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Nandigram and the Question of Development

While ill-founded rumours of many kinds contributed to the build-up of tension in Nandigram, there is no question that the people of the area had genuine fears of what industrialisation and the associated displacement held out for them if a special economic zone was established in the area. These concerns have taken a new dimension in the context of the countrywide agrarian crisis which has had an impact on West Bengal as well.

Nandigram and theQuestion of Development

While ill-founded rumours of many kinds contributed to the build-up of tension in Nandigram, there is no question that the people of the area had genuine fears of what industrialisation and the associated displacement held out for them if a special economic zone was established in the area. These concerns have taken a new dimension in the context of the countrywide agrarian crisis which has had an impact on West Bengal as well.


s a member of the National Commission for Women, I have been meeting a number of people of the Nandigram area, particularly women, who have been affected by the violent happenings there in the last four months. These events have received much media attention, particularly the tragic climax which came on March 14 when, following attempts by police forces to enter the area, the totally unwarranted death of 14 people from the locality, including two women, took place. I have met both women who were in hospitals as victims of this action, as well as others who had been forced to leave their villages as a result of violence unleashed in the area since January by the so-called Bhumi Ucched Pratirodh Committee (BUPC).

The fact of violent displacement of large numbers of people in the name of development is not unknown in India and has happened in other states like Orissa, Maharashtra, Gujarat or Madhya Pradesh; in this case, actual displacement has not taken place, but violent incidents have followed a mere proposal to set up a relatively small special economic zone (SEZ) in West Bengal. What is unprecedented and unwarranted is that the violence and the subsequent loss of lives due to police action has taken place in a state where a Left Front (LF) government has been in power for the last 30 years. The left parties led by the CPI(M) have been the only organised political force in the country to take a strong and consistent stand against neo-liberal policies promoting indiscriminate opportunistic handing over of national resources to transnational capital.

The left parties have also perceived SEZs as an outcome of the same neoliberal policies long before their political opponents in West Bengal raised a hue and cry over Nandigram. The CPI(M)’s stated stand on this has been that in the present situation, mere opposition to SEZs would not prevent them from coming up and it was imperative to prevail upon the central government to introduce regulations on land use in SEZs so that industry has precedence over real estate business and labour rights are preserved. Nandigram has been a testing ground for working out to what extent a state government, constrained by many limitations, may cull some advantages for development and generation of livelihood, from the basically adverse national situation created by neoliberal policies.The reverses of Nandigram have shown how complex the whole question is.

A mere circular, subsequently withdrawn, enumerating areas which might

Economic and Political Weekly May 26, 2007 have to be acquired for the SEZ in Nandigram, created a conflagration leading to an enforced withdrawal of all administration from the area. The situation was precipitated by the ill-advised police action on March 14, 2007, at Sonachura and Bhangabera.The use of arms by those resisting police entry cannot be ruled out. But there can be no doubt that instead of resolving the impasse the police action aggravated the situation; the government has subsequently admitted that mistakes were made. It is particularly regrettable that the major victims of violence right from the month of January, whether they suffered in the hands of the BUPC or on March 14 from police action, are ordinary poor people who are still living in an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty. In spite of the unequivocal declaration by the state government that there would be no land acquisition without people’s consent and subsequently that the proposal for SEZ in Nandigram was being withdrawn, the administration is still being prevented from entering Nandigram and violence within and around that area is still continuing.

Class Terror?

Many people have seen this as a spontaneous peasant uprising from the ground level. When, however, one looks at the coercion and violence unleashed upon a section of the poor peasants, agricultural workers and petty producers in the area by the BUPC since January 6, 2007, and the continuing enforced displacement of this section from their homes, one is unable to endorse this view. If this had been a spontaneous peasant uprising, such terrorisation would have been unnecessary. One woman of Kalicharanpur with very little land, whose husband suffers from ulcerative colitis and is therefore hardly able to work, had been allegedly gang-raped by three persons one of whom she recognised as a member of BUPC; one man who has a small business producing and selling gur, agreed to go along with BUPC, but when they started extracting levies he was unable to pay, he decided to escape from the area to avoid them; but he was caught and although he managed to save his own life, all his equipment for making gur was confiscated so that he is now entirely without a livelihood. Another woman was ousted from her home for having dared to give evidence to the State Women’s Commission regarding the brutal murder of 17-year old Sumita Mondol, in which some members of BUPC were allegedly involved. Such incidents are daily occurrences in the area today. So if this is “class terror” arising from a spontaneous movement from the grassroots, why are hundreds of people from the poorer classes at the receiving end of it? Why did the BUPC find it necessary on March 14 to use force on a number of women and children to place them in the line of police firing and to erect barriers of bamboo and rope behind them to prevent them from retreating when the police charged? We have been told by many women who were obviously taking part in the resistance that they had been in the forefront on that day because they had been told that the police would not fire on them; others again have informed us that they were forced to participate, some of them at gunpoint, in the resistance. Such evidence indicates a most unscrupulous manipulation of the doubts and fears of the masses for gaining opportunistic political control.

At the same time, however, it cannot be denied that this manipulation became possible not only through direct terrorisation of people with a different political inclination, but by working upon some basic fears, which had been there generally in the minds of the rural poor in the area. Nandigram differs significantly from Singur, with which its name is very often uttered in the same breath, insofar as the former is a less fertile area, where the soil is saline and agriculture is possible only for three months in the year; unlike Singur, it is not located on the national highway and speculation in land has not been so rampant as it had been in Singur for quite some time even before the Tata project came up. Above all, the proposal in Nandigram was to set up a SEZ, whereas in Singur, the acquisition of land was for setting up a car factory; and while in Singur, the transactions involved some agricultural land alone (single, double or multicrop), in Nandigram, acquisition of homestead land was also a possibility, thus evoking the fear not only of dispossession, but also of dislocation. Such dislocation would affect not only people earning their livelihood directly from agriculture, but also other people living in the area for generations and those providing various services to them. It would certainly affect the previously mentioned gur producer, irrespective of whether or not he possessed any land or he earned his livelihood partly as an agricultural worker. These are very real fears which have to be addressed before any kind of land acquisition is proposed.

These specific fears of dislocation are also contextualised by more general fears from which the peasantry is suffering all over the country today. These are very real fears prompted by what economists have described as the worst agrarian crisis in the country since colonial times. This is not one brought on by natural causes, but is the direct result of neoliberal policies and the pressures of imperialist penetration into the agricultural sector of third world countries manifested through the imperatives of institutions like the WTO, which have opened up our agrarian economy “to the volatility of global markets and to unfair trade” (Utsa Patnaik, ‘Deflation and Déjà Vu’, in Agrarian Studies (eds), V K Ramchandran and Madhura Swaminathan, Tulika, 2002, p 119). It has been pointed out that acute immiserisation in the agrarian sector has been the direct result of “income-deflationary and tradeliberalising” policies dictated by global agencies such as the one mentioned above.

In West Bengal, the beneficial effects of land reforms on agricultural production have, to some extent, counteracted the effects of this countrywide crisis so that in the Tenth Plan period, when the growth rate of agriculture in the rest of India came down to 2 per cent, in West Bengal, it was still over 3.5 per cent. But West Bengal has had other problems such as the extreme density of population, as a result of which there has been considerable fragmentation of land with about 65 per cent of the total population depending for their livelihood directly or indirectly on agriculture. The stagnation in employment opportunities in the urban sector has compounded the livelihood difficulties and the imperative for setting up not only small and medium industries, but also larger ones, has to be followed by a state government which, under the existing circumstances, has to explore all available options for employment generation. Generation of employment on a scale that the agricultural sector today is unable to sustain, has been perceived by the Left Front government as the major objective of industrialisation.

Dearth of Employment

A number of women, from families of the labouring poor in Nandigram who had been ousted from their villages by the violence unleashed by BUPC, told me that there was a dearth of livelihood opportunities in the area; some of them were even

Economic and Political Weekly May 26, 2007

sending their young children to Delhi as domestic labour and were forced to marry off their daughters at a very young age. They felt that if there was industrialisation in the area, this might give them more opportunities for employment, although they were not specific about the kind of employment the poorer and untrained sections of the local population might have from the setting up of a chemical hub. Still, they said very clearly that the soil being saline and groundwater level being very low, traditional agriculture could not yield sufficient livelihood in the area. They also said that they had been assured that there would be sufficient compensation for any land acquired, even for a tree or a pond situated on this land. This was not denied even by the men and women injured in the police action whom I met in the hospitals where they were being treated. But the latter said that they had no intention of parting with agricultural or homestead land whatever the compensation may be, and that they had disbelieved even the declaration made by the chief minister before March 14 that no land would be acquired without their consent. When asked why they had persisted in resistance when the chief minister had already declared that the chemical hub would not be set up in Nandigram, one young man blurted out: “But he is still talking of industrialisation!” Thus for them the term “industrialisation” itself had come to be synonymous with dispossession and displacement and they had been swayed by the campaign and by reports in some newspapers that the assurances were eyewash and land acquisition would start as soon as the administration entered the area.

I have felt very strongly that this campaign would not have had such a strong influence on a section of the local people if the impact of the countrywide agrarian crisis had not been felt by the rural population in West Bengal as well. While there is no denying that a false campaign has been running rampant and that particularly after March 14, concocted and grossly exaggerated accounts of police atrocities are being circulated deliberately to embellish the actual atrocious incident of the loss of 14 lives, it must also be admitted that the fear and uncertainty of the agrarian population cannot be wished away. It has been nurtured and developed into a paranoia in Nandigram among some sections of the people, but doubts as to whether a huge industry involving massive dislocation would solve the problems of the countryside could be more widespread. It has also seemed to me that a doubt has been created in the minds of many small producers in the agrarian sector, whether this sector will be accorded the same priority as industry. Since neo-liberal policies of the central government have made agriculture a loss-making proposition for farmers, there is no doubt that that part of the agricultural population which has received education and is upwardly mobile would shift out of this sector as soon as it finds alternative opportunities, but even then agriculture and the thousands of small producers associated with it will remain. They need to be assured that the problems that beset the agrarian sector will not be neglected, but will remain a major concern of the state government.

Trauma of Women

The women I met in the hospitals were in a traumatised state and this trauma was being constantly fed with rumours of atrocities spread by those who were coming to visit them, but it was clear from their statements that, rumour or not, the fear of losing their homesteads and/or agricultural land, had made them confront the police on March 14. Some of the people we met in the camps told us that, at the local level, the CPI(M) had already started a campaign that radical steps towards industrialisation were on the way, that this would require land and that whoever gave his land would be assured of ample compensation. Thus even before any official agreement was signed, the message communicated to the people was that land acquisition on a massive scale was unavoidable, and it would start within a short time. Instead of filling them with hope for a better life, it had had the effect of aggravating the fears of a very large number of people. I have not found in my experience that people in the rural areas in West Bengal are backwardlooking and averse to change. The agrarian crisis holding the entire countryside in thrall is something felt by the peasantry in their bones, and in ordinary circumstances, few sections of the rural poor in West Bengal would deny the need for a trajectory of change that would lessen rural poverty, mitigate land-alienation and enhance employment opportunities. They also would not deny the need for industry to reduce the pressure on land or that it might be necessary to acquire land for the purpose. But it is most important that they should be able to understand and participate in changes that would be affecting their livelihood and their daily living.

What about those people who had not wished to resist the administration and who had even hoped to improve their standard of living through alternative employment should there be industrial development in the area? Most of them possessed little or no agricultural land anyway, but the fact that they expected alternative livelihood from industrial development does not necessarily mean that they are prepared to be displaced from areas in which many of them have been living for many years. What they said rather indicated that they were not thinking in terms of possible displacement in order to accommodate industrialisation. What the women in the refugee camps said was: “Our men might get some jobs when the works come up”, indicating that they hoped to continue living in the same area. The question remains whether, even if the siege is lifted and they are able to return home, the possible displacement for future benefits that big industry may eventually bring would be acceptable to them or whether industrialisation through an SEZ would allay the uncertainty they feel about their livelihoods.

Land acquisition is necessary for industrialisation, particularly in a land-constrained state like West Bengal. Since much of the land is already being utilised for agriculture, it is impractical to think that acquisition of agricultural land can always be avoided. For the left parties the crucial issue would be to what extent and by what means the decline in agriculture could be stalled and how soon industrialisation would be able to create permanent alternative means of livelihood. The whole question of the extent to which the setting up of big industries can compensate for the loss of livelihood caused by dispossession and dislocation and go on to provide a positive growth in jobs under the present circumstances, is a debated one. The question applies particularly to the poorer sections of job-seekers who do not possess the needed skills. If fear and uncertainty in the agrarian sector continue to grow, then the basis for development that has been created in West Bengal in the last three decades would be undermined. It is not just a question of how much compensation is being paid to those who are losing land; because compensation presupposes that the problems of those receiving it would be resolved at one go. But the question of livelihood is a much more complex one

Economic and Political Weekly May 26, 2007 which cannot be calculated simply in terms of ready cash.

Alternative livelihood does not grow automatically out of compensation money; it has to evolve in coordination with local production relations. A SEZ in the area would mean not just a radical change in the local economy, but extensive demographic and ecological changes as well. Spaces for grazing domestic animals, trees yielding products that could be used and sold and water bodies used for domestic purposes would no longer be available to the community, particularly to the poorer sections. Their absence to people who had been used to them would not be merely a matter of nostalgic regret, but would signify material, economic and social deprivation. Compensation in terms of an acceptable alternative livelihood and not just in terms of money is therefore important. Large industries do create some employment opportunities for unskilled labour when infrastructural development is going on, but in themselves they are very rarely labour-intensive. There may be a greater possibility of downstream generation of employment opportunities in terms of production of goods and services, but that may take several years or decades to materialise. It would require careful planning and consistent efforts at implementation on the part of the state government to guarantee that the setting up of massive new economic, demographic and ecological systems in an area does not happen without addressing the question of dispossession and displacement that may be necessitated by it. Even if the setting up of new industries is able to offset some of the job-loss caused by the closing down of other industries and by the decline in agricultural growth, it can hardly solve the problem of actually existing unemployment and underemployment. There also have to be plans for encouraging small producers with financial support and by finding markets for them. Otherwise one cannot allay the very real fears of the rural producers that they will be bypassed by development.

There is another aspect to this question. Since the setting up of industries will hardly be able to relieve the pressure on land to any significant extent, the problem of the decline plaguing agriculture becomes more acute. As I have said earlier, this decline is the direct result of the neoliberal policies being promoted at the national level from the early 1990s under the pressure of global agencies representing new strategies of imperialism. It is not possible for any state government to reverse the trend. In the developed capitalist world, a much smaller number of people is dependent on agriculture for their livelihood, but state protection for large-scale capitalist production enables such countries to be self-sufficient in food. In our country today, the trajectory of capitalist development in agriculture, dominated by global market forces, is not likely to be similar; there is much more likelihood of such development leading to captive markets in agriculture for global capital, The growing pressure to introduce contract-farming and to allow FDI in retail trade are manifestations of this tendency. But the problem for a state which has developed so far on the strength of its flourishing agriculture is that this vitality has to be maintained. At least it has to see that immiserisation is not precipitated and succour to the farmer is provided by ensuring minimum support prices for agricultural products, enhancing availability of

Economic and Political Weekly May 26, 2007

essential commodities, diversifying agriculture while maintaining food security and initiating employment generation programmes in the countryside. One cannot move forward in industry while leaving agriculture behind. The rural producers have to be assured that agriculture is as much of an economic and social priority, so far as the state is concerned, as industry.

Some “apolitical” people have been saying that the crisis in Nandigram has been caused by the undesirable politicisation of developmental issues which, according to them, should be kept above politics, and they take peculiar pleasure in calling for a plague on both their houses and suggesting that the CPI(M) is now being paid back in its own coin for starting the undesirable game. But development has always been a political issue, demarcating the contradiction between the powerful and the disempowered. Most of the familiar models of development today have embedded in them the political tendency of reinforcing or even aggravating the inequities which produce this contradiction. It seems to me that, in Nandigram, the politics of the poor and the disempowered in the agrarian sector has to be put back in place with due priority to the question of development. It will necessitate not just even-handed administrative action, but clear political will. It is the responsibility of the left parties who are in power in the state to make this possible.



Economic and Political Weekly May 26, 2007

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