On Friday, February 23, a Division Bench of Calcutta High Court, comprising Acting Chief Justice Bhaskar Bhattacharya and Justice K. K. Prasad, came out with a strongly-worded interim order on a writ petition filed by the All India Legal Aid Forum in the matter of the West Bengal'sacquisition of farmers? land in Singur for the Tata'ssmall car project. Their Lordships, after a thorough examination of the facts produced, rejected the state government'sclaim that land had been acquired for the project through consent. ?The process for acquiring land in Singur for the Tata Motors? small car project appears to be illegal.?
As is well known by now, Singur has entered the lexicon of contemporary Indian politics as a byword for satyagraha. The smoke from the fires lit there by the brutal Communist regime travelled all the way to rural Punjab and caused the defeat of the Congress government. In the years to come, any government which tries to hoodwink or arm-twist farmers into parting with their only source of sustenance, will necessarily have to endure electoral punishment.
This must be a big setback for industrialisation ?Ayatollahs? who had been referring to every favourable publication from the world of Bretton Woods-sponsored economics to justify the conversion of farms into factories and farmers into industrial proletariats. It was sad to see even apparently pro-poor Amartya Sen and the latest Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus too parrot the line to give Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee the economic artillery back-up that he so desperately needed to go forward with his Mao-style ?Great Leap Forward?. Of course, these two Bengali intellectuals took care to qualify their positions saying that the land acquisition should not be a forced process. Now, after the Calcutta High Court Order, would they be decent enough to modify their positions? Hardly likely, considering favours they receive from the Bhattacharjee regime.
Now that the bluff has been called and the road to justice secured after a tough struggle which saw two deaths (including a rape-cum-murder) and countless scarred souls, it is time to take the discourse on Singur to a higher level. Let us understand why the farmers of Singur and Nandigram are against industrialisation. What is the reason behind their resistance to people who claim to be touting a superior economic logic by which a farmer would be better off selling his land to a factory owner, pocketing the proceeds and reinvesting it in more lucrative alternatives like the stock market and settling down to the life of an industrial wage earner?
It was a winter of discontent. Though the majority of West Bengal villagers lack electricity and its inmates lack access to TV news (newspaper penetration is limited to the agglomerates of Kolkata and the small towns), there is a veritable chupatty telegraph system in operation. The mood of the entire agricultural class of Bengal, roughly 65 per cent of the state'spopulation, was very restive. Land-owners, bargadars, patta holders and seasonal workers, who were sometimes tribals and often Bangladeshi infiltrators, collected in large groups around me to respond to my survey.
Almost always, these sessions assumed the appearance of public meetings.
There was not a single village with a consensus in favour of the government'sposition on Singur (Nandigram did not break out then) and nobody was willing to buy Buddhadeb'slogic about the necessity of turning agriculturists into industrial labourers. Everybody had the same thing to say: ?We will die rather than sell our lands.? They empathised with the Singur farmers and their hearts bled for Mamata Banerjee who was then in the middle of her 26-day-long fast. They wanted to hear from me first hand about Didi's(Mamata Banerjee?s) health and whether I could give her their blessings. What was most surprising was that the consensus was bipartisan. On one occasion, a man in Malda district, who everybody knew as a CPI(M) local committee member of 40 years, demanded that he could declare his open support for her. ?Now I know why she is so popular?, the man said. ?She feels for us.?
In January 1995, on the sidelines of the first ?summit? of Indian industrialists organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) in Kolkata, the then Chief Minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, launched a document which was supposed to signal a paradigm shift in his party'seconomic policy. It was the Industrial Policy declaration of the Marxist government, which was celebrated by captains of industry at the time as a clear articulation of the CPI(M)'snew attitude towards business. As if in cue, Arthur Anderson, the famous US-based consultancy firm, came out with its own survey report on West Bengal. It was announced that West Bengal was poised to ?regain its place as the top industrial state of India?.
After much water has flowed down the Hooghly since then, it is time to have a look at the report card. Has shilpayan, or ?industrialisation?, been a success?
The first yardstick for determining success of any public project is its popularity. Twelve years is long enough a period to produce the dividends of any government-led initiative. The CPI(M) may claim that it went ?to the people? in three elections with the shilpayan mantra and were vindicated. But, even if we discount the evidence about large-scale scientific and hi-tech rigging, there is nothing to show that the Marxists held up before the people as any proof that their policy had led to improved better living conditions.
The Singur-Nandigram uproar clearly showed that shilpayan has become for the Bengali agricultural class what the Cultural Revolution was for the Chinese. While talking to the ordinary villagers, I tried to understand the basic reasons for their resistance. Were they ideologically opposed to shilpayan? No. They had no problems with industry or industrialists. Why were they so fixated about retaining lands that gave them so little income?were they aware of the global debate on food security? Not really. And here lies the rub. They were afraid.
The Bengali agricultural class is aware that it is not physically or psychologically prepared for industrialisation. The reason: they are the direct victims of a 30-year-old pernicious system that has taken them deep into medieval darkness. The resistance to Singur is an expression of fear. For they know that the alternative is more fearsome?the medicine is worse than the disease.
Put simply, West Bengal is not ready for industrialisation. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee would be making a big mistake if he can make the state leapfrog from the Stone Age to a hi-tech society.