Thursday, 11 September, 2008

Will Singur force rethink on blatant SEZisation?

The CPI(M) have for long claimed the leadership of the left movement in India. But Singur and Nandigram, have today openly questioned the left establishment in India. While they wax eloquent on imperialism, globalization and workers rights, even in these niche areas of protest where they enjoy complete domination of the political spectrum, they have had to helplessly watch India move towards a capitalist economy. Singur has also opened up a can of worms around the rapid development we are trying to incubate cloning the Chinese model, raising in its wake the issue of SEZs, farm land acquisition, violent suppression of an essentially political opposition and extra-judicial killings.

The background of the Singur struggle has to be seen in the transition CPI(M) has witnessed from a proletarian party to incorporating petit-bourgeoisie and later bourgeoisie elements. In the two states where they enjoy a commanding position, West Bengal and Kerala, they have been blamed for the lack of industrial growth and exodus of a huge talent pool because their policies were seen as anathema to development. A new generation of CPI(M) leaders emerged who pay lip service to socialism but saw in the 1991 reforms - an easier and less complicated path to rapid economic development, rather than the tried and tested but faultily implemented and hence-failed socialist model of progress. When Buddhadeb Bhattacharya replaced Jyoti Basu as West Bengal Chief Minister in 1999 and made all the right noises about development, the national media took notice, hailed him as Bengal's saviour, and even gave him top billing in surveys as India's top chief minister. Buddha, the wise one, went on an overdrive inviting corporates of all hues and colours to invest in his investment starved state, and for a while he actually seemed to be winning his fight with CPI(M) hardliners.

When the Tatas announced the Nano project, Bengal went all out to invite them to the state and even gave Tata the freedom to choose the land needed for the SEZ. Tata conveniently chose Singur, a district near Kolkatta, which already had basic infrastructure in place like highways, water supply, etc. Singur had very fertile soil and was home to one of the most productive agricultural areas in the country and the area of 400 acres chosen was home to around 2000 farming families. Despite being offered compensation, a majority of them were unwilling to move out of their land but in the face of an enthusiastic state for whom the project had become a major prestige issues, their options were severely limited.

The irony of the matter was that CPI(M) which had the foresight to pioneer legislation to ban conversion of agricultural land for other economic activities, took an ideological u-turn and went against their rural vote banks and mass base to set up Special Economic Zones. In the past, left leaders have been critical of SEZ's for being a capitalist construct, for gross violation and undermining of labour laws and the labour movement in the country and for companies inside SEZ's becoming a veritable law unto themselves. The democratic culture of the CPI(M) also came into question for their browbeating of political opposition and the resort to arms, violence, molestations and rapes to cow down what was essentially a people's movement.

In 2008, a whole new dimension was added to the Singur issue, when India was faced with a food crisis. Though falling productivity, crop diseases, low yielding varieties, etc could be blamed nobody could deny a major issue here - the failure of the system to provide encouragement and succour to the farmer. Farm lands all over the country have become the target for land acquisition for SEZ's when barren, unproductive land is also vastly available. In such a situation with little or no state support, it is no surprise that farmers are giving up agriculture, a profession they are happy doing despite all the hardships they have faced from nature. In this respect the West Bengal government has also faced criticism that they opted for productive lands like Singur and Nandigram, when it also encompasses vast regions like Purilia which has no economical activity worth its name to boast of.

Despite slow progress, India's commitment to socialism and social justice ensured that rural way of life and agriculture didn't suffer too badly. The New Economic Reforms have widened the disparity between urban and rural areas, service-industry sectors and agriculture, and several other categories of social strata. In a fitting culmination of a people's struggle the WB government decided to return the acquired land back to the farmers on Sept 7. In a way, democracy which is about majority and popular sentiment lost. The people of the country, especially the middle-class , thanks to a media which conveniently overlooks the broader picture, overwhelmingly hoped the Tata's don't lose in Singur. We can only hope for the success of many more localized movements like in Singur, so that they ultimately open people's eyes to the reality that the State is not always right...that the State can also commit grave wrongs!

P.S Op-Ed written for course work.