three decades ago, the Left Front government in West Bengal started its rule by distributing land to the landless through its famous land reform programme. Now, the political grouping is preparing to grab 17,200 hectares (ha) of mostly agricultural land for industry -- from the same people it once empowered.
Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya and his allies have a reason. They argue that in the last decade agricultural growth in the state has been low and costs of cultivation have become prohibitive. Under these circumstances, they say, the state has to not only find ways to increase agricultural production, but also reduce the number of people depending directly on agriculture, and identify alternative jobs for farmers. Hence the need for more investment in industry and, therefore, acquisition of farmland for factories.
To those familiar with Communist regimes, the chief minister's logic is reminiscent of a debate -- sometimes bitterly contested -- within Marxist circles: one on how predominantly agrarian societies should transit to industrialisation. But let's leave that aside. What is clear is that the government hasn't done enough homework on how to see this transition through. First, it's still relying on the colonial Land Acquisition Act that has provisions only for monetary compensation. It's yet to come up with a decent resettlement and rehabilitation policy for those displaced by the proposed projects, especially for sharecroppers and landless farmers. In fact, the whole process of designing a compensation package (which only came about following protests by Singur farmers against Tata's proposed 480-ha small car plant) has not been transparent.
Even Left Front partners have been kept in the dark about basic details, like the actual quantum and nature of the land to be acquired. No wonder they are smarting. The government hasn't given any convincing reason for why it can't use land belonging to closed industrial units, which already have basic infrastructure. There are several disused units lying in and around Kolkata, Asansol and Durgapur. Government officials say it's difficult and time consuming to acquire land of closed units. It may be difficult, given trade union issues, legal hurdles and hard-nosed plant owners who would drive tough bargains. Difficult, but not impossible. Comrade Buddhadeb, in his mad rush to catch up with other states, wants to take the shortest, easiest route to industrialisation. And if selling out West Bengal's farmers is the trade off, so be it.
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