Saturday, August 30, 2008

Land Reforms in West Bengal and Public Perceptions

By Jayati Ghosh

Such is the power of the media, that in recent months, the very names of Singur and Nandigram in West Bengal have become synonymous with forcible land acquisition by the state all over India. This is truly remarkable, because in fact no land was ever actually acquired for industrialisation in Nandigram after the violent protests against it. And it is widely acknowledged that the terms of acquisition of the 1000 acres required for the Tata automobile factory in Singur were the most favourable for the peasantry, of any such acquisition across India. Indeed, the Singur model ought to be viewed far more favourably, if only because it is the first time that not just owners of land but also tenant farmers were sought to be given some compensation.In a more rational socio-political environment, the response of the state government would have been appreciated in both these cases. In Nandigram, the government of West Bengal actually changed its plans for creating an industrial hub in that area, and declared that it would not go ahead with any attempt at land acquisition. This is unlike any other state government, and is surely noteworthy in a country in which more than 200,000 hectares of cultivable land has been compulsorily acquired by the state for non-agricultural uses just in the past three years, without heeding local or other protests. (The subsequent year-long turmoil in Nandigram had nothing to do with land acquisition but was the result of forcible eviction of one set of peasants by another, and unlawful blockade of the area.) In Singur the state government provided three times the market price of the land to holders of land titles and extended compensation to recorded tenants – both of which occurred for the first time in any state.Despite this, violent protests have continued in both areas, fuelled not only by the opposition within the state but by interested outside parties that would like to undermine the Left Front government for various reasons, and by a hysterical media that has blatantly misrepresented facts even while ignoring far more serious violations of human rights in many other states where land acquisition has been proceeding apace. The smear campaign of the media has had its effect. It is a major irony of our times that the state government that has done – and continues to do – more than any other to enforce land ceilings and redistribute land to the poor, is the one that faced the most vilification for land acquisition, even when that land has not even been acquired.And in the process, the genuine achievements of the Left Front government in the area of land relations, even in the very recent past and up to the present, have been completely ignored. But in fact, the record of the Government of West Bengal in terms of land distribution remains not only laudable, but also far more impressive than that of any other state government in India. The only states that come close are those that have been or are ruled by other Left Front governments, that is Kerala and Tripura. What should be particularly noted, especially by those elements in the media who now regularly berate the Government of West Bengal for its recent attempts to acquire land for industrialisation, is that its efforts at land distribution continue even today. This has become very clear from data recently collected from the Land and Land Reforms Department of the Government of West Bengal (cited by V. K. Ramachandran, “Land reforms continues in West Bengal”, The Hindu 23 August 2008).Remember that since 1977, West Bengal has distributed more land than any other state and accounts for 22 per cent of all the land distributed in India. And it has provided this to by far the largest number of beneficiaries. In fact, the 29.7 lakh beneficiaries of land reform in West Bengal account for 55 per cent of all the beneficiaries in India!This process of land distribution continued even in the very recent past, precisely the period when the state government was being accused of seeking to deprive peasants of their land because of its industrialisation drive. In the three years between 2005-06 and 2007-08, nearly 30,000 acres was distributed to landless peasant cultivators. This was three times the amount that was acquired by the state government for all purposes, including road building and other development. In 2007-08, the same year when the violent agitation in Nandigram was grabbing national headlines, no one bothered to report that the same state government had distributed nearly 11,000 acres, to more than 25,000 peasants. This experience must be contrasted with most of the rest of India. Not only has hardly any land been distributed in the past three years in most other states, but land has been compulsorily acquired at breakneck speed not only for SEZs, but also for urban expansion and other infrastructure development. Maharashtra, Karnataka, Haryana and Andhra Pradesh stand out in this list. But there is no noise at all in the media about either the terms or the conditions of the land acquisition in these states, which in all cases has been significantly worse for the local peasantry than the compensation received in Singur. Nor have the same activists who regularly still congregate in Singur and Nandigram to spew venom on the Left Front government engage in remotely similar activities in these states. The entire opposition and fury of protestors seems to be reserved for one of the few state governments that is still trying to redistribute land to the peasants.So it is clear that these protests – and the media attention that they receive – are not completely innocent or principled, since they are not directed at other state governments that have been guilty of much worse. The question that lingers, then, is what the real motive behind such continuing and focussed protests against this one particular state government could be.

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