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Volume XLIV, No.51

Singur and CPM’s Development Paradigm

Editorial

Tuesday 24 April 2007

While Union Coal Minister Shibu Soren’s conviction and sentence on grave charges of abduction and murder has caused acute embarrassment to the UPA dispensation at the Centre and the Opposition BJP has predictably seized the opportunity to corner the ruling coalition with renewed vigour, one of the principal supporters of the Central Government—the CPM—has been placed in an unenviable position for the overzealous advocacy of a Tata car factory at Singur in West Bengal’s Hooghly district by the State CM, himself a member of the party’s highest policy-making body, the Polit-Bureau.

The CPM leaders, when asked why they were buckling under pressure from the Tatas to get 997 acres of prime farmland for their car factory at Singur thus uprooting a large number of poor peasants and agricultural workers (who have for the last several decades been the party’s mainstay), have informed that five or six alternative sites were shown to the Tatas but the latter insisted on Singur alone due to the various facilities it offers (actually this is directly linked to the industrial houses’ profit-motives, which completely negate the entire concept of ‘corporate social responsibility’ the Tatas in particular never tire of advertising). They made it clear: give us Singur or else we will leave West Bengal! And in the circumstances since persuasion “beyond a point” was futile the CPM found it prudent to accede to the demand of the industrial house. It was prudent to change its course because otherwise it felt that the Tatas leaving West Bengal would send a negative message to the rest of the country, and as a consequence indigenous and foreign industrial houses (multinationals) would not condescend to invest in the State. This is also what has been conveyed by influential segments of the media tied to Big Business.

Thus the State Government bent over backwards to placate the Tatas and decided to hand over first class fertile agricultural land at Singur to them. In its eagerness to help the Tatas it did not even go through the formality of signing an MoU with that industrial house. In not doing so it spared the Tatas from a lot of financial obligation (news reports suggest that the government provided Rs 140 crores from its own coffers for the purpose).

Some 15,000 families count on the Singur farmland for their livelihood. It is these people who are under the imminent threat of eviction and loss of livelihood on account of the Tatas’ obduracy and the State Government’s ‘pro-industry’ approach. Who are these people? They include about 5000 peasant families from 11 villages, thousands of agricultural workers, unregistered sharecroppers, cottage industry workers, local people engaged in small business. They will be directly affected due to the project. The CPM leaders claim that not only would they be provided handsome compensation (more than in other States) but also a sizeable number would be offered alternative employment. These claims and promises have, however, failed to generate widespread response among the people at large.

On the other hand, the factory would ensure employment opportunities to around 12,000 people. And of these 12,000 only a small portion would be locals, the CPM leaders themselves concede. So it is crystal-clear that more people would suffer as a result of this project than the number of beneficiaries.

The CPM leaders insist that among the people who are engaged in the farmland a majority have accepted the compensation worked out and are voluntarily giving up their claims on land. If that is so, what is the need to post such a large contingent of police in that area? What was the reason behind preventing not just trouble-shooter Mamata Banerjee but also social activist Medha Patkar (who with novelist Mahasweta Devi had gone there earlier for a public hearing on the Singur project that exposed several of the State Government’s claims as utterly false since the State Information Commission had declined to give any substantive information under the RTI Act) from going to Singur last week? There is not a shadow of doubt that the State administration has resorted to coercive tactics—the police high-handedness is manifest in the repression unleashed on those refusing to part with their land.

The CPM leaders and the State Government seek to bring into focus the pernicious and destructive politics of Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamul Congress as the cause of all trouble in Singur. This is just a ploy to conceal the State administration’s repressive tactics. No doubt Mamata and her party would try to fish in troubled waters. The Trinamul’s reprehensible ‘assault’ on the Assembly has been condemned by all those who have the larger interests of the polity in view. But what cannot be overlooked at any cost is that the primary reason for trouble in Singur: the forcible acquisition of land by the authorities from the poor people not prepared to voluntarily surrender the land. This approach of forcibly acquiring land is unbecoming of a government that boasts of standing by the common people and oppressed humanity.

There is enough fallow land in West Bengal where the Tatas could have set up their factory. A large number of plants are lying idle for several years in Howrah and Hooghly. The Tatas could have set up their factory in such places. The State Government could have politely but firmly reminded them of their lip-service to ‘corporate social responsibility’ while making it abundantly clear that the land in Singur was not for sale because the poor peasants and agricultural labourers would be hard-hit if that was done. Instead the State Government meekly agreed to their unjust demand thus causing hardship to so many poor people whose interests the CPM had sought to defend in the past.

No one is opposed to the setting up of industries, notably manufacturing units, in West Bengal. but these cannot and must not be done through displacement of the poor and the marginalised thus placing their very existence at stake. This universal principle cannot be forsaken for the sake of ‘development’ as is happening in different places—UP, Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand, Chha-ttisgarh. Singur in West Bengal is no exception just because the CPM-led Left Front is in power in that State.

The manner in which democratic forces and social activists are being treated in Singur clearly expose the hypocrisy of the CPM. How can it have the moral right to champion the cause of the downtrodden and the persecuted if it has no qualms of displacing large number of poor people from the hearths and homes in the name of ‘development’ as is happening is Singur? And this is getting projected in bolder relief in view of the remarkable resistance being offered by the people of Singur who have refused to submit to brute force.

To restore that right it is necessary for the party to reverse its policy on the issue of ‘development’ at the earliest. By doing so it would also pave the way for an alternative paradigm of development that is the crying need of the hour. But given the compromises it has already made in its dealings with Big Business that possibility is doubtless becoming increasingly remoe.

Buddhedeb Bhattacharjee may be thrilled by the encomiums being showered on him from the side of Big Business and the media tied to it, but his image before the common people is bound to suffer in the days ahead. Already it has been considerably dented due to his knee-jerk and higly objectionable outbursts against Medha Patkar whose selfless public service is beyond his capacity to compre-hend.

December 7 S.C.

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