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Behind the Present Peasant Unrest in West Bengal

This article discusses the industrialisation policy of the Left Front government in West Bengal with respect to rural reforms and democracy, and comments on how these have been negated in the recent land acquisition drive.

Behind the Present Peasant Unrest in West Bengal

This article discusses the industrialisation policy of the Left Front government in West Bengal with respect to rural reforms and democracy, and comments on how these have been negated in the

recent land acquisition drive.


he Left Front, particularly the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)] has repeatedly stated, in the aftermath of its victory in the last assembly election held in May 2006, that the victory was a popular verdict in favour of its industrialisation policy. But then why have the rural masses, the principal support-base of the present government, agitating in areas like Nandigram against land acquisition, opposed the policy almost everywhere it has been proposed? Why did the government resort to police firings in rural areas of Bengal that have been the mainstay of the government for the last 30 years? It should be noted here that the smaller Left Front partners have refused to take any responsibility for the Nandigram deaths and instead, accused the chief minister and his party for unilaterally taking decisions and running the government. So what went wrong with the party with regard to its industrialisation policy?

Negation of Rural Reforms

In its drive to acquire land for industry, the party has eschewed its own ideologicalpolitical stands on rural reforms on which, it is claimed, the Left Front government stood all these years. The CPI(M) has repeatedly claimed that the Left Front government has consolidated power and sustained it in West Bengal for a record 30 years based on its achievements in land reform measures and decentralisation of power through the panchayati raj institutions (PRIs). It is also claimed that both these measures were instrumental in enhancing the economic, social and political positions of the rural poor in Bengal. So far, the rural poor have reciprocated by voting in favour of the Left Front.

Without going into a critical assessment of the extent of implementation of these programmes in West Bengal, it can probably be said that the land acquisition process is a complete reversal of both land reforms and rural decentralisation. Firstly, it attempts to negate the essence of land reforms by reversing the process, i e, grabbing land from the poor to hand over the same to the rich. In West Bengal, almost two-thirds of the agricultural land is in the hands of small and marginal farmers and this was so far showcased by the state government as its success story in land reforms. But noticeably, the land reform measures implemented by the Left Front could not stop further marginalisation of peasantry, which remains an ever-increasing phenomenon in rural Bengal.

According to census reports, the number of owner-cultivators in the state decreased from 64.07 lakhs in 1991 to 56.54 lakhs in 2001, while the number of agricultural labourers increased from 54.81 lakhs to

73.63 lakhs during the same period. That is, among the working population in agriculture, the percentage of owner-cultivators decreased from 53.9 per cent to 43.4 per cent while the percentage of agricultural labourers increased from 46.1 per cent to

56.6 per cent in just one decade (Statistical Handbook 2004, West Bengal, BAES, government of West Bengal). Most of these owner-cultivators are small and marginal farmers who, along with landless labourers, constitute the vast mass of the rural poor in West Bengal. These economically backward sections principally come from the socially ostracised scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and Muslim communities who lack most the opportunity to obtain employment in the organised sectors. These people naturally refused to buy into the dream that they would get alternative jobs in the new set-up. These rural poor are the worst sufferers in the process of land acquisition and hence, in the forefront of the struggle against it.

The attitude of the state government towards the rural poor can be realised from the way in which it has planned the compensation package. The whole plan is conspicuous by the absence of any sort of rehabilitation and/or compensation for agricultural labourers and unregistered ‘bargadars’ who stand to lose their livelihood in the process of land acquisition. The registered bargadars are being offered 25 per cent of the land value as compensation while they are supposed to get 75 per cent share of the crops they produce. On the contrary, landowners are being paid the full land value along with an additional 30 per cent solatium. This amounts to an open reversal of the avowed class policy of the Left Front government.

In West Bengal, most of the marginal farmers cultivate more land than they actually own since they work as agricultural labourers on other’s land and/or sharecrop in or lease in land of those landowners who are either absentee or have services or business activities as their main source of earnings. During the land acquisition process, these marginal farmers are being compensated only for the tiny plots of land that they own and not for the total land they cultivate. Thus the landless, bargadars (registered or unregistered) and marginal farmers are not being compensated for the loss incurred to their livelihood while the non-cultivator owners of agricultural land are being compensated more than their loss of earnings from their land. This latter category of landowners is mainly offering land for acquisition while real cultivators are opposing the same. In the peculiar class polarisation in the wake of land acquisition, the landed gentry sided with the government while the rural poor opposed it and joined the movement en masse.

Negation of Democracy

Secondly, in the land acquisition drive, the decentralisation process is also reversed. The PRIs were introduced with the avowed aim to strengthen grassroot democracy and initiate rural development with the participation of rural communities from the stage of planning itself. Gram sansad (constituency) meetings and village development committees have, of late, been introduced to strengthen rural decentralisation. But the industrialisation programmes in rural areas are being planned surpassing even the highest tier of the PRIs. The PRIs are at best turned into agencies to implement the programmes being decided at the highest level of the government. No discussion

Economic and Political Weekly June 2, 2007

ever took place in the gram sansad meetings in the panchayats where the land acquisition drive took place. The Land Acquisition Act 1894 does not have any provision for taking into consideration the opinions of the people losing their livelihood or being evicted by way of land acquisition. This act stands in complete contrast to the policy of decentralisation, which has of late become the buzzword of governance for both the state and central governments.

Thus, the land acquisition drives tantamount to complete denial of the right of the rural people to decide their own fate, which presumably is the main cause behind the present peasant unrest. Further, this is also a denial of their right to livelihood and access to food since the rural poor mostly survive on subsistence farming. Losing land means losing minimum security of livelihood they have. At the same time, there is a widespread feeling among them of having been let down by a government they have been supporting for so long. The land acquisition notices are appearing like bolts from the blue to the peasantry and generate immediate anguish and anger among them. In Nandigram, the proposal for the special economic zone (SEZ) required not only agricultural land but whole residential areas, displacing the entire population of 27 villages. So, the whole village community rose up to “defend the motherland”. The sudden threat to their life and livelihood have completely alienated the Nandigram people from the state and made them rebellious from day one.

It may be noted that the first reactions of the peasants in Nandigram took a violent form on January 3, 2007 immediately after a notice was sent by the Haldia Development Authority to the concerned gram panchayat offices intimating them of the impending programme of land acquisition. Whether the notice was “properly authorised” or not is a different question but the cause of immediate concern of the villagers was their total ignorance about a project which would displace the entire population of 27 villages in three gram panchayat areas. Remarkably, all the three gram panchayats are dominated by the Left Front parties. The table presents the numbers of elected members of these gram panchayats according to their party affiliations.

Essentially, the left-minded people of Nandigram have risen against the Left Front government in the wake of its decision to acquire land there for a SEZ project. Many Left Front panchayat members have, in fact, supported the peasant movement against land acquisition and the proposed SEZ. The present member of legislative assembly (MLA) and Member of Parliament from this locality belong to the CPI and the CPI(M) respectively. The local MLA initially supported the movement but later withdrew his support presumably under pressure from the “big brother” CPI(M).

Notably, the people of Nandigram have a proud heritage of participating in several militant movements in the pre- and postindependence period, mostly under the leadership of the left parties. Almost the whole Tamluk subdivision including Nandigram was declared independent during the “Quit India” movement and similar steps were taken to cut off the area to defend the independent government declared there. Then, the peasants, particularly the sharecroppers in these areas joined the struggle for Tebhaga demanding three-fourth share of the crops they produced. The Tebhaga movement also took a militant form here. So, many left intellectuals find in the present Nandigram movement, the resurgence of the militant peasant movements of the past which had principally given the state a “left” heritage.

The present Left Front government, particularly the two communist parties-CPI and CPI(M) – usually claim to carry the heritage of the past peasant movements of West Bengal. Ironically, with their role reversal with respect to safeguarding the interests of the rural poor, the present peasant movements are directed against these very parties that once led many such movements. It is a completely different matter that rightist parties like the Trinamool Congress have been trying to champion the peasant cause and thereby get a foothold in the erstwhile “left” bastion of Nandigram. It is also a different story that Nandigram is slowly turning into a battle ground between rival parties vying to establish their respective hegemony through the sheer use of muscle power.

But there is no doubt that the controversy over the path of industrialisation, particularly the formation of the SEZ, at the national level has been sharpened since the break-out of the peasant movement in Nandigram. The principal debating point that Nandigram peasants could forcefully raise is whether this industrialisation would benefit the vast masses of the rural poor who are being asked to make sacrifices for the sake of “development”. For a number of reasons, development has become an essential government tool of contemporary rulers. But can a few mega investment projects pass for inclusive growth that would lead to development for all? Are the private sector industries crisis-free? Can they provide secured employment to many? Though the Left Front government has been continuing to preach its rhetoric of industrialisation in the name of development, nobody can deny the plight of tens of thousands of industries – small, medium and big – that have closed down in West Bengal alone due to the inherent crisis of the system. The latest examples of these types of sick industries in West Bengal are the tea and jute industries. Even the common people can today understand that employment generation in the upcoming industries would be very minimal, confirming the fear of “jobless growth”. The highly mechanised large industries can accommodate only a few. Let us have a quick look at the available statistics on the rise of investment and the decline in employment generation in West Bengal during the last decade. During the period 1990-91 to 200102, though the number of industries in West Bengal increased from 5,606 to 6,195 and invested capital from Rs 12,517.67 crore to Rs 32,752.98 crore, the number of employees in these industries has declined significantly from 7,40,980 to 5,45,447 (Source: Annual Survey of Industries, CSO, government of India, quoted from Statistical Handbook, West Bengal, 2004, published by BAES, government of West Bengal).

There is no denying the fact that the agricultural sector in the state is facing a deep crisis with rising prices of almost all inputs, decrease in yields and near stagnation in the prices of agricultural produce. But does lopsided industrialisation carry the solution to the crisis? Can this industrialisation absorb the labour force surplus from agriculture? From the above statistics, it transpires that the present industrialisation drive would hardly absorb the unemployed and underemployed in rural areas. With industries depending on

Table: Party Affiliations of Gram Panchayat Members

Name of CPI(M) CPI Trinamool Indepenthe GP Congress dent

Kalicharanpur 5 1 4 2 Sonachura 7 1 4 1 Kendumari Jalpai 7 2 1 4

Source: Panchayat Election Results, 2003, Ganashakti Publication.

Economic and Political Weekly June 2, 2007 a capital-intensive approach to survive in competition, only a section of the educated youth, that too mostly urban, can find employment in them. The rural poor coming from socially disadvantaged scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and Muslim communities with little formal education would hardly find a place in these upcoming industries while they suffer the most in the land acquisition drive. So it is not a question of “misleading” the poor and the rustic that caused the sudden eruption of peasant discontent in West Bengal as the CPI(M) wants us to believe but a genuine debate over the development process raised forcefully by the worst sufferers of the process. And this time this issue might not be diverted and mixed up with other (non)issues and sent to oblivion.



[This article is written basing on the experienceof fieldwork in Singur and Nandigram whilemaking two documentary films, Right to Land and In the Name of Development.]

Economic and Political Weekly June 2, 2007

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