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Defending Livelihoods, Promoting Equity: UPA-2’s litmus test at Year One

It’s no aberration that the first anniversary of the return to power of the United Progressive Alliance should coincide with a tsunami of grassroots protests: from Orissa to Maharashtra, and from Tamil Nadu to Uttarakhand, through tribal Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. The protests represent popular resistance to UPA-2’s industrialisation and mining policies and its zealous promotion of gross domestic product (GDP) growth as an end in itself. Central here is the displacement and dispossession of vulnerable people.

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'Neo-Liberal' Left Behind Peasants' Massacre

Inter Press Service, March 16, 2007

by Praful Bidwai

NEW DELHI, Mar 16 (IPS) - By ordering police to open fire on peasants trying to protect their land from being acquired for a Special Economic Zone (SEZ), the communist government of West Bengal state has indicated the crumbling away of the last bulwark in India against neo-liberal and free market policies.

At least 15 people died and over 50 were injured by police firing on Wednesday in Nandigram leading to serious rifts within the Left Front coalition that is supposed to rule West Bengal but where power is monopolised by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M).

Since the firing, Nandigram has witnessed unceasing confrontation between the state police and CPI-M cadres, on the one hand, and local residents organised under the banners of various political parties and non-party groupings, on the other.

After the initial shock and fear that sent them fleeing, people belonging to five villages in the Nandigram area, about 150 km from West Bengal's capital Kolkata, have regrouped and are now fighting the police and demanding to know the whereabouts of their missing relatives.

"The people claim that the number of those killed is much higher than the official figure of 15, and that the police and CPI-M cadres are burying bodies under rubble and building roads and culverts over them," said Aditi Chowdhury, a Kolkata-based social activist who has been following developments in the area, where trouble first erupted two-and-a-half months ago over the acquisition of land for the construction of an SEZ.

Speaking with IPS over telephone Chowdhury said: "Thousands of armed policemen surrounded the villages, and on many occasions they fired at eye-level to kill. TV footage showed trucks carrying bodies with their legs dangling out. The brutality was chilling.'' She added that state Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's brazen defence of the firing, as part of an attempt to restore law and order in the area, has only occasioned more public anger.

The Nandigram events, in particular the police firing, have seriously dented the image of the Left Front, which has ruled the state for an uninterrupted three decades - considered a global record in democracy and electoral politics.

The CPI-M's main partners in the Left Front - which includes the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Forward Bloc, and the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) - are livid and have publicly deplored the resort to repression. They are alarmed at the blatant contradiction between what the Left preaches at the national level, and what it practises in the states where it is in power - West Bengal and to a lesser extent in southern Kerala.

Like West Bengal, Kerala has also been looking to foreign investment to help generate employment for its skilled workforce. But its Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan, once a factory worker himself, has stuck to transparent functioning and a pro-poor approach in dealing with foreign investors keen to set up software parks in the 100 percent literate state.

In West Bengal, Bhattacharjee advocates the zealous pursuit of industrialisation at any cost, if necessary by offering concessions and tax breaks to investors, of a kind which the Left Front has always regarded as "crony capitalists".

CPI general secretary A. B. Bardhan strongly condemned the police action in Nandigram as "unheard of" in the Left Front's history and a black-mark in its record. The party's West Bengal secretary Manju Majumdar called it "brutal and barbaric." Forward Bloc general secretary Ashok Ghosh said the incident "has tarnished the image of the Left Front." And senior RSP leader Kshiti Goswami rhetorically asked: "Does democracy exist in this state or not?"

Together these partners hold a total of 51 seats in the 294-strong legislative assembly, as compared to the CPI-M's overwhelming 176 seats. They have long complained, usually off the record, that they are not consulted by the CPI-M while taking major decisions on behalf of the government. But Nandigram has given them a new voice.

The dissidents in the Left Front have found a strong supporter in the grand old man of West Bengal politics, CPI-M politburo member and former chief minister Jyoti Basu. He told the Left Front chairman Biman Bose that the CPI-M was running "one-party rule in this state. It doesn't look like a coalition government at allà" Basu has asked the Chief Minister to own up responsibility.

Clearly there are serious misgivings about Nandigram and Bhattacharjee's industrialisation policy within the CPI-M too. These are voiced in private by party leaders and especially intellectuals who are bitterly but cogently critical of neo-liberal or free-market policies.

Bhattacharjee is inured to such concerns. He has been rooting for private sector-led industrialisation as a panacea for the state's economic woes. He is pushing through an automobile factory for the Tatas, one of India's foremost business groups, at Singur in the face of staunch opposition from peasants who are being forced to sell their land under the colonial Land Acquisition Act of 1894.

Nationally, the Left Front demands abrogation of this law because it allows the state to expropriate land to be used for private profit.

The Tatas are also being offered huge subsidies at Singur, of the order of one-fourth of their capital investment.

Bhattacharjee shelved land acquisition plans for the Nandigram SEZ because of powerful protests in early January, and because the CPI-M politburo asked him to put all SEZs on hold in line with the central government's own decision to do so until after a national rehabilitation policy is finalised.

But, as the influential Times of India daily pointed out in an editorial on Friday, ‘'the offer to withdraw the notification for land acquisition and shift the SEZ project elsewhere seems like a ruse meant to distract the villagers who had barricaded the area''.

SEZs have become intensely unpopular in India because they are widely seen as "sweetheart deals" which offer huge tax breaks and privileged treatment to promoters and exporters at the expense of the public exchequer. Even the World Bank has expressed misgivings about SEZs.

Originally, 10,000 acres of land were meant to be acquired for the Nandigram SEZ to be awarded to the Salim conglomerate of Indonesia, which is believed to be a front for the super-corrupt Suharto family. There is a great deal of unease in the CPI-M and the Left Front about favouring this group.

Why did Bhattacharjee resort to draconian police action after the Nandigram SEZ was shelved? He claims the state had to reestablish its writ and law-and-order, which had broken down; the area was blockaded to government functionaries for two-and-a-half months.

"The rest of the answer lies in the CPI-M organisational structure in West Bengal," says Tanika Sarkar, a modern Indian historian who visited Nandigram to inquire into the violence there in January.

Speaking with IPS, she explained that the CPI-M cadres control the entire area and have a stake in all major economic transactions. ‘'It won't brook any challenge to its monopoly of power. Yet, when the protests against land acquisition broke out on Jan. 7, and the cadres tried to suppress them, they faced the people's anger. Many were driven out. The have been itching to return and reestablish their hold."

Sarkar said the CPI-M cadres knew that they could only return to Nandigram by relying on police support. ‘'That's what the latest operation was all about. Brutalising ordinary people and denting the party's credibility as a pro-poor organisation is the price the CPI-M had to pay to please its local cadres."

Nandigram has major implications for the Left's future in India. Of the country's many political parties, the Left alone has a coherent critique of neo-liberal policies, which are creating havoc through their vicious dualism, contribution to widening disparities, and callousness towards the poor.

If the Left embraces neo-liberalism in West Bengal, and tries to attract corporate investment irrespective of whether it generates employment and skills, that will damage its credibility, and weaken its ability to act as a progressive pressure-group to rein in the aggressively pro-liberalisation Manmohan Singh government at the centre.

It is in pursuit of the pressure-group role that Left Front supports the Singh government from the outside rather than join in the federal government.

India's Left parties today enjoy their highest-ever representation in Parliament. Their credibility and respect far exceeds their membership or political representation. They are best placed to develop an alternative model of development that is not predatory on people's livelihoods.

"But this won't happen unless the Left, in particular the CPI-M, stops its own rightward drift," argues the noted political scientist Achin Vanaik. ‘'If it fails to correct course, it will undergo rapid decline,'' said Vanaik who teaches political science at Delhi University. (END/2007)

From Singur to Nandigram & Beyond: Development as dispossession

January 29, 2007

by Praful Bidwai

If and when ordinary mortals like you and me buy land, we have to search high and low for an affordable piece, hire brokers, make several trips to different sites, and borrow bank loans, which we must repay through our nose over 10 or 15 years. Besides these high transaction costs in time and money, we must pay stamp duty to the government, which is usually a good eight percent of the land’s value.

None of this applies to India’s biggest business house (and one of its oldest industrial families), namely, the Tatas—at least as far as the Singur car project is concerned. The Tatas are no ordinary mortals. In fact so special are they that West Bengal’s Left Front government woos them with the choice of six different sites, besides the Uttarakhand and Orissa governments. They choose one at Singur, next to an expressway, in one of Bengal’s most fertile tracts, just 45 km from Kolkata. But they do so after stipulating a series of conditions.

The government must procure the land for them. This will cost Rs 140 crores. But the Tatas will pay only Rs 20 crores for it.

They will pay no stamp duty.

They must have a contiguous plot of 997 acres (almost 400 hectares, or 40 lakh square metres), although no Indian car factory has anything approaching this area. (Even Tata Motors’s giant Pune factory has only 188 acres.)

The factory proper, say the Tatas, will have a built-up area of only 1.5 lakh sq m, or 4 percent of the land acquired.

The land must be fenced off and Sec 144 must be imposed to suppress protests by the 12,000 affected people.

That’s not all. The Tatas say the government must “compensate” them for “sacrificing” the 16 percent excise duty exemption offered by Uttarakhand if they locate the car factory there. This means “upfront infrastructural assistance” worth Rs 160 crore. Besides, the once hyped-up “Rs 1 lakh car” will probably cost a fair bit more. It be must be “cross-subsidised.”

So, according to The Statesman, the Left Front government has gifted 50 acres of prime land to the Tatas in Rajarhat New Town and another 200 acres in the Bhangar-Rajarhat Area Development Authority for building IT and residential townships.

This is an obnoxious “sweetheart deal”. The Left Front government isn’t promoting healthy industrial development. It’s not even straightforward capitalism. It’s the most detestable form of risk-free investment which dispossesses people to generate super-profits.

The Tatas claim the Rs 10,000 crore investment will directly generate 2,000 jobs. But noted economist Amit Bhadhuri estimates it will produce just about 300, besides indirect employment for 900. In the process, Singur’s flourishing economy, where two-thirds of land is multi-cropped with vegetables and paddy, will be devastated, along with the livelihoods not just of landowners and sharecroppers (bargadars), but of landless workers and rural artisans.

Singur will witness counter-reform, a reversal of the most successful land reform ever undertaken in West Bengal. Even the bargadars’ share in the land (75 percent to the absentee landlord’s 25 percent) will be upturned in the land compensation formula. No wonder, the West Bengal government has used repressive methods, including mass arrests, Sec 144 and physical attacks to enforce the sweetheart deal.

Singur’s injustice was compounded by the government’s ham-handed attempt to take over an even larger 10,000 acres at Nandigram for a Special Economic Zone for Indonesia’s unsavoury Selim Group. Here, the resistance was even more fierce. It came not from the Trinamool Congress, but from the Left, including the Communist Party of India, the Revolutionary Socialist Party and the Far Left. Nandigram, at the heart of the Tebhaga movement of the 1940s, is a CPI stronghold.

Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharjee had to admit that Nandigram was a mistake. But he blamed the Haldia Development Authority for it: for issuing the land acquisition notification without authorisation. This won’t wash. The involvement of the Communist Party (Marxist)’s cadres, the police, and the very composition of the Authority, militate against the explanation.

Nandigram is part of a larger syndrome which has come to afflict India. SEZs have become the main instrument of dispossession of peasant farmers. They are a despicable combination of private greed and state collusion. SEZs, as this Column argued … weeks ago, are singularly ineffectual and costly ways of promoting enclave-style elitist export-oriented industrialisation. They’ll grant wholly undeserved tax cuts to promoters and inflict a loss upon the exchequer, estimated by the Finance Ministry at Rs 160,000 crores,.

Yet, the government has approved 237 SEZs with 34,509 hectares and notified 63 of them. Another 165 SEZs have been approved in principle, for which a total of 148,663 hectares is to be acquired. Applications for another 300 are pending. SEZs have not proved a success in most countries, including China. In fact, Shenzhen, China’s best-known SEZ, has turned out a nightmare for workers. The mere loss of an identity card can turn them into destitute overnight. Above all, SEZs are a gigantic real estate scam. Most are meant to grab land close to the big cities and extract monopoly profits.

SEZs also put the cart before the horse: displacement without prior rehabilitation, with potentially disastrous social, cultural and political consequences. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has himself acknowledged this by calling for a “humane” approach to resettlement. The government is now redrafting the National Policy for Resettlement and Rehabilitation.

Its Group of Ministers has temporarily put the SEZ land acquisition process on hold. It knows pushing acquisition could cost the United Progressive Alliance dearly in the coming elections.

The Congress party has made an internal assessment of SEZs in a 16-page document prepared by Working Committee member N Veerappa Moily. This says that SEZs will create conflicts due to “a process of dispossession and displacement”. It says the current trend of SEZs coming up near metropolitan areas could trigger urban conflicts through infrastructure bottlenecks. “They (SEZs) have the potential to cause embarrassment to the government of the day.”

The publication of a story about this assessment has certainly embarrassed the UPA! Although Mr Moily has publicly retracted it, the judgment is basically sound. But the UPA is fighting shy of radically revising its SEZ policy. It has only called for a cap on the number of SEZs. What is needed is the scrapping of SEZs altogether because they are economically irrational, socially divisive, and thoroughly inequitable.

This is not to argue against industrial projects per se. We must vigorously promote industry, but with a balanced, reasoned approach. We must make it mandatory for the government to consult the people likely to be affected in advance, and establish institutional norms for compensation, resettlement and rehabilitation. Equally crucial is thorough socio-economic examination of the consequences of industrial projects and strict environment regulation.

It won’t do to commandeer land first and then look for ways of compensating the affected people. It’s especially inadvisable to offer them equity shares in companies related to the projects that take away their land. This will, in most cases, transfer risks to vulnerable groups who are least capable of making decisions about stocks and shares. The number of shareholders in India is a minuscule 30 million; most people don’t understand sharemarkets.

Offering shares could be an option in rare cases, where organised cooperatives exist which are run by financially literate volunteers accountable to the gram sabha, and who have a proven commitment to collective welfare. That concept includes not just landowners, but also the landless and other economic actors, from the sanitation worker to the mechanic, and from the ironsmith to the barber, whose livelihood depends on the rural economy.

However, supporters of industrialisation-at-any-cost, including Mr Bhattacharjee, contend that very little fallow land is available in India (in West Bengal, only one percent of the total), and hence cultivable land must be “sacrificed” to industry. Historically, they say, industrialisation has never been painless. It has always extracted a price from peasants—even in the USSR and China. India follow that model of expropriation.

This argument is profoundly mistaken—not only because it imposes pain disproportionately on the weak. Industrialisation in much of the West expropriated the peasantry through “enclosures”, systematic impoverishment, and mass-scale human rights violations. The same happened in the Soviet Union under Stalin. But we should not imitate and repeat the blunders from a period when democracy was nonexistent and human rights unknown.

In India, we have launched a Grand Endeavour—based on the aspiration to modernise society and develop the economy in balanced, equitable ways within a robustly democratic and inclusive framework which respects human rights and social justice. We have a unique opportunity to create a shining example of inclusive industrialisation for the world. We must not turn our face against the Great Endeavour. —end—