Singur and West Bengal has come back to hog the headlines in the mainstream media once again; and, of course, for all the wrong reasons. The irresistible leader of Trinamool Congress Ms. Mamta Banerjee in her crusade against the Nano Auto Project of the Tatas had created a situation where the very future of the project has come to be threatened. Why this controversy? Ms. Banerjee's extremely disparate array of political groupings – from various hues of naxalites, SUCI and a small group of expelled CPI(M) functionaries and anti-industry environmentalists and foreign-funded NGOs of Medha Patkar variety – of course, under the redoubtable leadership of Ms. Banerjee – have asked for return of land acquired by the government of West Bengal for the project.
That such a demand has no factual or legal backing is a different proposition altogether. The demand for returning 400 acres of land out of the 1000 acres in itself is inexplicable. Because, though the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 does not provide for the acceptance of the land owners, the West Bengal government – given its political orientation had in course of the acquisition process asked the people for their opinion. And, 80 per cent of the people had actually not only given their consent but also accepted the cheques for compensation involving about 70 per cent of the land. Actually, land for which cheques have not been taken because of unwillingness amounts to only one-fourth of the project area. In terms of numbers, about 9,000 people of the 11,000 odd who were supposed to collect cheques have done so.
Therefore, it is clear that despite there being no legal requirement, overwhelming majority of the land losers in Singur are in favour of the car plant. But the issue is not one of legality. That there can be no defence for the archaic 1894 Act is a foregone conclusion. But so long as the law is not replaced by the Parliament enshrining the rights of those whose land will be acquired with pronounced emphasis on rehabilitation and alternative livelihood security in the statutes– state governments have no other alternative but to acquire land on the basis of the current law. But despite that, there can be an alternative approach marked with compassion and sensitivity. With the Singur land acquisition that is precisely what has happened. The Singur rehabilitation package saw for the first time an attempt to provide compensation not merely in financial terms.
The original package took into account prevailing market rates for calculating the compensation with an additional premium. But the unique feature was the inclusion of both recorded and unrecorded sharecroppers who did not have any proprietary rights on the land. They were offered 25 per cent of the amount that was offered to the landowners. Not only that, the state government also undertook a major training programme to upgrade skill of people – mostly young people – from the displaced families to enable them for possible employment both direct and indirect. The other component of the package included formation of cooperatives, syndicates and self help groups, which were involved in the construction phase and providing services. But even such a package did not satisfy the opposition. In spite of repeated appeals of the state government, Ms. Banerjee-led opposition was not keen on discussing the contentious issues and concerns of those who were not supportive of the project. Instead, there was a dharna which ultimately turned out to be a period of severe disruption with the project area being blockaded despite an assurance to the contrary.
The dharna also spilled over to the adjoining national highway creating a massive traffic disruption for over a week where even essential drugs and food supply was threatened. It is this disruption which has been widely reported in the mainstream media. And, it is this which led the Tatas to declare suspension of work since their executives and workers were being threatened and physically harmed. The Nano for reasons of its abnormally low price is being seen not only as a `wonder' car in the country but also has raised curiosity in different parts of the world. Naturally, the disruption and the threat of an eventual abandoning of the project in Singur drew widespread public attention. Normally, one would have expected a bloody confrontation between the government and the opposition. But in spite of the gravest provocation, the government held back despite the fact that their position had been earlier endorsed by judicial scrutiny by a division bench. Because, the government's point was to demonstrate that it was not against the peasantry as had been sought to be made out by the opposition and the anti-Left corporate media. So while remaining firm to have the car project implemented in the interests of employment generation, the government was always prepared to go the extra mile to further address the requirements of rehabilitation and alternative livelihood creation for the project-affected. Could it have been otherwise?
The West Bengal government is the only state government which continues with land redistribution for the landless when the semblance of even tokenism of the programme has come to a standstill in all other parts of the country. In the last three years, 10,000 acres each have been redistributed every year. Consistent with that approach, even though the opposition refused to accept a negotiated settlement and was evidently trying to undermine the integrated nature of the automobile plant together with the ancillary units by demanding return of land which would undermine the project as such and the agreement of the state government with the investor – the government even after the Governor facilitated talks failed, have come out with an additional rehabilitation package. The highlight of the package is return of some land from within the project area together with an enhancement of the compensation amount as well as specific provision for agricultural workers and sharecroppers.
Added to this is the offer of assured employment for one from every family of the land losers. Going beyond the specificities of Singur, the developments in Bengal are actually bringing the focus of discourse on how to balance the interests of agriculture and industry. In situations where for building industry the necessity of converting agricultural land becomes inevitable, facts must speak for themselves. The displaced must be convinced at the end of the day that it is going to result in an improved alternative livelihood and not marginalization. The current initiative is indeed pointing towards such a course of development.