that people from the city (like us) did not go back thinking that the villagers have not thrown in their lot with the Opposition. They seem to us to be catching at the last available straws of hope in the increasingly murky waters of power politics. (‘Our Experiences in Singur, February-September 2008’ by the Citizens’ Initiative, Kolkata)

Even though members of the group concluded their report with these words—“it is difficult to decide who really is speaking for whom in this scenario and with what motives, but our suspicions are increasingly confirmed: the people of Singur, once again, will be the ones to lose, the ones who will pay the price for this power struggle that tokenises them but does not really listen to their voices”—the fact is that the people of the area (that is, the poor, the marginalised, the dispossessed) have thrown in their lot with the Opposition led by Mamata Banerjee at this particular point in time for their own survival that is at stake. Let’s face it, without Mamata these people in the fringes of society would have sunk into the depths of oblivion.

September 7 has ushered in a new hope in their lives. Would those hopes be blighted? Only time would provide a definite answer. At present, however, September 7 has heralded a unique victory for those toiling people in the countryside, the unmistakable representatives of Bharat (symbolised, in Mamata’s words, by Maa, Maati o Manush) from whom India has seceded in the aftermath of neo-liberal ‘industrialisation’. For how long would this victory last in the wake of Ratan Tata’s latest pronouncements and the State Government’s acrobatics? That may be a moot question in the long term but that cannot in any way devalue the essence and meaning of this victory.

September 11 S.C.

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