The following piece appeared in the renowned fortnightly of Bengal, Desh (17 December, 2006). The author is a noted political commentator of West Bengal. Neither Desh nor Mitra can be remotely credited with holding left-wing opinion. Mitra, in particular, may be viewed as a representative of the rising pro-US corporate liberal voice in West Bengal. As the readers will note, he holds downright reactionary opinions on labour, pension plans, collaboration with US, etc. However, his piece is reproduced because right-wing analysis of political events often reveals the underlying structures missed in blinkered ‘leftist’ analysis. For example, most left opinion holds that the recent policies of the Left Front in West Bengal are a sharp departure from its pro-people agrarian policies of the 1980s. Mitra’s analysis, in contrast, suggests that the illness of the current policies may well be traced to the inherent limitations of the earlier policies, especially the much-vaunted ‘operation barga’. The analysis lends a historical perspective to recent events at Singur and Nandigram which leftist analysis has failed to unearth.
When the Left Front government of West Bengal signed a contract with the Tata Group sometime ago to procure nearly one thousand acres of agricultural land at Singur near Kolkata for the Group to manufacture small cars, it was not anticipated that so much turbulance was in store. There is no legal obstacle for a government to procure agricultural land for social development. Further, agriculture has become largely a unprofitable business. While the prices for foodgrains and vegetables are not increasing, those of fertilizers, seeds, electricity, and labour have increased substantially. In this situation, landowners are likely to sell their land cheerfully if offered an attractive price.
At the same time, many sections of people will benefit if a modern car-factory comes up within 45 kilometres of Kolkata. Parts of cars are manufactured in a variety of factories. If the steering-wheel is produced in one place, the seats are produced elsewhere. As a result, employment opportunities will increase for the skilled youth in the Hooghly district and beyond. Also, the car-financing business will grow. If the project is export-oriented, then a variety of new enterprises will come up all along the factory to the shipyards. Most importantly, if an industry of international standards does come up in a province so far relegated from the Indian industrial map, it will work as a visiting card for investors to the state.
Then why is there such an outcry over the project? Mamta Bannerjee, the leader of Trinamul Congress resoundingly defeated in the assembly elections, has declared a jehad against the project. She certainly has the right to do so. Who enjoys getting repeatedly defeated in the elections? But why didn’t the intelligentsia of the state reject her opposition to the project outright? In fact, some of them, who are known as ‘leftists’, have imparted moral support to her. They are accusing the police for stopping their march to Singur. The uneasiness is felt even within the front itself. The senior leader of the Forward Block, Ashok Ghosh, has said that he could not sleep well at night after watching the lathicharge of the police at Singur. The leaders of CPI and RSP are also finding themselves in difficulty. Debabrata Bannerjee of the RSP has publicly criticised the industrial policy of the government. The CPM is understandably quiet about this commotion from their own ranks. The powerful leaders of the party such as Biman Bose and Binoy Konar have directed their tirade against Mamta only. Singur is turning out to be a struggle for the prestige of Buddhadev Bhattacharya. It seems that, after thirty years’ of uninterrupted rule, the Left Front is unable to assert its doctrines and responsibility in this matter. Why?
The reason is entirely political. It is nothing but calculations for winning votes. The topic requires extensive discussion. Some political price has to be paid not just at Singur, but in any area in which agricultural land is to be used for industry. This is because, just as the landowner depends on his land for some earnings, a variety of other sections also depend on this land. These are basically agricultural labourers, especially landless labourers. Plus, there are the listed and unlisted share-croppers (bargadars) of West Bengal who have the right of permanent tenancy either by law or by protection from the CPM local committees. The landowner will pocket any compensation given against the acquired land; who will take the responsibility of landless labourers and bargadars? In West Bengal, the landless exceed the landowners by about one and half times in numbers [for every ten landowners there are fifteen landless]. For the rest of the country, the average distribution is roughly ten (landowner) to eight (landless). In states like Punjab, Haryana, Tamilnadu, Gujrat etc., where rapid industrialisation is taking place on agricultural land, the ratios are ten (landowners) to six, four or three (landless). Therefore, there is less hassle in acquiring agricultural land. It is not difficult to overcome the consequences for the ballot box.
The scene is nearly the reverse in West Bengal. In this state, if agricultural land is to be offered to the industrialists, heavy compensation is due to the landless and the bargadars which will lead to doubling the price of land. As a result, either the Tata or any industrial group will decline the offer (if the price is increased), or, the electoral support of the majority will be lost (if the price is not increased). The compensation package that the Left Front government has organised at Singur has pleased the landowners, but it will not please the rest. This is the reason why Buddhadevbabu has started acquiring agricultural land with the elections far away. But the leftists are also worried about the far reaching consequences of this action for future electoral arithmetic. And not only Mamta but also the leadership of the Congress are beginning to see a glimmer of light. For this reason, the resident of the posh Ballygunj area of Kolkata, Subroto Mukherjee, has come out with a stick in his hand to guard the land at Singur; leaders of the Congress are seen hovering around the fasting Mamta.
Turning to some other states, if Tata or others ask for some land there, these states can sell the land at a much lower price. Take Uttaranchal, where the proportion of the landless to landowners is one to six. The state government there has to pay less for acquiring land, and the political fallouts are marginal. The state of Tamilnadu, considered to be one of the rivals of West Bengal, is already known as the Detroit of India. The state boasts of factories by Hyundai and Ford. In Tamilnadu, the landless are in a minority.
Who is responsible for creating this massive class of landless agricultural labourers and tenant peasantry in West Bengal? Answer: CPM. This party has won accolades from leftist academicians across the world for its ‘land reforms’ over the last three decades. In effect, what this party has created is a huge parasitic class in the heart of rural Bengal. The open market of agricultural labour has been turned into a state-controlled market. We should say, a ‘party-controlled’ market. Registration for share-cropping is doled out routinely as a favour for obedience to the party. Which landowner has the courage to refuse share-cropping to a peasant close to the party? This is the regular life in rural Bengal. The gathering clouds over Singur signal that this manicured garden may be drying up. That is why Ashok Ghosh cannot sleep well, Mamta’s eyes are filled with hope, and the Congress is preparing to fly once again.
Buddhadevbabu, the theatre-lover, must have realised that his party is the real Macbeth, and what is chasing him is not Trinamul but the ghost of Banquo. The CPM has sacrificed the development of the state at the altar of election-only politics. Share-cropping is a wretched occupation that stultifies the vision of the peasant, just as tenants in towns lose the interest in constructing houses for themselves under the anti-development rent control laws. Continuous changes in land ceiling laws have similarly harmed the development of agriculture. In the process, most landowners have lost their land, and most land-holdings look like handkerchiefs since the upper limit of land-holdings is four and a half acres. Who will experiment on this tiny piece of land? Hence, the remaining landowners are eager to get rid of their land. But even that is difficult to execute in the presence of the party-bosses. Anyone who is familiar with life in rural Bengal will admit that no land can change hands without approval from the party office. In most cases, this ‘approval’ has to be purchased with money.
The picture of rural Bengal would have been radically different if educational opportunities were widely advanced and comfortable loans were made available to the skilled workers. Even that did not happen due to the CPM’s vote-only politics. In 1981, the Left Front government took over the responsibility of paying salaries to the teachers of the aided schools. Notwithstanding whatever was written on paper, the basic goal was to turn school-teachers into slaves of the party. A generation of apathetic school-teachers was born. The recent report prepared by the Pratichi Trust founded by Amartya Sen brings out the sad but trustworthy picture of this apathy. In the census of 1991, West Bengal occupied the 19th position in the order of literacy; at snails’ pace, the position improved to 18th in 2001. According to the census of 2001, three-fourths of the 31.5% of illiterates of the state resided in the villages. It is difficult to comprehend that, in the 21st century, over two and a half crore illiterates reside in a state under continuous ‘communist’ rule for over three decades? It is important to note that literacy is not the only criterion for industrial employment; some language and arithmetic skills are also needed. The record of West Bengal on this score is pathetic. With respect to at least nine years of school-education for young people in the age group of 20-24, the state lags behind the national average. Out of 40,782 villages in the state, there is a middle school only in 5541 villages. There are 18,624 middle schools within a radius of 5 kilometers of a village. As a result, over 40% of the villages do not have a middle school within a radius of 5 kilometers. Yet, the rulers of this state frequently boast of ‘excellence’.
The reason for saying all this is that, due to the blatant politicisation of education, the vast rural population of West Bengal has turned into surplus labour of a ruined agricultural economy; at the same time, they have remained unfit for employment in industry. The people responsible for these wrong and anti-development policies continue to be the elites of the left. To use an imagery, these people still constitute the head of the Left Front; the ‘reformist’ Buddhadev is just a decorative crown. Comrade Chittabrata Majumdar, who as the leader of CITU did not allow computers to enter in many areas, is not only a member of the Rajya Sabha, he is a prominent member of the CPM Politbureau. Prakash Karat, who has been lecturing all over the country against special economic zones except in West Bengal – the SEZs in West Bengal are ‘progressive’ – is currently the boss in CPM. A Gole Market version of Brezhnev. The intellectual comrades, who instigated the politicisation of education in the ‘80s, are engaged in writing heated articles against industrialisation in the party newspaper, accompanied by satires and advices to Buddhadev.
The CPM is suffering from a crisis of identity. To maintain the leftist image of the party, one must march with red flags in hand with any sign of change anywhere. POSCO of South Korea wants to open a steel factory in Orissa? No, no. Changes in the pension plan? No, no. Reducing the government’s share below 50% in the nationalised banks? No, no. China, which supplies missiles to Pakistan clandestinely, is to be barred from securing contracts in strategic areas? No, no, because China is a ‘brotherly’ country. Sign the nuclear deal with the US? No, no. However, what will be allowed is some special leftist medicine for West Bengal: whatever is inapplicable in India, applies in West Bengal. If you raise your fingers against these medicines, you are engaged in ‘reactionary conspiracy’. This hypocrisy is getting exposed on a daily basis.
Translated from the Bengali by Nirmalangshu Mukherji
Click here to return to the September 2007 index.